Red List habitat classification > RLH - Sparsely vegetated habitats > RLH4.3 Rock glacier and unvegetated ice-dominated moraine

Rock glacier and unvegetated ice-dominated moraine

Quick facts

Red List habitat type code RLH4.3
Threat status
Europe Near Threatened
EU Near Threatened
Relation to
Source European Red List habitat factsheet
European Red List of habitats reports
European Red List of habitats (Excel table)


As indicated by its name, a rock glacier is a mixture of frozen rock detritus and ice. It takes the form of a lobate, spatulate or tongue-like mass of angular boulders, behaving as a lava flow, due to the presence of internal ice that flows very slowly under gravity forces. This movement is 100 to 1000 times slower than in a true glacier. The origin of ice of rock glaciers can be glacial or periglacial; thereby, rock glacier occurs also when permafrost (frozen soil) creeps downslope during thaw periods. This habitat type is endangered by the global warming of the climate. Moraines are glacially formed accumulations of unconsolidated mineral debris. Ice-dominated moraines occur in the vicinity of retreating glaciers. Few organisms have the ability to colonize these particular habitats, because of the low temperatures and the mobility of the substrate. The flora is limited to pioneer plants, lichens and some vascular plants, occurring principally on the lateral and terminal borders of the rock glacier. Active rock glaciers have a very low vegetation cover, while inactive or relict ones are characterized by higher covers (>70%). The diversity of the fauna increases with the vegetation cover; it includes Collembola, spiders, Homoptera, Diptera, parasitoid wasps, ground beetles and aphids. These ice-rich formations are found in altitude or in high latitudes. In Europe, they occur only in the high mountain regions of the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Scandes, and in the arctic region. 

Indicators of good quality:

Independently of the poverty of the flora and fauna of this habitat, quality can be estimated by the degree of activity of the rock glacier. An active rock glacier moves because it has ice-rich frozen debris and its internal temperature is low. Inactive and fossil rock glaciers haven’t coherent ice-core and stop moving. 

Characteristic species
For full habitat description, please download the habitat factsheet.

Threat status

Synthesis of Red List assessment

There is few information on trends and especially from boreal countries (Norway, Iceland, Sweden) data is lacking. The assessment therefore is based on data from the Alps only (France, Switzerland, Austria), giving it a low reliability. Trend data showed a bit less than 30% declines in area over the last 50 years for the EU28 (leading to the Near Threatened category), and smaller declines for the EU28+. Trends in quality over the same time period lead to a Near Threatened (NT) status for both EU28 and EU28+, while a likely small distribution (AOO, criterion B2) resulted in the same category for the EU28.
Red List Category Red List Criteria
Near Threatened A1, B2, C/D1
Red List Category Red List Criteria
Near Threatened C/D1

Confidence in the assessment

Red List of habitat categories and criteria descriptions

Pressures and threats

  • Human intrusions and disturbances
    • Mountaineering, rock climbing, speleology
    • Trampling, overuse
  • Climate change
    • Temperature changes (e.g. rise of temperature & extremes)
    • Droughts and less precipitations

Habitat restoration potential

In situation when true glaciers are currently retreating and the expected development of climate (rising temperatures) will continue, the habitat such as rock glaciers and moraines will increase in the localities on northern latitudes or higher altitudes. On the other hand, the rock glaciers and debris with interstitial ice on southern occurrence (Balkan countries, Spain) could disappear at all.

Trends in extent

Average current trend in quantity

Decreasing Decreasing
EU28 EU28+

Trends in quality

Average current trend in quality

Decreasing Decreasing
EU28 EU28+

Conservation and management needs

Management and conservation of rock glaciers is not practically possible, only small threats can be reduced (direct human impact by tourism, leisure activities in mountains, local air pollution etc.

List of conservation and management needs

  • No measures
    • No measure known / impossible to carry out specific measures
  • Measures related to spatial planning
    • Establish protected areas/sites


For each habitat a distribution map was produced from a wide variety of sources indicating known and potential occurrences of the habitat in 10x10 km grids within Europe. Occurrences in grid cells were given in two classes: actual distribution from relatively reliable sources (surveys, expert knowledge), and potential distribution based on models or less reliable indicators. Please download the fact sheet to see the map.

Geographic occurrence and trends

EU28 Present or presence uncertain Current area of habitat (Km2) Recent trend in quantity (last 50 years) Recent trend in quality (last 50 years)
Austria Present 125 Decreasing Decreasing
France mainland Present 75 Decreasing Decreasing
Spain mainland Present 2 Decreasing Decreasing
Italy mainland Present 82 Stable Stable
Romania Present 0.2 Decreasing Decreasing
Slovakia Present 0.1 Decreasing Decreasing
Greece (mainland and other islands) Present 92 Stable Stable
EU28 + Present or presence uncertain Current area of habitat (Km2) Recent trend in quantity (last 50 years) Recent trend in quality (last 50 years)
Switzerland Present 550 Decreasing Decreasing

Extent of Occurrence, Area of Occupancy and habitat area

Extent of Occurrence (EOO) (Km2) Area of Occupancy (AOO) Current estimated Total Area Comment
EU28 16650 26
EU28+ 946
AOO = the area occupied by a habitat measured in number of 10x10 km grid cells.
EOO = the area (km2) of the envelope around all occurrences of a habitat (calculated by a minimum convex polygon).

Characteristic species

Not available

Vegetation types

Relation to vegetation types (syntaxa)

Not available

Other classifications

Not available
European Environment Agency (EEA)
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