Drones in the Service of Sustainability: Tracking Soil Moisture in the Peruvian Andes

Amid the tropical Andes of Peru lies the Cordillera Blanca mountains, home to more tropical glaciers than anywhere else on Earth. This range provides water to some 95 million people. Rising temperatures over the last several decades, however, mean its once abundant glaciers are vanishing rapidly. That’s impacting the water supply of downstream communities, which are becoming increasingly dependent on soil moisture.

In an innovative study published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment, researchers used drones to obtain high-resolution images of the valleys left behind as Cordillera Blanca’s glaciers recede. As the drones pass over these “proglacial valleys,” they can produce highly accurate maps of the soil moisture within the fields, rivers, wetlands, and meadows below.

Historically there has been “very little understanding” of how water circulates in areas like proglacial valleys, Jorge Recharte, director of the Andes program at the Mountain Institute, told GlacierHub.

The study’s lead author, Oliver Wigmore of the University of Colorado, Boulder, said his team’s findings help to improve understanding of proglacial hydrology. “This data … is providing unique insights into the patterns and processes that move and store water within these dynamic proglacial environments,” he said.

A view of Huandoy, the second-tallest peak in the Cordillera Blanca, at sunrise. Just beneath it is the Llanganuco Valley, which was surveyed in the study. (Source: cookierace/Flickr)

This study is the first to apply drone images to the temperature vegetation dryness index (TVDI) method. TVDI demonstrates the relationship between land surface temperature and normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), which measures an area’s greenness, or density of vegetation, which can then be used to determine soil moisture.

Anais Zimmer, a Ph.D candidate in the department of geography and the environment at the University of Texas, Austin, said the study offered “excellent outcomes on surface and subsurface hydrological processes that could be used at a broader scale and applied to many other sub-disciplines to understand the functioning and the future of alpine ecosystem services.”

The researchers found that soil moisture varied drastically over very short distances. “The unique, high-resolution multispectral drone imagery that we collected has provided an unprecedented snapshot of the spatial variability of surface soil moisture within these systems,” said Wigmore.

high elevation drone on GlacierHub
A photo of one of the drones used to conduct this study. (Source: Wigmore, et al.)

Drones are essentially the third generation of technology to be used in scientific research. First were direct measurements, which cannot be accurately generalized over such a variable area. Then came remote sensing using satellites, which provides averaged data over larger areas, but would likely miss any important variability happening on a smaller scale. For this study, researchers used two types of drone-mounted cameras: one to measure greenness, an indicator of plant health, and a second to record temperature.

“[The images] provide excellent tools to establish comparisons between valleys, depending on land use changes and climatic factors,” Zimmer said. 

Wigmore and his team conducted their survey in two proglacial valleys in the Cordillera Blanca that were markedly different from each other in terms of precipitation level, glacier extent, land cover, and land use. The researchers found that soil moisture variability across the Cordillera Blanca’s proglacial valleys can be attributed to three criteria: distance from local water supplies; the type and abundance of vegetation; and soil disturbance such as animal grazing.

“We have found that the proglacial valleys in Cordillera Blanca often have substantial groundwater reservoirs that regulate dry season stream flow by storing and gradually releasing wet season precipitation and glacial meltwater,” said Wigmore. He added that knowing the groundwater storage capacity of these valleys could help minimize negative impacts of meltwater decline on downstream communities.

Cordillera Blanca Laguna 69 on GlacierHub
A view of a glacier in the Cordillera Blanca from the Laguna 69, one one of the most famous hikes in Peru. (Source: Esmée Winnubst)/Flickr)

“Research in these high landscapes is key to planning for both local impacts in the short term and whole-watershed impacts in the long term,” Recharte said.

Zimmer emphasized the need for enhanced monitoring, modeling, and case studies that might help to better predict the impact of climate change in mountain communities.

Around the world, many glaciers have already reached peak discharge, which threatens the freshwater supplies of downstream communities. The study by Wigmore and his team not only provides an unprecedented look into the hydrology of proglacial valleys, it also provides a glimmer of hope that not all is lost, at least for now. Their results document the enormous water-storage potential that lies beneath the surface of proglacial valleys, but also highlights the extreme vulnerability of these ecosystems.

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Argentina’s Retreating Turbio Glacier Creates a New Lake

Turbio Glacier is at the headwaters of Argentina’s Turbio River and flows into Lago Puelo. The glacier descends east from the Chile-Argentina border at 1,500 meters, descending into a low-slope valley at 1,300-1,000 m.

From 1986-2018 this glacier like many others nearby has retreated substantially leading to development of a new lake. Wilson et al. (2018) noted a substantial growth in the number of lakes in the Central and Patagonian Andes due to the ongoing rapid retreat. Masiokas et al. (2008) reported that significant warming and decreasing precipitation over the 1912–2002 interval in the region. Harrison et al. (2018) observed the number of glacier lake outburst floods have declined despite the increase in lakes.

Turbio Glacier retreat from 1986 to 2018 in Landsat images. Red arrow is 1986 terminus location, yellow arrow 2018 terminus location, and pink arrow glacier across the border in Chile.

In 1986 the glacier terminated at the southeast end of a buttress at the junction with another valley (red arrow in the image above). The glacier was 4.3 kilometers long and was connected to a headwall segment that extends to 1,500 m. There is no evidence of a lake at the terminus of Turbio Glacier.

Across the divide in Chile, the glacier, seen with a pink arrow in the above image, has a length of 3 km. In 1998 the retreat from 1986 has been modest and no lake has formed at Turbio. Across the border in Chile the glacier has divided into two sections.

Turbio Glacier retreat from 1998 to 2017 in Landsat images. Red arrow is 1986 terminus location, yellow arrow 2018 terminus location and pink arrow glacier across the border in Chile.

