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Professional Paper 1386–A

State of the Earth’s Cryosphere at the Beginning of the 21st Century: Glaciers, Global Snow Cover, Floating Ice, and Permafrost and Periglacial Environments

By Richard S. Williams, Jr., and Jane G. Ferrigno

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (6.7 MB)Preface

This chapter is the tenth in a series of 11 book-length chapters, collectively referred to as “this volume,” in the series U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1386, Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World. In the other 10 chapters, each of which concerns a specific glacierized region of Earth, the authors used remotely sensed images, primarily from the Landsat 1, 2, and 3 series of spacecraft, in order to analyze that glacierized region and to monitor changes in its glaciers. Landsat images, acquired primarily during the period 1972 through 1981, were used by an international team of glaciologists and other scientists to study the various glacierized regions and (or) to discuss related glaciological topics. In each glacierized region, the present distribution of glaciers within its geographic area is compared, wherever possible, with historical information about their past areal extent. The atlas provides an accurate regional inventory of the areal extent of glacier ice on our planet during the 1970s as part of an expanding international scientific effort to measure global environmental change on the Earth’s surface.

However, this chapter differs from the other 10 in its discussion of observed changes in all four elements of the Earth’s cryosphere (glaciers, snow cover, floating ice, and permafrost) in the context of documented changes in all components of the Earth System. Human impact on the planet at the beginning of the 21st century is pervasive. The focus of Chapter A is on changes in the cryosphere and the importance of long-term monitoring by a variety of sensors carried on Earth-orbiting satellites or by a ground-based network of observatories in the case of permafrost.

The chapter consists of five parts. The first part provides an introduction to the Earth System, including the interrelationships of the geosphere (cryosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and atmosphere), the biosphere, climate processes, biogeochemical cycles, and the critically important hydrologic cycle, in which glacier ice is the second largest reservoir of water after the oceans. The second part assesses the state of glaciers in all of the glacierized regions of the planet, primarily as drawn in the other 10 chapters. It includes sections on ice cores and the climate record they contain, volumetric changes in glaciers, harnessing spaceborne sensors to measure changes in glaciers, and related topics.

The third part summarizes trends in global snow cover. The fourth part summarizes long-term changes in area and thickness of floating ice, including polar sea ice and freshwater (lake and river) ice. The fifth part assesses the loss of permafrost and changes in periglacial environments at high latitudes and high altitudes.

Poster collage

First posted February 11, 2013

For additional information contact:
Richard S. Williams, Jr.

U.S. Geological Survey
Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center
384 Woods Hole Road
Quissett Campus
Woods Hole, MA 02543
(508) 548-8700

Glacier Studies Project

Professional Paper 1386 Home Page

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Suggested citation:

Williams, R.S., Jr., and Ferrigno, J.G., eds., 2012, State of the Earth’s cryosphere at the beginning of the 21st century–Glaciers, global snow cover, floating ice, and permafrost and periglacial environments: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1386–A, 546 p. (Also available at


A-1 Introduction—Changes in the Earth's Cryosphere and Global Environmental Change in the Earth System

A-2 Glaciers

A-3 Global Snow Cover

A-4 Floating Ice—Sea Ice; Lake Ice and River Ice

A-5 Permafrost and Periglacial Environments

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