The internationally recommended multi-level strategy for monitoring mountain glaciers is illustrated using the example of the European Alps, where especially dense information has been available through historical times. This strategy combines in situ measurements (mass balance, length change) with remote sensing (inventories) and numerical modelling. It helps to bridge the gap between detailed local process-oriented studies and global coverage. Since the 1980s, mass balances have become increasingly negative, with values close to –1mw.e. a–1 during the first 5 years of the 21st century. The hot, dry summer of 2003 alone caused a record mean loss of 2.45 mw.e., roughly 50% above the previous record loss in 1998, more than three times the average between 1980 and 2000 and an order of magnitude more than characteristic long-term averages since the end of the Little Ice Age and other extended periods of glacier shrinkage during the past 2000 years. It can be estimated that glaciers in the European Alps lost about half their total volume (roughly 0.5% a–1) between 1850 and around 1975, another 25% (or 1%a–1) of the remaining amount between 1975 and 2000, and an additional 10–15% (or 2–3% a–1) in the first 5 years of this century.