By 2017 Turbio Glacier has retreated exposing a new lake. The glacier is essentially devoid of retained snowpack, illustrating the lack of a significant accumulation zone that can sustain it. Across the border in Chile the glacier has nearly disappeared with the lower section revealing a new lake and little retained snowpack indicating it cannot survive.

By 2018 Turbio Glacier has retreated 1.3 km, which is over 30 percent of its total length in 32 years. The glacier is separated from the headwall glacier, which can still shed avalanches onto the lower glacier. It is possible that with additional retreat another lake will be revealed in this valley. The substantial retreat here is comparable with that of nearby Argentina glaciers such as Pico Alto Glacier and Lago Cholila . The retreat is greater than on Tic Toc Glacier to the southwest in Chile.

Turbio Glacier in a Digital Globe image from 2013. Red arrow is 1986 terminus location, yellow arrow 2018 terminus location, blue arrows show glacier flow, and pink arrow indicates glacier across the border in Chile. The border is also indicated.

RELATED: A Survey of the UNESCO Andean Glacier Water Atlas

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RELATE: The Struggle for Water in the Andes

A Survey of the UNESCO Andean Glacier Water Atlas

UNESCO recently published a report which addresses the effects of global warming on the glaciers of the Andes. The Andean Glacier and Water Atlas examines the changing climate patterns across western South America, as well the historical and projected rates of retreat of important glaciers in the region. Increased melting will impact societies reliant on glaciers for water resources. The eventual loss of glaciers presents a challenge for countries to address.

An aerial view of the Ojo del Albino glacier in Argentina (Source: Andrew Shiva/Wikimedia Commons)

The Andes are the longest continental mountain range in the world, spanning the western edge of South America through several countries. These mountains are considered to be the water towers for the surrounding populations. They provide water to about 75 million people living within the Andes region and 20 million downstream along surrounding rivers. The Andes continue to have a significant influence on local cultures and economies. The impending loss of these glaciers may cripple dependent communities, industries, and various sectors across South America.  

Key Messages and Future Projections

The atlas identifies several key messages essential for discerning the changes in the Andes. Projections indicate that temperatures in the tropical Andes could increase between 2°C and 5°C by the end of the 21st century. The recent IPCC SR1.5 report emphasized the devastating effects of just 1°C of warming, such as extended periods of drought and extreme global heat events. The Andes will likely experience increasingly hotter years with warming driving further glacier retreat.

The report notes that changes in precipitation are harder to project than temperature changes. Nonetheless it presents serious concerns for some regions across the Andes. The atlas refers to the IPCC for precipitation projections. In the southern Andes region, precipitation will greatly decrease by the end of the century, including Chile and Argentina in particular. These regions will likely experience drought events, and loss of glaciers may be devastating to the environment and its people.

Scientists have also observed rapid retreat in glaciers in the tropical Andes, as well as lower-altitude glaciers. According to the atlas, one glacier which remains in Venezuela will likely disappear by 2021. Many large tropical glaciers exist in Peru, including Quelccaya Ice Cap, which may disappear by 2050 at the current rate of warming. Glaciers are also quickly retreating in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. This retreat and volume loss of glaciers is “locked in,”and glaciers will continue to retreat no matter what. Even with a moderate level of emissions, the IPCC projects that barely a fifth of the glaciers will remain by the end of the century, with some reduced to barely 3 percent of their current size.

Pico Humboldt, the second highest peak in Venezuela, is home to the country’s last glacier (Source: Okty/Wikimedia Commons)

Impacts of Retreating Glaciers

The loss of glaciers and glacial meltwater is inevitable. As warming continues, a majority of glaciers will soon experience “peak water” (which occurs when melting exceeds new mass accumulated by snowfall), likely within the next 20 years. Many tropical Andes glaciers already reached peak water in the 1980s and have been outputting less water since. Although many countries will benefit from peak water, the aftereffects of less meltwater outflow will heavily strain the available water supply.

Bolívar Cáceres, a specialist of the tropical Andes who worked on the atlas, told GlacierHub about some of the effects of glacier retreat and possible methods for adapting to water scarcity. “One of the indirect effects of long-term melting in communities is the reduction of visitors. Since glaciers no longer exist in some places or become very difficult to climb, tourists are currently opting out and most likely will go to other places in the future,” he said. This will affect local economies that depend on tourism flow and the resources generated. As for adaptation, Cáceres believes that promoting technologies in agriculture and livestock areas to better manage water resources is essential for sustainability.

Water quality will also be affected by the loss of glaciers. Bryan Mark, an expert on Andes and Peruvian glaciers, added: “Recently glacier-free landscapes feature lots of unconsolidated materials that tend to result in more sediment laden, erosive, and ‘flashy’ discharge streams.'” Sediment pollution presents a number of problems for the water supply, including degrading the quality of drinking water for locals and their livestock. Mark also highlighted the importance of diversifying water reservoir resources, utilizing groundwater, small dams, and precipitation capture as alternate water resources.

Vibrant houses and high-rises in the Andean city of La Paz, Bolivia (Source: Matthew Straubmuller/Flickr)

Efficacy and Practicality of Policy Recommendations

The atlas examines the significance of glacier retreat on communities. It provides policy recommendations for countries to sustainably secure future water availability. Some examples include implementing preventative measures for natural glacier-related hazards and developing climate services for water resource management. Although these recommendations are intended to provide direction towards sustainable water supply management, there are concerns of clarity, implementation, and effectiveness of these policies.

Dirk Hoffmann, an expert on glaciers in high mountain ecosystems, commented on the effectiveness of the policy recommendations on communities. “The policy recommendations are all very interesting, but on the whole seem to be somewhat too general as to be useful to specific decision maker,” he said. Hoffmann views the recommendations as well intended and believes the atlas to be effective in raising awareness of these issues. In a practical sense, however, they are too far removed to help decision makers, he said. A clear indication as to whom these recommendations are directed towards would be beneficial.

