Wildfires in Peru Could Increase Glacial Melt

A recent study by John All et al., “Fire Response to Local Climate Variability,” investigates whether or not human interference in the fire regime of Huascarán National Park in Peru was the primary cause of an increase in fire activity in the park. The fire activity, whether caused by humans or climate variability, was poorly understood because of a lack of historical data. The wildfires in this park are continuing to grow and could pose a threat to surrounding glaciers. Resource managers believed that the fire increase was human-caused and not necessarily linked to climate processes, but in this instance, fire perception and fire reality are not aligning. The new challenge for resource managers is how best to reconcile these two factors to more effectively manage the parklands. If the wildfires become more frequent, the glaciers in Huascarán National Park could melt at faster rates because of the soot and other material from the fires deposited on them.

The 3,400 km Huascarán National Park is located in the Cordillera Blanca range in north-central Peru, the largest glaciated area in the tropics, with 80 glaciers and 120 glacial lakes. The park, created in 1975 and named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, has already seen a significant loss of ice and snow in the region in the past 60 years, according to research published in the journal Mountain Research and Development, altering the glacier melt that supplies water for the Santa, Marañón, and Pativilca River basins.

A fire destroyed 2,000 acres in Huascaran National Park in 2012 (Source: River of Life/Creative Commons).

The study’s goal was to help the park’s land managers understand the patterns of the fires, why they’ve been changing, and how to better manage the park in the future. When asked if climate change could make the wildfires more frequent, Edson Ramírez Henostroza, a security specialist for rescue and fire control at Huascarán National Park, told GlacierHub, “Yes, in our country, there is the popular belief that fire and smoke generate rain, and that ash balances the pH of the soil, which is usually acid in the Andes, causing the peasants to burn more pastures ad bushes in search of rain and more productive soils.”

From 2002 to 2014, Huascarán National Park has seen higher activity of grazing and anthropogenic burning, due to natural ignitions and climate variability, which has altered the regimes and population dynamics of the vegetative communities. Anthropogenic fires are usually caused by livestock owners who start fires to get rid of biomass and improve grass regrowth for the next grazing season. Humans change the characteristics of fires, such as the intensity, severity, number, and spread. “We believe that the best tools to prevent forest fires is environmental education, to reach schools in rural areas and talk to peasants and their children,” Edson told GlacierHub.

Huascaran Park Glaciers (Source: Sergejf/Flickr).

Since the 1970’s, glaciers in the tropical Andes have receded at a rate of 30 percent. Increased black carbon and dust will only quicken this glacial recession. A consequence of man-made fires is the release of black carbona particulate matter released by the combustion of fossil fuels, biofuel and biomass, which accelerates glacial melt when deposited on glaciers. Since black carbon absorbs solar energy, it has the ability to warm the atmosphere and speed up the melting process on glaciers.

In an interview with GlacierHub, John All, a research professor in the Department of Environmental Science at Huxley College and one of the co-authors of the study, said, “There are multiple potential sources of black carbon, but our work indicates that black carbon on glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca is almost entirely ‘young’ carbon – i.e. not fossil carbon like diesel. Mountain fires potentially provide large amounts and large particle sizes of local black carbon that can be deposited immediately onto the glacier.”

Lake 69 in Cordillera Blanca, Huaraz, Peru (Source: Arnaud_Z_Voyage/Flickr).

Park managers are working to save the park from future fire-related accidents by bringing on specialists like John All. “We began this research at the request of the Park Superintendent because he was concerned about how these fires, which are ignited to improve grazing in the Park, were affecting the ecosystem and visitor experiences,” he told GlacierHub. “We’ve worked with USAID and various Peruvian agencies to hold workshops and work with local stakeholders to curb burning practices. However, as natural fire conditions become more explosive, even accidental fires may become widespread in the future.” More research needs to be done in order to improve fire management and learn more about the fires’ impact on the park.

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