Glaciers are widely recognized as unique demonstration objects for climate change impacts, mostly due to
the strong change of glacier length in response to small climatic changes. However, glacier mass balance as the direct response to the annual atmospheric conditions can be better interpreted in meteorological terms. When the climatic signal is deduced from long-term mass balance data, changes in glacier geometry (i.e. surface extent and elevation) must be considered as such adjustments form an essential part of the glacier reaction to new climatic conditions. In this study, a set of modelling experiments is performed to assess the influence of changes in glacier geometry on mass balance for constant climatic conditions. The calculations are based on a simplified distributed energy/mass balance model in combination with information on glacier extent and surface elevation for the years 1850 and 1973/1985 for about 60 glaciers in the Swiss Alps. The results reveal that over this period about 50–70% of the glacier reaction to climate change (here a one degree increase in temperature) is “hidden” in the geometric adjustment, while only 30–50% can be measured as the long-term mean mass balance. For larger glaciers, the effect of the areal change is partly reduced by a lowered surface elevation, which results in a slightly more negative balance despite a potential increase of topographic shading. In view of several additional reinforcement feedbacks that are observed in periods of strong glacier decline, it seems that the climatic interpretation of long-term mass balance data is rather complex.