Deeply entrenched valley below the tree line, with a small town at the river’s edge (Source: UNESCO)

Mark Carey, an expert of the Peruvian Andes, shared similar thoughts on the effectiveness of these recommendations. Carey stated that the lack of social science and humanities research on vulnerability and unequal impacts of shrinking glaciers is an issue. “Vulnerability is framed in ways to conceptualize homogenous ‘affected populations,’ such as those in agriculture or urban areas, rather than understanding the complicated social divisions and power imbalances embedded in the diverse social groups,” he said. Carey added that although the science is necessary, the complex human dimensions of climate change adaptation are essential.  

The Andean Glacier and Water Atlas recognizes the importance of improving interactions between science and policy, bringing awareness of key issues surrounding the loss of glaciers in the Andes. This is a major step towards successful adaptation; climate scientists, social scientists, and policymakers will need to collaborate to effectively allocate resources for sustainable management of the challenges associated with glacier retreat.

Video of the Week: Reviving the Quechuan Language

This week’s video features the passion project of Quechua activist Irma Alvarez to preserve the Quechua tradition through orality and writing. Quechua refers to the original group of languages spoken by the Incan Empire in the Andes Mountains. When the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, use of the language was suppressed as the indigenous groups were indoctrinated to Catholicism and the Spanish language. Quechua is a linguistic family wherein distinct dialects vary from community to community.

Despite the lack of printed material written in the Quechuan language, indigenous peoples clung to their mother tongue. It is estimated around ten million people still speak it across five South American countries today. Without literacy, however, the language is vulnerable to extinction. Alvarez is on a mission to teach Quechuan speakers how to read and write in their native language by increasing access and availability of printed materials. The Quechua Alliance in the United States hosts an annual meeting as part of the effort to preserve the culture of the high Andes by expanding the availability of the Quechuan oral tradition. The video has English subtitles.

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Glaciers Feature Prominently at COP24 in Poland

From 2-14 December 2018, 197 countries gather in Katowice, Poland, for the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or better known as COP24. During these two weeks of negotiations, countries will attempt to finish what they started in Paris three years ago. In Paris, parties set 2018 as the deadline to come up with robust plans for their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which will include significant reductions in carbon emissions as well as an increased commitment to sustainable development.

Mountain countries are taking an active role in this year’s conference, and the impact of future warming scenarios on glacier melting, sea level rise, and mountain communities has been a prominent point of discussion throughout.

16 November 2018

Postcards created by over 125,000 children from around the world are compiled into a mosaic at the base of Switzerland’s Aletsch Glacier, spelling a message across the snow. “STOP GLOBAL WARMING #1.5 DEGREES C,” it reads, serving as a gesture to countries preparing for COP24. According to Swiss glaciologists at the University of Zurich, the Aletsch glacier, though currently the largest expanse of continuous ice in Western Europe, is receding at a rate of 12 meters per year, and it could completely disappear by 2100.

The quote references the findings of the IPCC Special Report, Global Warming of 1.5ºC, published in October 2018. In order to minimize the adverse impacts of climate change, the report urged limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius instead of the 2 degrees Celsius agreed upon in Paris three years ago.

3 December 2018

“We can’t afford to fail in Katowice,” says UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during his opening remarks at COP24. He thinks that public will to fight climate change has faded since Paris in 2015, and now climate change is “running away from us.” Notable climate change impacts detailed in the IPCC special report, such as increasing temperatures, sea level rise, and receding glaciers, are happening faster than we expected.

Speaking up for small states in attendance, Nepal’s President Bidhya Devi said that Nepal has “been bearing the brunt of disproportionate impact of climate change despite being a low carbon-emitting country… We feel as if we have been penalised for the mistakes we never made. It is incumbent on the international community to ensure that justice is done.”

4 December 2018

UNESCO, in partnership with the Norwegian GRID-Arendal Foundation, presents a new report, titled “Andean Glacier and Water Atlas: the impact of glacier retreat on water resources,” which details the consequences of glacier retreat on water availability and security for communities who depend on glaciers for drinking water, hydropower, agriculture, and other industries. Since the 1980s, when Andean glaciers were in a period of peak discharge, there has been less and less meltwater each year. This has huge negative impacts on communities who depend on glacial meltwater, and even more so during times of drought.

Precipitation trends suggest that snow cover will continue to decrease, along with temperatures rising 2-5 degrees Celsius in the tropical Andes and 1-7 degrees Celsius in the southern Andes. The report further estimates that even under moderate warming scenarios, low-altitude glaciers in the tropical Andes could lose 78 to 97 percent of their volume in the 21st century.

  • Peru, home to the largest number of tropical glaciers on the continent, has seen extremely rapid glacier retreat, with very few, brief intermittent periods of advancement.
  • Venezuela’s only remaining glacier will likely cease to exist by 2021.
  • Bolivia’s glaciers have lost more than two-thirds of their volume since the 1980s.
  • Colombia is also experiencing rapid glacier retreat; by 2050 the sole survivors will be the largest glaciers at the highest altitudes.
  • Ecuador’s glaciers have been subject to dramatic losses in the last 50 years.
  • Chile and Argentina are seeing accelerating melting among low-lying freshwater and tidewater glaciers in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.

5 December 2018

The World Health Organization (WHO) releases the COP24 special report: health and climate change. The report implicates anthropogenic climate change as the source of huge challenges for human health. The same industries who emit greenhouse gases, which warm the planet, are also responsible for emitting PM2.5, which harms human health. Within the public health and climate change conversation, glaciers receive a small but important cameo on black carbon. Black carbon, a by-product of inefficient combustion (from cookstoves, diesel engines, biomass, etc.) is second only to CO2 emissions in its global warming contribution. 

Not only is black carbon important on a global scale, but it also has impacts on regional climate systems. Black carbon works to accelerate glacier retreat in mountainous regions as well as the Arctic. As it settles, black carbon darkens a glacier’s surface, absorbing instead of reflecting heat, and inducing glacial melting.

