Glacier mass balance is the direct and undelayed response to atmospheric conditions and hence is among the essential variables required for climate system monitoring. It has been recognized as the largest non-steric contributor to the present rise in sea level. Six decades of annual mass-balance data have been compiled and made easily available by the World Glacier Monitoring Service and its predecessor organizations. In total, there have been 3480 annual mass-balance measurements reported from 228 glaciers around the globe. However, the present dataset is strongly biased towards the Northern Hemisphere and Europe and there are only 30 ‘reference’ glaciers that have uninterrupted series going back to 1976. The available data from the six decades indicate a strong ice loss as early as the 1940s and 1950s followed by a moderate mass loss until the end of the 1970s and a subsequent acceleration that has lasted until now, culminating in a mean overall ice loss of over 20mw.e. for the period 1946–2006. In view of the discrepancy between the relevance of glacier mass-balance data and the shortcomings of the available dataset it is strongly recommended to: (1) continue the long-term measurements; (2) resume interrupted long-term data series; (3) replace vanishing glaciers by early-starting replacement observations; (4) extend the monitoring network to strategically important regions; (5) validate, calibrate and accordingly flag field measurements with geodetic methods; and (6) make systematic use of remote sensing and geo-informatics for assessment of the representativeness of the available data series for their entire mountain range and for the extrapolation to regions without in situ observations; and (7) make all these data and related meta-information available.