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Public-images-osm logo.svg natural = glacier
Grosser Aletschgletscher 3196.JPG
A permanent body of ice formed naturally from snow that is moving under its own weight. Show/edit corresponding data item.
Rendering in OSM Carto area
Group: natural
Used on these elements
may be used on nodesshould not be used on waysmay be used on areas (and multipolygon relations)should not be used on relations (except multipolygon relations)
Useful combination
Status: approvedPage for proposal

A glacier is a body of ice that has formed by accumulation and subsequent densification of snow in an area where snow accumulation exceeds ablation and is continuously moving downhill under its own weight melting at the lower end and growing at the upper end. Glaciers occur in high mountain areas everywhere on earth as well as in polar regions. Some of the world's glaciers are very large (e.g., the Greenland ice sheet covers approximately 1,750,000 km²).

How to map

To map a small glacier you can just draw the area area along the outline of the glacier and tag it natural=glacier. To map large glaciers you can use relation:multipolygon with the same tag.

When glaciers are connected to each other in their upper parts you can split them at the approximate watershed divides.

When you have no information on the geometry of the glacier you can also tag a node with natural=glacier and the glacier's name.

Mapping caveats

Glaciers are mostly mapped from aerial or satellite images which however is prone to errors. The following guidelines may help to avoid those.

  • Outside polar regions glaciers are limited to high mountain areas. Mountains with elevations below a certain limit do not feature glaciers. This limit depends on latitude and local conditions. In the Alps mountains with less than 2500-3000 m elevation usually are without glaciers. Around the equator between around 30° N/S mountains lower than about 4000-4500 m are free of glaciers. Glaciers on higher mountains can reach much lower altitudes at their lower ends though.
  • To accurately map glaciers from imagery you usually need images from late summer where snow cover is at its minimum. Attempting to map glaciers from images taken earlier the year usually results in overestimation of the glacier area.
  • The lower part of many glaciers is covered by a layer of loose rock material which can look quite similar to areas with loose material left by a retreating glacier. This often makes it difficult to determine where exactly the glacier ends. If in doubt look for signs of erosion (indicating there is no glacier any more) and the local topography (an active, moving glacier usually protrudes from the surrounding terrain).
  • Glaciers can shrink and grow quite rapidly so when updating/improving previously mapped glaciers make sure you do not replace newer with older data.

A particular difficulty lies in distinguishing glaciers from seasonal and perennial snow. The following rules can be used to help make this distinction:

  • Glaciers always move so look for signs of movement, especially the formation of a tongue and end moraines at the lower end of the glacier or crevasses on its surface
  • In summer the lower part of a glacier is usually free of snow; i.e., bare ice or ice covered with debris
  • Snowfields are much more variable from year to year so comparing images from different years including ground level photographs can help
  • Use your own or consult others' local knowledge

Although they share some similarities,  Rock glaciers /  Blockgletscher are composed of a mixture of ice and broken rock with a surface layer of scree (or boulders), and do not have the same ice core as "true" glaciers. Using natural=glacier to map rock glaciers is controversial for several reasons:

  • Rock glaciers are not composed of ice in the same way that "true" glaciers are. The surface of a rock glacier is never ice, the core of a rock glacier is a mixture of ice and rock, and the base of a rock glacier is a mixture of ice, rock, and soil in a permafrost layer.
  • Mapping rock glaciers using natural=glacier incorrectly identifies them as permanent bodies of primarily ice.
  • Many existing rock glaciers have been mapped using natural=scree, which correctly represents the surface layer of scree (or boulders) that insulates the lower layers of ice, rock, and permafrost. This insulating layer of rock is one of the defining characteristics of rock glaciers.

For these reasons, it may be appropriate to map rock glaciers as natural=scree. Using glacier:type=rock as a secondary tag for rock glaciers is controversial for the same reasons described above. The geological=rock_glacier tag has been used to identify some rock glaciers.

Tags used in combination

Tagging scheme for natural=glacier
Tag Description Example
name=* Name of the glacier.
surface=* Material covering the surface of the glacier snow, ice, scree
direction=* Direction of glacier movement N,NE
glacier:type=* Type of glacier shelf, mountain, ice_tongue, icecap
glacier:status=* Current behaviour of the glacier's front. marked_retreat, slight_retreat

For other possible tags, see proposed features/Glaciers tags. There are special tagging conventions for glaciers in Antarctica.


OSM Carto renders glaciers in bright blue with a thin dark outline.


See also