Read more about black carbon on GlacierHub.

The Global Carbon Project reports that global CO2 emissions are projected to increase by 2.7 percent by the end of 2018. Following a brief stagnation in global CO2 emissions from 2014-2016, emissions rose by 1.6 percent. To limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (or briefly overshoot it and come back down), global emissions need to be drastically decreasing, not increasing, and at current levels the world will certainly exceed this threshold by 2030.  

7 December 2018

COP24 Side Event – Mountain regions moving towards carbon neutrality

This side event’s keynote speaker, Eric Nanchen, is the director of the Foundation for Sustainable Development in Mountain Regions (FDDM). His talk covered climate change impacts and vulnerability of mountain regions, in the context of laying foundations for sustainable development. He also discussed the Mountain Research Initiative’s #VanishingGlaciers campaign, which is also being promoted at COP24. Deputy Secretary General of the Alpine Convention, Marianna Elmi, discussed steps that Alpine countries are taking toward climate neutrality, for example, coming up with a climate target system for 2050. 

10 December 2018

Newly released maps from NASA indicate that a group of four glaciers on the eastern coastline of Antarctica have been losing ice over the last decade. Since 2008, these four glaciers, which are located just to the west of the massive Totten glacier, have lost about 9 feet of their surface height. Prior to these findings, East Antarctica was thought to be much more stable than its western counterpart.

11 December 2018

COP24 Side Event – International Mountain Day – Mountain adaptation: Vulnerable peaks and people

On International Mountain Day, UN Environment releases two reports: Mountain Adaptation Outlook Series – Synthesis Report, and its more regionally focused counterpart, Outlook on climate change adaptation in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. The same day, in an UNEP press release, Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director at UN Environment says, “Mountain ranges are extremely complex ecosystems home to some of the most marginalized and vulnerable communities. It is critical that we focus on helping these communities adapt to changing climate in mountain regions.”

The synthesis report begins by framing the importance of mountain ecosystems, which cover 25 percent of the Earth’s landmass, house 15 percent of the world’s population, and provide essential ecosystem services to over half the world’s population. The report then goes on to call mountainous regions the “frontline of climate change.” Mountainous regions are subject to altitude amplification, whereby warming at high altitudes actually occurs at a faster rate than the global average, much like it does at the poles. Almost every mountain in the world is seeing substantial glacier retreat, which impacts ecosystems all the way downstream. In addition, the steep, sometimes unstable terrain leaves mountain communities more susceptible to floods and landslides. The synthesis report strives to capture regional differences in primary risk factors, climate change impacts, and current policy gaps in order to identify potential adaptation measures for each region.

The second report specifically targets the Hindu Kush Himalaya, and is actually part of a progressive series which has previously covered other mountainous regions around the world. The Hindu Kush Himalaya are of particular importance because it is already one of the most disaster-prone regions on Earth. Further, the report states this region could warm upwards of 4-5 degrees Celsius by 2100. The disproportionate warming effects of climate change at altitude, coupled with increased severity of precipitation events and the high probability of natural disasters in Hindu Kush Himalaya all work in tandem to make the region even more vulnerable to global warming.

12 December 2018

Side Event – IPCC Special Report on 1.5 Degrees, NDCs and Cryosphere: Pathways for Both High Urgency and Ambition

This event was focused on the IPCC Special Report, Global Warming of 1.5ºC, and working within the emissions constraints set by the report to minimize any further damage incurred by positive global warming feedbacks such as sea level rise and other impacts on mountainous and polar areas. Discussion was focused primarily on how to incorporate cryosphere considerations into the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCS) for 2020 in order to minimize future risk and impact. 

During closing remarks for the COP24 High-Level Segment of the Talanoa Dialogue, the Secretary General makes note of three reports published in the past few days that “added to the long list of warnings signals.” Among them is the special WHO report on human health and climate change and NASA’s research showing signs of glacier melting in East Antarctica, which are both discussed above. He used these current events to show that we cannot ignore the rapidly accumulating effects of climate change, and to encourage countries to participate in successful policy-creation during COP24’s final days.  


The Future Disappearance of Quelccaya Ice Cap

Quelccaya is the largest tropical ice cap in the world. It is located in the Central Andes of Peru and has a summit elevation of about 5,680 meters. A recent study suggests that the ice cap might soon cease to exist. Researchers used climate data to examine the impacts of the different forcings to determine how imminent its future disappearance is, and to what extent human activity affects the timing.

About 99 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers are located in the Andes, with around 70 percent found in Peru. Glaciers in the tropical Andes are critical to the regional environment. Through runoff, they provide a much-needed water supply during the dry season. A future disappearance of Quelccaya Ice Cap (QIC) could mean significant changes to the ecosystem, impacts on tourism, and consequences to the culture and traditions of the local populations.

Snowy mountain peaks on the Andes mountains in Peru, surrounded by beautiful fluffy clouds.
Andes mountains in Peru (Source: Michael Mcdonough/Flickr).

Scientists used daily air temperature and snow height data to build projections of retreat at the QIC. Air temperature over the Peruvian Andes has increased over the last six decades, leading to greater retreat. Rising air surface temperatures are one of the major contributors to this retreat, although variations in precipitation and snowfall contribute as well. Meanwhile, El Nino and the South American Summer Monsoon can also impact QIC conditions, but on an interannual timescale.

The researchers also examined the different Representative Concentration Pathway scenarios (RCPs) that play a huge role in the future of tropical glaciers. RCPs are used in scientific modeling to provide temporal projections on greenhouse gas concentrations. These concentrations contribute to warming and have a great effect on glaciers. The rate of warming is typically amplified with elevation in many mountain regions due to elevation dependent feedbacks, which are explained further in the study.

