Hintereisferner – an Open Air Laboratory

Vernagtferner damming the runoff of Hochjoch-, Hintereis- and Kesselwandferner in 1601 (Nicolussi, 1990)

Hintereisferner (HEF) is a valley glacier located in the inner Ötztal Alps, Austria. It is the key research site for glaciological studies carried out at the Department of Atmopsheric and Cryospheric Sciences of the University of Innsbruck (ACINN) since many decades. HEF hosts one of the world's longest mass balance time series (since 1953) and thus is a global reference glacier. The Open Air Laboratory Hintereisferner is part of the LTER Complex Rofental, member of INARCH and inviting international scientists through INTERACT.


In historical documents, the glacier is mentioned in 1601 for the first time, which is in the context of the formation of an ice dammed lake in front of the glacier (Figure 1). Similar references date from 1678, 1774, 1770, and 1816. More systematic observations, mainly referring to length changes, began in 1847 and the first regional maps were produced in 1870 and 1888. The year 1894 marks several scientific mile stones, when flow velocity measurements were initiated, a 40 m deep bore hole was drilled and the first detailed map of HEF was drawn. A long series of maps from terrestrial surveys (Figure 2) follwed and since 2001 this series was upgraded by one or two airborne LIDAR surveys per year for geodetic determination of ice volume changes (Figure 3). Since 2016 a permanent terrestrial laserscanner is installed, able to survey the glacier in unprecedented geometric and temproal resolution.


Change of glaciated area of Hintereis-, Kesselwand- and Vernagtferner 1816-1997 (Kuhn & Lambrecht, 2007)
Figure 2: Change of glaciated area of Hintereis-, Kesselwand- and Vernagtferner 1816-1997 (Kuhn und Lambrecht, 2007)

Multidisciplinary scientific work on HEF was initiated in the dawn of the International Geophysical Year 1957. At that time, a network of stakes and pits was established to directly measure the mass balance of the glacier (Hoinkes, 1970). Today, the ACINN hosts one of the longest mass balance series in the world, which is also an important issue in the context of recent climate variability. The dynamics of HEF were another focus of early investigations as well. Moreover, a complementary network of climate stations and totalising precipitation gauges is maintained in the surroundings of the glacier since 1969. HEF was always considered in the context of neighbouring glaciers (Kesselwandferner and Vernagtferner) yielding important knowledge on regional glacier behaviour.


The surface elevation change on HEF derived from airborne LIDAR surveys. Image courtesy of T. Geist
Figure 3: The surface elevation change on HEF derived from airborne LIDAR surveys. Image courtesy of T. Geist


Research on HEF has ever been an interdisciplinary effort and a number of national and international projects built upon the long-term mass balance observation. Moreover, HEF has also been a site to develop and test instruments, methods and models (Kuhn et al., 1999, Maussion et al. 2019, Mott et al. 2019, Chambers et al. 2021, Goger et al. 2022). Thus, research on HEF also stimulated polar research issues and the mass balance series has become central for regional and global glacier mass change assessments of different complexity (Marzeion et al. 2012).


The Hintereisferner Research Station (3026m a.s.l). Photo R. Prinz
Figure 4: Hintereisferner Research Station (3026 m a.s.l.) is an observer-station in the EU INTERACT network of research stations.  Photo: R. Prinz

Currently, we are upgrading the Open Air Laboratory Hintereisferner and its integration into the basin scale of the Rofental (in cooperation with the Institute of Geography of the University of Innsbruck and the Bavarian Academy of Sciences) by modernizing the meteorological, hydrological and glaciological observational network for improving standard and new methods, for addressing pressing research questions, and by opening data sets and the research station (Figure 4) to the international scientific community.


Comprehensive Hintereisferner publication list: click

Chambers, J. R., Smith, M. W., Smith, T., Sailer, R., Quincey, D. J., Carrivick, J. L., et al. (2021). Correcting for Systematic Underestimation of Topographic Glacier Aerodynamic Roughness Values From Hintereisferner, Austria. Frontiers in Earth Science, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/feart.2021.691195

Goger, B., Stiperski, I., Nicholson, L., & Sauter, T. (2022). Large‐eddy Simulations of the Atmospheric Boundary Layer over an Alpine Glacier: Impact of Synoptic Flow Direction and Governing Processes. Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society. https://doi.org/10.1002/qj.4263

Hoinkes, H. (1970). Methoden und Möglichkeiten von Massenhaushaltsstudien auf Gletschern. Ergebnisse der Messreihe Hintereisferner (Ötztaler Alpen) 1953-1968. Zeitschrift für Gletscherkunde und Glazialgeologie, 6(1-2), 37–90.

Kuhn, M., Dreiseitl, E., Hofinger, S., Markl, G., Span, N., & Kaser, G. (1999). Measurements and models of the mass balance of Hintereisferner. Geografiska Annaler. Series A, Physical Geography, 81(4), 659–670.

Kuhn, M., & Lambrecht, A. (2007). Änderung von Gletschern im 20. Jahrhundert. In Hydrologischer Atlas Österreichs. Wien: Österreichischer Kunst- und Kulturverlag.

Marzeion, B., Hofer, M., Jarosch, A. H., Kaser, G., & Mölg, T. (2012). A minimal model for reconstructing interannual mass balance variability of glaciers in the European Alps. The Cryosphere, 6(1), 71–84. doi:10.5194/tc-6-71-2012

Maussion, F., Butenko, A., Champollion, N., Dusch, M., Eis, J., Fourteau, K., et al. (2019). The Open Global Glacier Model (OGGM) v1.1. Geoscientific Model Development, 12(3), 909–931. https://doi.org/10.5194/gmd-12-909-2019

Mott, R., Stiperski, I., & Nicholson, L. (2020). Spatio-temporal flow variations driving heat exchange processes at a mountain glacier. The Cryosphere, 14(12), 4699–4718. https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-14-4699-2020

Nicolussi, K. (1990). Bilddokumente zur Geschichte des Vernagtferners im 17. Jahrhundert. Zeitschrift für Gletscherkunde und Glazialgeologie, 26(2), 97–119.



Project Leader:

Prinz Rainer


Nicholson Lindsey

Funding Agencies:
Stategovernment of Tirol
University of Innsbruck

Project Duration:
01/01/1952 to 11/30/2022

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