How Climate Change is Melting the Glaciers

Pastoruri1Photo: Anonymous

Pastoruri used to be a glacier until about two years ago, when global warming took its title by force and declared it just a gathering of snow and future water puddle. It use to be the most popular destination in the Cordillera Blanca, a mountain range at the centre of Peru that forms part of the grander Andes mountain range that crosses the continent. It used to receive thousands of tourist visits a year and was especially popular because of its remarkably easy ascension. No major training was required to climb it, just the presence of a guide to hold your hand at certain extends of the trek.

With visitor head-count declining as there is increasingly less to see besides bare rock, and a local economy fiercely relying on tourism to survive, the Huascaran National Park, home of the former glacier, decided to capitalize on the environmental tragedy. It created a new concept on environmental education called the Climate Change Route, a kind of real life outdoors pre-apocalyptic museum.

“During the journey, tourists will be able to see how the glacier retreated over the years; therefore, it will include a graphic and metric representation of the year and distance the glacier retreated. It will comprise data collected from 1970 to date. There will be marks, informative signs and scientific subjects,” states Marco Arenas, head of the Huascaran National Park that enjoys the title of UNESCO World heritage site.

“Our proposal is an opportunity for scientists, researchers, students and for tourist; a new view of a palpable reality,” he continues and add that the route will also address other scientific subjects besides glacier reduction like the colonization of the surroundings of Pastoruri by pioneer species adapting to the new terrain.

I visited the area as a child in the ’90s when global warming was about a decade away from painting us that gloomy picture of progressive self destruction; by that time, the glacier was already agonizing from tourist over exposure. In 1995, the glacier had an area of 1.8 square kilometers, by 2008 it was 1.1 sq. km  which means 40% of it was gone in less than 15 years. The ice reduction is of 24 meters a year. Every glacier has an accumulation zone (feeding area) and other of ablation (the lower area where ice melts).

In the case of Pastoruri, everything is melting – ice that gathers during the rainy season and feeds the glacier melts. This means, ultimately, the glacier will die of starvation. As of 2010, tourist access to the glacier is prohibited in order to slow down the inevitable disappearing act. Anyone who wishes to see it must now make do with a distant gaze from an observation point in a grazing site far below.

This is not the only glacier in the country to fall down this path. As of 2005, the Broggi glacier, also found in the Cordillera Blanca, which covered a larger area than Pastoruri is completely gone. The Cordillera Blanca itself is melting at over 9 km a year, 33% of its surface gone between 1980 and 2006. This trend is rapidly becoming a major concern of the government but perhaps not as quickly as the situation is deteriorating. Inspite of recent efforts by the government to take charge of the problem, there is little anyone can do but watch, record the data and plan for the future.

Recent studies on other glaciers much bigger than Pastoruri and Broggi are showing a worrying seclusion of the ice. The Salkantay glacier is a perfect example. Found in the Cusco region in the south of Peru, one of the main sights to behold when trekking the famous Inka Trail, it is deteriorating at 1.02 km a year with 28% of it gone between 2003 and 2007.


Salkantay glacier melting 2003 – 2007:
Cordillera BlancaPhoto: Jose Ordoñez

The effects this phenomena will have on the area are hard to determine. The local population is already experiencing some economical setbacks because of its primordial reliance on tourism but something casts a much greater shadow when addressing the issue. INRENA (Institute of Natural Resources) and SENAMHI (The National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology) have foreseen great water shortages in the next couple of decades and see this phenomena as an important factor.

The Cordillera Blanca supplies the central coast of Peru with water, as most of its surface are deserts, and the rapid glacier reduction is causing a massive loss of water. According to INRENA, glacier reduction has caused over 7 thousand million cubic meters of water to go to waste, enough to supply the capital Lima, a city of nearly 8 million people, for 10 years.

Wilar Gamarra Molina, head of SENAMHI, has stated that the best way to tackle the issue of future water shortages is conservation: “If now we have access to water, we must take care of it and use it efficiently, because at a given time we will live with a severe shortage”. The Climate Change Route is expected to be finished by next year.