Results of the research show that through anthropogenic and natural forcings, QIC loses mass at its front and base. This means that by around 2050, the ice cap could completely disappear. Even with a great reduction in greenhouse gas concentrations, results indicate that an eventual disappearance can be expected closer to the end of the century. The researchers further explained that these findings are consistent with observations of other glaciers in the tropics. We can look at glaciers in Bolivia, Colombia, and Venezuela, as they have also experienced accelerated retreat over the last decades.

Andrew Malone, a Visiting Assistant Professor at The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), told GlacierHub more about the shrinking of QIC and its impacts. “The largest impact would be on loss of water resources for communities both locally and downstream. In the short-term accelerated melting actually increases water resources. But as ice melts, that ‘stored’ water shrinks and shrinks, and at some point the glacier reservoir becomes so small that the total run-off contribution starts to decrease with time,” he said.

The melting of Qori Kalis glacier. The left is the glacier in 1978. Right image is from 2011, presenting a retreated glacier and the lake left from melt (Source: Bird Lai/Flickr).

Malone went on to explain that as glaciers melt, lakes form in their place. These lakes are dammed by glacial moraines, which are formed by buildup of falling dirt and rocks from melting glaciers. Moraines are not structurally sound. As ice falls off glaciers and into the new lakes, large waves  can form and flood the downstream landscape. Malone said that this has happened to the lake in Qori Kalis valley, and as a result livestock were lost with the flooding. Similar events can be expected to happen at QIC as well.

While there is much research and understanding of the glacial and environmental impacts of climate change, the human impacts should also be considered. GlacierHub spoke with anthropologist Gustavo Valdivia, who is currently doing research on the Andes. His research looks at the impacts of QIC glacier melt on the nearby community of Phinaya. This community relies on herding alpaca, selling alpaca wool for their livelihood; thus, they are very dependent on runoff waters to irrigate the pastures for their flocks. At present the Phinaya community benefits from the greater runoff, Valdivia said, but this abundance is not likely to last long. The livestock might also be at risk from flooding, as seen in Qori Kalis.

Alpaca from the Phinaya community of Peru (Source: Christian Aid/Flickr).

Valdivia added that there is a key difference between understanding and experiencing climate. Researchers understand the science behind glacial retreat and warming, but it’s the people who experience these changes. He highlighted the importance of building genuine communication with scientific information. As glaciers continue to melt, it’s vital to build connections to the people and communities who are affected, examining ways in which we can adapt to the changes in our climate and environment. Though each community faces climate change in a specific way, they are also part of a global process of change.

New Study Highlights Loss & Damage in Mountain Cryosphere

Few areas of the planet have been more affected by climate change than the mountain cryosphere, where negative impacts like glacier recession far exceed any positives like short-term increases in glacial runoff. These adverse changes make highland environments ideal for examining the policy concept of Loss and Damage (L&D), which deals with the impact of climate change on resources and livelihoods that cannot be offset by adaptation. A recent study in Regional Environmental Change analyzes L&D in the mountain cryosphere by extracting examples from existing literature on the subject and developing a conceptual approach to support future research to address the subject.

L&D has become an important issue within the international climate policy realm in recent years. In the mountain cryosphere, the effects of climate change and the resultant L&D are directly evident. However, despite the visibility of these changes, research on L&D has rarely focused on these mountain environments, says the study’s lead author Christian Huggel, who spoke with GlacierHub about his paper.

The dearth of research presented a unique opportunity for Huggel and his team to analyze L&D in the mountain cryosphere, to provide information to policymakers, and to create a framework for future research.

Photo of the Francis Glacier in Chile.
The Francis glacier in the Chilean Andes. The Andes had the most papers examined by the study (Source: Pieter Edelman/Creative Commons).

L&D work within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) first emerged around the impacts of sea-level rise on Small Island Developing States in the early 1990s, gaining further traction at the UNFCCC’s COP19 in Warsaw, where the Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts was established. Then in 2015, at the landmark COP21 in Paris, the Paris Agreement’s Article 8 was dedicated to L&D. Although this article acknowledges the importance of L&D, it also states that it “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation,” which is a serious limit to concrete action.

Despite the attention to L&D in international climate negotiations, significant controversy still surrounds the issue. Most of this controversy centers on the historical responsibility and potential liability of the developed countries for climate change impacts, with developing countries arguing for compensation, risk management, and insurance from the developed world.

Huggel told GlacierHub, “As the first systematic study of L&D in the Mountain Cryosphere, the researchers had to first frame existing literature on mountain climate change impacts within the concept of L&D.” To do this, they considered peer-reviewed literature published in English between 2013 and 2017 that dealt with issues of glaciers and climate change, and more specifically glacial shrinkage and permafrost degradation. Their search procured 41 papers for the final analysis.

Photo of the Ngozumpa Glacier in Nepal.
The Ngozumpa glacier in the Himalayas. The Himalayas had the second highest number of papers examined by the study (Source: Sebastian Preußer/Creative Commons).

They next considered the geographic distribution of these papers. Surprisingly, the majority of papers focused on the Andes and the Himalayas, while fewer focused on Europe and North America, despite better documentation of climate change effects in those regions. Overall, none of the papers explicitly mentioned L&D while highlighting glacial and climate change processes. Half of the papers focused on slow-onset processes, namely changes in river runoff and water availability, while a smaller subset focused on physical changes to landscapes due to glacial retreat and ecosystem changes.

The second biggest group of papers examined both slow-onset and sudden-onset processes. Finally, the smallest group of papers focused solely on sudden-onset processes, mainly glacial outburst floods (GLOFs), which can also be considered a combination of both slow and sudden-onset processes.

Next, the researchers grouped the socio-economic impacts found in the reviewed papers. These groups included cultural impacts, impacts to livelihoods, loss of productivity and revenue, loss of natural resources, loss of lives, loss of security and social order, and damages to property and assets. The group with the highest number of papers was damage to and loss of natural resources, followed by loss of productivity and revenue.

