Retreating Glaciers and Advancing Scientists Converge for UNESCO Meeting

The glaciers of the Andes are retreating and researchers are taking notice. Participants of UNESCO’s Impact of the Glacial Retreat in the Andes: International Multidisciplinary Network for Adaptation Strategies project met in Mendoza, Argentina, from August 23-25, to address challenges of glacial retreat in the Andes. 

A glacier in Argentina (Source: Studio 91.7).

The meeting took place at the IANIGLA Institute (The Argentinean Institute of Nivology, Glaciology and Environmental Sciences), and served as the final synthesis of the project. The project, which was established under UNESCO’s International Hydrological Program in 2012, focuses on developing a multidisciplinary network of professionals in the area of snow and glacial management to improve climate change adaptation strategies in the Andes. Presentations at the meeting, many of which were on research conducted from the beginning of the project, covered a range of topics. Researchers from Chile detailed the challenges facing glacier protection in their country, while the participants from Colombia detailed how their country protects the few glaciers they have left.

The final day of presentations at the UNESCO meeting on glacial retreat in the Andes held in Mendoza, Argentina (Source: CONICET Mendoza).

As a result of climate change, glaciers in the Andes face an uncertain future. Increased temperatures serve as the primary driver of glacial retreat; in the tropical Andes temperatures increased by 0.8 degrees Celsius during the 20th century. Glacial retreat poses significant challenges to the Andean region and the people and ecosystems that rely on these glaciers. Many places in the Andes and coastal regions of western South America count on glaciers to provide water, especially during the dry season when they act as a buffer to guard against the seasonal variability of precipitation. 

Luckily, these issues are not being ignored. The UNESCO meeting was truly a continental affair attended by more than 40 experts from across mountainous regions of Latin America, from Mexico to Chile and Argentina.

Lucas Ruiz, a glaciology specialist at IANIGLA, who attended the conference, spoke to GlacierHub about his experience at the meeting. Ruiz, when asked what he viewed as the most significant result of the meeting, said that it showed that it is “possible to work between scientists, governments, citizens and local communities, not only to create awareness of the importance of taking care of the water, but also to change the way water is used in more sustainable ways.”    

One of the highlights of the meeting was the presentation by IANIGLA of their National Inventory of Glaciers for Argentina which is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The national inventory, one of the world’s first, almost never got started. Scientists from IANIGLA launched the inventory back in 2011 but were unable to reach an area near a large-scale mining operation in San Juan, Argentina, run by the world’s largest gold mine, Barrick Gold. The year prior, the Argentine government had passed the “Law of the Glaciers” to protect water supplies by banning activities like mining on or near glaciers and calling for the completion of the national inventory of glaciers. A 2012 ruling by the Argentine Supreme Court upheld the Law of the Glaciers opening the glaciated areas near mines to inventory scientists, enabling the inventory to proceed.

Researchers training for the glacier Inventory (Source: IANIGLA).

The law and inventory are of particular interest to Andean countries as a blueprint for glacier protection. Every country in the Andes now conducts glacial monitoring programs, but a complete Andean glacier inventory has yet to be finished. The lack of a complete inventory in the view of Ruiz is a hinderance to the development of a comprehensive glacial retreat adaptation plan. “Until we have solid knowledge of all the glaciers in the country, it is hard to establish a strategy,” he said. However, he also believes that the starting goal of any adaptation strategy is to build up awareness around glacial retreat, something the project has done well. 

Aconcagua, the highest point outside Asia. Participants from the UNESCO meeting visited the mountain during the conference (Source: Mark Horrell/Creative Commons).

Other notable glacial retreat monitoring projects were also presented at the meeting. Researchers from the University of Chile detailed their study of the Maipo basin, one of the primary source regions of water for the capital of Santiago, and some of the most important industry and agriculture areas in the country. On a larger scale, a collaboration between the Imperial College London, UNESCO, and others on glacial retreat vulnerability mapping across the Andes was presented. 

In light of the somber impacts of climate change, hope still abounds. Challenges remain, but as Ruiz told GlacierHub, the only way to overcome the challenges associated with climate change and glacial retreat is through collaboration and the consideration of all stakeholders involved. The Impact of the Glacial Retreat in the Andes: International Multidisciplinary Network for Adaptation Strategies meeting and project proved that collaboration between different governments, scientists and local communities is not only possible, but also greatly beneficial.