Andes Glaciers Retreat

Hundreds of Andean glaciers are retreating, and scientists say that their erosion is a direct result of rising temperatures. During three decades (1970-2000), Peru's glaciers lost almost a quarter of their 1,225-square-mile surface (Wilson, 2001, A-1). The 18,700-foot-high Quelccaya ice cap in the Andes of southeastern Peru has been steadily shrinking at an accelerating rate and lost 10 to 12 feet a year between 1978 and 1990, up to 90 feet a year between 1990 and 1995, and 150 feet a year between 1995 and 1998. The glacier retreated between 100 and 500 feet, depending on location, between 1999 and 2004. The Peruvian National Commission on Climate Change forecast in 2005 that Peru would lose all its glaciers below 18,000 feet in ten years. Within 40 years, the commission said that all of Peru's glaciers would be gone (Regaldo, 2005, A-1).

The Quelccaya ice cap shrank from 22 to 17 square miles between 1974 and 1998. The Quelccaya ice cap in the Peruvian Andes is retreating more than 500 feet a year. Water from hundreds of glaciers in a stretch of the Andes known as the Cordillera Blanca ("White Range") drives the rural economy of Peru. The water runoff moistens wheat and potatoes along the mountain slopes. It also provides the houses and huts with electricity generated by a hydroelectric plant on the river (Wilson, 2001, A-1).

Lima, A city of eight million people in the Atacama, one of the driest deserts on Earth, receives nearly all of its water during a six-month dry season from glacial ice melt. Within a few decades, at present melting rates, Lima's people will encounter severe water shortages. The same water is used to generate much of Lima's electricity. As its few wells dry up and glaciers shrink, Lima has been adding 200,000 residents a year. Bolivia's capital, La Paz, and Ecuador's capital, Quito, face similar problems (Lynas, 2004, 236-237). Within a few years, however, the life-giving waters may diminish to a trickle for the last time if freezing levels continue to rise.

The melting of glacial ice in Peru may also make some areas more vulnerable to the frequent earthquakes that afflict the area. "Glaciers usually melt into the rock, filling in fissures with water that expands and freezes when the temperatures drop. What scientists fear is that, with

Andes Ice 1980

Jacamba Glacier, Peruvian Andes, 1980 and 2000 (Courtesy of Mark Lynas/Photos by Tim Helwig-Larsen)

increased melting, more water and larger ice masses are pulling apart the rock and making the ice cap above more susceptible to the frequent seismic tremors that rock the area" (Wilson, 2001, A-1).

Many Peruvians who face drought in the long term have also been benefiting from a sense of false plenty in the short term by increasing glacial runoff as glaciers melt. According to Scott Wilson, writing in The Washington Post, the short-term glacial runoff "has made possible plans to electrify remote mountain villages, turn deserts into orchards and deliver potable water to poor communities. In some mud-brick villages scattered across the valley, new schools will open and factories will crank up as the glacier-fed river increases electricity production" (Wilson, 2001, A-1).

"In the long run... these long-frozen sources of water will run dry," said Cesar Portocarrero, a Peruvian engineer who worked for Elec-troperu, the government-owned power company, and who has monitored Peru's water supply for 25 years (Revkin, 2002, A-10). In the meantime, evidence of changing climate has appeared in Portocarrero's hometown, Huaraz, a small city at 10,000 feet in the Andes. "I was doing work in my house the other day [in 2002] and saw mosquitoes," Porto-carrero said. "Mosquitoes at more than 3,000 meters. I never saw that before. It means really we have here the evidence and consequences of global warming" (Revkin, 2002, A-10). --

Might Human-initiated GLobaL Warming End the Ice Age Cycle?

Is it possible that ongoing global warming could delay the onset of the next ice age by thousands of years? Belgian researchers raised this issue in the August 23, 2002 issue of Science. "We've shown that the input of greenhouse gas could have an impact on the climate 50,000 years in the future," said Marie-France Loutre of the Universite Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, who researched the question with colleague Andre Barger (Berger and Loutre, 2002, 1287). Princeton climatologist Jorge Sarmiento said that his own work supports Loutre's assertion that increasing levels of carbon dioxide could linger for thousands of years, long enough to influence the climate of the far future. "The warming will certainly launch us into a new interval in terms of climate, far outside what we've seen before," said Duke University climatologist Tom Crowley. He said it was a big enough influence to cause the cycle of ice ages to "skip a beat" (Flam, 2002).

Loutre and Berger estimated that human activity would double the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the next century, raising temperatures as much as 10°F. "It could get much worse," said Crowley. There's a huge reservoir of coal, and if people keep burning it, they could more than quadruple the present carbon dioxide concentrations, he said. "I find it hard to believe we will restrain ourselves," he said. "It's really rather startling the changes that people will probably see" (Flam, 2002). "The silliest thing people could say is: We've got an ice age coming, so why are we worrying about global warming?" Sarmiento said. Whether Loutre and Berger's theory is right or not, "[w]e're going to get a lot of global warming before the ice age kicks in" (Flam, 2002). --

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Responses

  • j
    What cultures are losing their glaciers to climate change?
    8 years ago

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