The timeframes for the impacts were also considered. More than half of the papers examined potential future impacts and often highlighted strategies to address them.

Chart of loss and damages by paper.
A graph of the relationship between the type of event and category of the L&D in papers examined by the study (Source: Huggel et al.).

A majority of the papers fell within the researchers’ avoidable L&D category, meaning they could be mitigated with the right actions. A smaller subset were categorized as unavoidable L&D, impacts that could have been prevented if the correct steps were taken, while only two papers were identified as avoided L&D. Some papers suggested that glacial retreat was unavoidable because of the delayed response of glaciers to climate change, meaning they will continue to shrink in the future even if mitigation measures are undertaken. Other papers, however, highlight that when comparing low-emission to high-emission scenarios, there is a discernible difference in glacial retreat; thus, it may be partly avoidable.

From their literature review, the researchers made several observations. First, they note the current disconnect between mountain cryosphere research and L&D, which indicates that the concept of L&D has yet to be analyzed and applied for these environments. Second, their study reveals that L&D in the mountain cryosphere is a worldwide phenomenon occurring in all major mountain ranges with a higher proportion of L&D in developing rather than developed countries. Third, they highlight the seven groups of L&D outlined above as particularly relevant to the mountain cryosphere. Out of these, the non-economic ones, of which five of the seven can be considered, have attracted attention in research and policy due to the loss of values associated with glacial retreat, such as community and self-reliance.

Finally, the researchers propose an analytical and process-based framework to understanding L&D in the mountain cryosphere, considering the driving physical processes, the secondary physical processes (slow-onset and sudden events), and the associated societal impacts. These three elements will help to foster an understanding of how L&D is “connected, driven, and caused by climate and cryosphere change,” in addition to the social, political, and economic factors.

Chart of the L&D Framework.
The L&D framework developed by the study highlights the cascading impacts of climate change on the mountain cryosphere (Source: Huggel et al.).

The driving physical processes in the framework are broken down into three elements: glaciers, snow, and permafrost, which are all primarily affected by the warming climate. The secondary primary processes are more numerous and include impacts such as GLOFs, losses of seasonal melt water, and ecosystem changes. Finally, the tertiary societal impacts include loss of lives, loss of natural resources and livelihoods, and loss of income, security, and social order.

This L&D framework highlights the cascading impacts in the mountain cryosphere. One illustration of this is glacial retreat leading to a reduction in water availability, followed by low agricultural yields which lead to a loss of income to farmers.

Overall, this study represents an initial advance of research and policy for L&D in the mountain cryosphere. The concepts and framework outlined in the study may well encourage future research on the subject and ultimately lead to policies to better manage L&D in the mountain cryosphere.

Photo Friday: The Changing World of South Patagonia

This Photo Friday, explore the massive South Patagonian Icefield. Along with its northern counterpart, this icefield makes up the largest expanse of ice in the Southern Hemisphere outside of Antartica, thanks to the regions favorable climate. When westerly winds traveling across the Pacific reach Patagonia they are lifted upwards by the Andes Mountains which cools and condenses the air, forming clouds and heavy precipitation.

Just how heavy? The western side of the Patagonia Icefields receive an astonishing 160 inches of rain and snow a year. While the eastern side receives less, as the moisture content of the air masses that rose on the western side is depleted, the area still receives a substantial 40 inches. When this precipitation falls as snow and freezes on the glaciers, it adds mass; however, in recent times, the glaciers in South Patagonia have retreated due to climate change. The Jorge Montt, for example, has retreated 13 kilometers between 1984 and 2014 and at the peak of its melting was thinning by 100 feet a year. Check out the images below of four expansive glaciers in Southern Patagonia from NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Aerial photo of the Jorge Montt glacier
The Jorge Montt Glacier, one of the fastest melting glaciers in the ice-field (Source: NASA Earth Observatory).


Aerial photo of the Upsala Glacier
The Upsala Glacier, one of the longest and largest in the ice-field (Source: NASA Earth Observatory).


Aerial photo of the Occidental glacier
The Occidental, Greve, and Tempano Glaciers. The Occidental glacier is an anomaly in that it has only retreated about a kilometer since 1980s (Source: NASA Earth Observatory).


Overview of photo of the southern Patagonia ice-field
The section of the Patagonia ice-field containing the three glaciers above. The boxes outline the respective glaciers (Source: NASA Earth Observatory).


The Struggle for Water in the Andes

A version of this post originally appeared in the University Post, University of Copenhagen, on May 17, 2018.

It is four o’clock in the morning on a Wednesday. The 25-year-old Peruvian man, whom we will call Jhonatan, closes the door to his small cabin, in which his parents also are beginning their daily chores. The cabin is located at 3,700 meters altitude in the Andes Mountains. Jhonatan begins his journey up the mountainside in front of him with a pickaxe on his back.

After a four hour hike in the chilly mountain air, he arrives at his final destination– the place where the canal splits in two. Jhonatan begins shoveling mud and stones from one of the two water passages into the other. Soon, the water changes its course, and Jhonatan’s work is done.

During the next eight hours, the water will find its way to Jhonatan’s fields. Then a new villager will have reached the canal to take his turn on shoveling mud and stones to the benefit of other fields in the local community. The water users in the community will keep taking turns every eight hours until it once again is Jhonatan’s turn to climb the mountain.

”They are poor but well-organized,” the young assistant professor Mattias Borg Rasmussen says. He continues, ”The amount of work they every day put into getting water to their fields and out of their taps is amazing.”

The Abandonment by the State

Rasmussen has followed two Peruvian village societies in the Andes Mountains in order to understand how they value water and claim authority over it. The love for Peru is clearly visible in his office, with Latin American maps and colorful tapestry on the wall. The enthusiasm began during a visit in 2001 and developed during his year as an exchange student in Peru in 2003 to 2004. It made him come back to do his M.A., Ph.D. and postdoc. Over the years, great changes have happened.

