Based on aerial photographs, topographical maps and the Landsat-5 image data, we have analyzed fluctuations of glaciers in the western Qilian Shan, north-west China, from the Little Ice Age (LIA) to 1990. The areas and volumes of glaciers in the whole considered region decreased 15% and 18%, respectively, from the LIA maximum to 1956. This trend of glacier shrinkage continued and accelerated between 1956 and 1990. These latest decreases in area and volume were about 10% in 34 years. The recent shrinkage may be due either to a combination of higher temperatures and lower precipitation during the period 1956–66, or to continuous warming in the high glacierized mountains from 1956 to 1990. As a consequence, glacier runoff from ice wastage between 1956 and 1990 has increased river runoff by 6.2 km3 in the four river basins under consideration. Besides, the equilibrium-line altitude (ELA) rise estimated from the mean terminus retreat of small glaciers <1 km long is 46 m, which corresponds to a 0.3°C increase of mean temperatures in warm seasons from the LIA to the 1950s.