Meltwater from glaciers in the European Alps plays an important role in hydropower production, and future glacier development is thus of economic interest. However, an up-to-date and alpine-wide inventory for accurate assessment of glacier changes or modelling of future glacier development has not hitherto been available. Here we present a new alpine-wide inventory (covering Austria, France, Italy and Switzerland) derived from ten Landsat Thematic Mapper (TM) scenes acquired within 7 weeks in 2003. Combined with the globally available digital elevation model from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, topographic inventory parameters were derived for each of the 3770 mapped glaciers, covering 2050 km2. The area-class frequency distribution is very similar in all countries, and a mean northerly aspect (NW, N, NE) is clearly favoured (arithmetic counting). Mean glacier elevation is ~2900 m, with a small dependence on aspect. The total area loss since the previous glacier inventory (acquired around 1970±15 years) is roughly one-third, yielding a current area loss rate of ~2%a–1. Digital overlay of the outlines from the latest Austrian glacier inventory revealed differences in the interpretation of glacier extents that prohibit change assessment. A comparison of TM-derived outlines with manually digitized extents on a high-resolution IKONOS image returned 1.5% smaller glaciers with TM.