“In the 2000s, Peru experienced an enormous economic development. You could see how Lima changed as a city in the 10 years. More and more shopping malls and great restaurants appeared,” Rasmussen says.

Lake Palcacocha above the main city of Huaraz is drained using siphons to avoid Glacier Lake Outburst Floods. In 1941, a GLOF levelled Huaraz to the ground (Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen).

Not everybody in Peru enjoys the benefits of the economic growth. In the small societies in the mountains, Rasmussen witnessed a growing inequality. Still more than half of the children were chronically undernourished, and the villagers were on their own when it comes to the increasing difficulties to access and distribute water. Difficulties were exacerbated by the acceleration of melting glaciers in the Andes Mountains due to climate change. At first, the glaciers will create larger amounts of water streaming down the mountainside, but after a certain amount has melted, smaller amounts of water will be flowing downhill. The small mountain villages Rasmussen worked in have less water compared to before.

”They do not experience an equal and fair access to water… There is a lot more attention to meet other parts of the Peruvian society’s needs,” Rasmussen says. “There are great state-sponsored irrigation systems at the coast, which they know exist and they know how much money is spent on them. So they ask: why do we not get a share of this?”

The Peruvians in the villages said they were “abandoned by the state.” This abandonment combined with a “troublesome geography” makes Peru “one of the most vulnerable countries in the context of climate-change,” according to Rasmussen.

Adding Anthropology into a Scientific Calculation

As an anthropologist, Rasmussen belongs to a minority at the faculty of science at the University of Copenhagen. At the Department of Food and Resource Economics, he is part of an interdisciplinary group working on development issues in the global South. Here different worlds of academia intertwine and support each other. When talking about the effects of melting glaciers in Peru, Rasmussen cannot make complex calculations of glaciers, but still his knowledge is valuable in order to understand how people manage the water available. The management has great influence on the actual consequences of the melting ice. This sort of contribution is shown in an article he made with glaciologists.

”I think and hope that when we keep trying to explain and understand other peoples’ reality, we may be able to include them when we undertake new measures,” Rasmussen elaborates.

In the mountain villages, the small communities manage their water through systems of committees and commissions. Jhonatan participates in one of the area’s local committees in which he and other users of the canals collaborate to improve existing canals by, for example, cementing the ground of the canals to improve the water flow. The committees also organize the construction of new canals and collaborate on maintenance of existing ones.

A community member inspects the construction of a new irrigation canal (Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen).

“Every once in a while the users of the canal would meet up with bucket, shovel and donkey– ready to clean up the canal,” Rasmussen says. On top of the committees, Jhonatan is also part of the local commission in which 20 committees collaborate to get the largest amounts of water possible to the area. The immense collaboration emerges from cultural ideas.

”They have a very strong cultural understanding that water is a common good… They see water as life,” he says.

This is one of the reasons why the villagers feared the state would put prices on the water, as seen in Chile, for example. Knowledge on local ideas and thoughts is crucial in order not to let one perception of life (for example, a western idea of water as a resource with a price) rank above another.

“You start to erase other peoples’ lifeworld. You establish a hierarchy where our valuation of something is more important and valid than theirs,” Rasmussen says.

The Whole Family on a Field Trip

During his research in the Peruvian mountains, Rasmussen faced some challenges. “It is a hard place to work. It is not the easiest people to get on close terms with, it takes a lot of patience and attention,” he explains.

His toughest challenge, though, emerged far from the Andes Mountains. Rasmussen recalls the sacrifices on the home front during his three-month fieldwork in his postdoc when his oldest son was one year old. “There is no doubt that is my biggest challenge,” he says, referring to balancing life at home with long-term fieldwork.

But, it seems that he may have found a way to kill two birds with one stone. In 2017, Rasmussen took the family with him on his field trip to Argentina. The family had grown a member, and the eldest turned four during their stay. Apart from not being separated from the family, the family trip had another surprising bonus.

”I had my big boy with me in the field most of the days, where I was out talking with people. Because I had him with me, it was easier to talk with people because they could see what sort of character I was,” Rasmussen says. He continues, “If you come as a stranger to an unfamiliar place, people want to measure you to know what sort of person has arrived. To have my boy with me meant I already was shaped in a sort of familiar picture.”

In the future, Rasmussen might repeat the family-fieldwork success in Patagonia in Argentina, where his next project takes place. The subject is natural resources, and this time he and colleague Marieve Pouliot will focus on the resource conflicts with the local citizens on one side and national parks trying to control the resources on the other.

”It is a very good place to understand what kind of mechanisms– it can be legal, institutional or cultural– open up a region to extraction of natural resources,” Rasmussen explains. He says about his future hopes for his research on frontier dynamics, something which he has already written about with Christian Lund, “I want to do something larger on how Patagonia is made into a place favorable for extracting natural resources.”

Roundup: Religion, Economic Impacts, and Glacial Recession

Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Himalayan Rivers

From Environment Science and Policy: “In order to quantify the effect of climate changes on hydropower and fisheries, we developed an integrated assessment framework that links biophysical models (positive degree-day model, hydrologic model, run-of-river power system model, and fishery suitability index) and economic models. This framework was used to demonstrate the framework’s utility for gaining insights into the impacts of changed river flow on hydropower and fisheries of the Trishuli River in the High Mountain Asia (HMA) Region.”

Read more about the research here.

Langtang Valley, Trishuli River, Nepal (Source: Rameshjarvis/Creative Commons).


Climate, Earth and God

From World Development: “Based on fieldwork in agro-pastoral communities in highland Cusco, Peru, this study examines climate perceptions in terms of how local community members understand and explain changing climatic conditions… For example, Jurt et al. note that some residents attributed the retreat of nearby glaciers to the abandonment of traditional offerings to the mountains (or apus, which have a similar ontological status as pachamama in traditional Andean belief). Bolin suggests that in her study areas, also in the Cusco region, ‘some indigenous people have wondered what they have done wrong to deserve the wrath of the gods.’”

Read more about the research here.

Cayetano Huanca, Peru (Source: Oxfam International/Flickr).


Recession and Future Lake Formation on Drang Drung Glacier

From Environmental Earth Sciences: “Our analysis indicated that Drang Drung glacier shrunk by 13.84 percent from 1971 to 2017. Meteorological projections of temperature and precipitation were used to understand climatic changes over Drang Drung region. The snout of the glacier has retreated by 925 m since 1971 at the rate of 21.11 ma−1. However, the snout retreat radically accelerated since 2014 at 60 ma−1. Analysis of available satellite data suggested that the proglacial lake formed around 2014. The lake has expanded to 16.62 ha in 2017. ”

Read more about the research here.

Photo of the Drang-Drung Glacier
Mountain glaciers like Drang-Drung Glacier in Northern India are contributing to sea-level rise.

Photo Friday: Vicuñas in the Glaciers of the Andes

This Photo Friday, take a glimpse of the beautiful vicuñas and their habitats. Vicuñas are part of the camelids family and a wild relative of alpacas and llamas. Found only in South America, they usually roam the high alpine and chilly glacier regions of the Andes Mountains. The fur of vicuñas can be made into extremely fine wool and transformed into luxurious merchandise highly sought after globally. Yet, vicuñas can only be shaved once every three years. In fact, only Inca royalty were permitted to wear vicuña fur 500 years ago.

Vicuñas were so heavily hunted for their fur that they were declared an endangered species in 1974. Although there are an estimated 350,000 vicuñas left in South America, conservation programs such as Grupo Especialista en Camelidos Sudamericanos (GECS) are still present to protect the animals from poaching and loss of habitats due to glacier melt. Vicuñas are the national animal of Peru.

A close-up shot of a vicuña (Source: Rosario Nanetti/ Pinterest).


Vicunas at Chungara Lake in Chile, with the glacier-covered Volcan Sajama in the background (Source: Luca Galuzzi/Flickr).


A vicuna spotted near Chimborazo Volcano and glaciers in Ecuador (Source: David Torres Costales/Flickr).


Vicuñas seen in Torres del Paine National Park, located by the Patagonia glacier (Source: Escape/Pinterest).

Indigenous Communities and The Mountain Institute Awarded St Andrews Prize for the Environment

The Mountain Institute, Peru has won a major award for an innovative project to help mountain communities adapt to the complete loss of glaciers. The 2018 St Andrews Prize for the Environment was awarded on April 26 at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. The project successfully integrates indigenous knowledge from the highlands of Peru with modern technology to help local communities.

The Mountain Institute, Peru received the 2018 St Andrews Prize for the Environment (Source: St Andrews Prize for the Environment).

The prize was set up in 1998 and is managed and awarded by a panel of trustees with varying backgrounds and expertise. Individuals and teams from across the world submit applications for the Prize, which has gained international recognition. It comes with a cash prize of $100,000, which The Mountain Institute, Peru plans to use to expand its cooperation with communities in the Andes.

The project began in 2013 to assist communities in the Nor Yauyos-Cochas Landscape Reserve, about 200 kilometers east of Lima, affected by water scarcity. It illuminates the issue of glacial retreat, an increasingly prominent issue for mountain communities in the reserve, which sits 2,500 to 5,700 meters above sea level. The Andes lost 48 percent of its glacial ice since 1975. Many of the smaller glaciers have completely vanished, exposing desolate rocks and creating hardships for those that depend on glaciers for their water supply. The project’s solution captures rainwater with pre-Inca water management systems that have revived the local ecosystem and recharged aquifers.

The prize, given by the University of St Andrews in Scotland and sponsored by the oil and gas company ConocoPhillips, seeks to recognize initiatives that promote positive impacts on the environment and communities. Lord Alec Broers, chair of the St Andrews Prize for the Environment Trustees, called the project “exciting and different” in a statement, referring to its bottom-up approach.

The Nor Yauyos-Cochas Landscape Reserve features the puna landscape (Source: The Mountain Institute).

The partnerships with indigenous groups allowed communities to co-design the revitalization with The Mountain Institute, Peru. Ancient water regulating systems, such as reservoirs and irrigation canals, were reinstated. They date as far back as 1000 A.D. The hydraulic system, which had not been used continuously for five centuries, was abandoned after the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. Only now are they being recreated to harnesses the natural resilience of the puna ecosystem, which is comprised of wetlands, peatlands, and grasslands.

The project’s staff indicate that the increased soil and groundwater storage has led to gains in livestock productivity, greater food security, economic benefits, and improved richness and abundance of biodiversity. The result is a healthy puna ecosystem and surrounding community that is more resilient to climate change.

Local farmers from Nor Yauyos-Cochas working to restore their ancient water management system (Source: The Mountain Institute).

In his comments at the award ceremony, Jorge Recharte Bullard, director of the Andean Programme of The Mountain Institute, Peru, said the award is “recognition to the urgency to find solutions that, rooted in local cultures, secure mountain peoples’ water and livelihoods.”

“The communities there are dynamic, full of initiatives, and aware of their role in the stewardship of their environmental resources,” added Enrique Mayer, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Yale University who conducted fieldwork in the region. “All solutions have a local dimension first and a wider science accumulation of knowledge and expectations afterward,” he told GlacierHub.

The initiative is part of a larger project throughout the Peruvian Andes by the Mountain Institute, Peru, which also won the 2017 Solution Search “Farming for Biodiversity” contest in the “water impact” category. The Mountain Institute has worked for many years in the high Andes, and “deserves the prize and all the applause one can give it,” Mayer said.

For an earlier report on this project, before it received the St Andrews Prize, see this link.