Climate Change Increases Flood Risk in Peru

The rising danger of glacial lake flooding in a warmer climate has important implications for humans and animal populations in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. A recent study in CATENA by Adam Emmer et al. examined a large swath of nearly 900 high altitude Peruvian lakes in the mountainous Cordillera Blanca region, studying their susceptibility to outburst floods in light of modern climate change.

A variety of glacial lake sizes in the Cordillera Blanca (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

An outburst flood occurs when the dam containing glacial meltwater, usually comprised of either glacial ice or a terminal moraine (glacial debris lying at the edge of the glacier), fails. Glaciologist Mauri Pelto commented in the American Geophysical newsletter that the moraine dams are “just comprised of gravel, sand and clay dumped by the glacier” and “high water levels caused by upstream floods, avalanches or landslides can cause failure,” leading to major damage of the landscape. The team’s research elucidated that the incidence of glacial lake outburst flooding (GLOF) is increasing and the general distribution of alpine lakes is shifting upward in the region as temperatures warm. 

Knowing a lake’s size, configuration and type allows local water management in the Cordillera Blanca to be improved, according to Emmer et al. By mapping lakes with the classification of either moraine-dammed or bedrock-dammed, the team’s analysis can help local hydrological experts improve water management techniques for the changing distribution of alpine water. It also contributes to the scientific community’s overall understanding of ongoing environmental change.

A large, high elevation glacial lake lying before the high Andes (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

By studying the Cordillera Blanca region’s alpine lakes through a combination of remote sensing (high resolution aerial imagery and measurements) and field observations, Emmer’s team categorized 882 lakes by their size and altitude, ultimately referencing their findings with historical data to observe water redistribution over the last 60 years. Emmer et al. established that glacial lakes had expanded in size and number at higher elevations and disappeared at lower elevations since the 1951 study by Juan Concha in the same region. This finding confirms that environmental change and glacier retreat are strongly correlated in the high alpine.

Results from the analyses showed that from 1948 to 2013, lakes that remained in already deglaciated areas tended to be resilient and generally maintained water levels throughout the 65-year examination. Moraine-dammed lakes in particular resisted disappearing despite glacial retreat, suggesting that bodies of water dammed by materials other than ice were more adaptable to recently warmer temperatures. 

The team also noticed that despite the recent resiliency of moraine dammed lakes, glacial lake outburst flooding was caused predominantly by these dams in the early portion of the Cordillera Blanca’s glacial retreat, in the 1940s and 1950s. Flooding in more recent years has occurred in bedrock-dammed lakes. Although glacial lakes were recorded to have shifted from 4250-4600m in the late 1940s to predominantly above 4600m today, no statistically significant trend was established relating outburst flooding to any particular elevation.

A research team gathered at the waters edge (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

In order to reduce the risk of flood damage in local communities, Emmer et al. suggested continuous monitoring of young, developing proglacial lakes, using extensive flood modeling and outburst susceptibility assessments to account for future changes in the glacier. Understanding that the melting of glaciers is accelerating in a warming world, the need for more intensive local efforts in response to the threat of flooding is apparent.  

The Peruvian government has responded to high lake levels in the mountains of the Cordillera Blanca by “building tunnels and concrete pipes through the [weakest] moraines to allow lake drainage to safe levels,” according to Pelto. The government then rebuilds the moraines over the drainage system to strengthen it. By incorporating the monitoring techniques suggested by Adam Emmer, the government has the opportunity to manage and stay ahead of the flood risk as temperatures continue to rise. 

Glacial lake outburst flooding is hardly unique to the Peruvian landscape. This December, the Kathmandu Post illuminated the growing danger of GLOFs as the Nepalese Dhaulagiri Glacier recedes, creating a hazardous environment in the Mt. Nilgiri region. Researchers at the Chinese Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment also established a strong link in Tibet between rising temperatures and glacial melting, contributing to more frequent and larger glacial lakes than in the past 50 years. With the growing number of alpine lakes and increased temperatures, ice dams are highly fragile and prone to failure.

A variety of landscapes exist at different elevations in the Peruvian Andes (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

Emmer et al.’s study offers an interesting evolutionary perspective on the state of the Cordillera Blanca. The study’s publication illustrates that even the planet’s most dramatic, seemingly unchangeable environments are plastic under the force of global climate change. The redistribution of alpine glacial lakes across the world’s mountainous regions indicates that the risk of outburst flooding should not be taken lightly. The team’s suggestions for future monitoring, to either mitigate the flooding hazard in populated regions or coordinate adaptation efforts, further illustrates the gravity of the situation. Although the risk of outburst flooding has only been studied in specific locations, the changing state of glacial lakes is already quantifiable and may be an effective proxy for monitoring the future extent of global warming.

Roundup: Cold War waste, glacier retreat, and “glacier quakes”

Cold War Waste Buried Beneath Melting Greenland Ice

Nuclear power plant at Greenland's Camp Century during the Cold War (Source: US Army)
Nuclear power plant at Greenland’s Camp Century during the Cold War (Source: US Army)

From Scientific American: “When the U.S. military abandoned Camp Century, a complex of tunnels dug into the ice of northwest Greenland, in the mid-1960s, they left behind thousands of tons of waste, including hazardous radioactive and chemical materials. They expected the detritus would be safely entombed in the ice sheet for tens of thousands of years, buried ever deeper under accumulating layers of snow and ice.”

“But a new study suggests that because of warming temperatures that are driving substantial melting of the ice, that material could be exposed much, much sooner—possibly even by the end of this century—posing a threat to vulnerable local ecosystems.”

Read more here.

Researchers manipulate Andean stream to mimic glacier retreat

Antisana Ecological Reserve in Equador, where the study took place (Source: Stefan Weigel)
Antisana Ecological Reserve in Equador, where the study took place (Source: Stefan Weigel)

From Nature Communications: “Glacier retreat is a worldwide phenomenon with important consequences for the hydrological cycle and downstream ecosystem structure and functioning. To determine the effects of glacier retreat on aquatic communities, we conducted a 4-year flow manipulation in a tropical glacier-fed stream. Compared with an adjacent reference stream, meltwater flow reduction induces significant changes in benthic fauna community composition in less than 2 weeks. Also, both algal and herbivore biomass significantly increase in the manipulated stream as a response to flow reduction.”

Read the full study here.

“Glacier quakes” causing a stir in Alaska

Hundreds of small seismic events have occurred in an area near Pothole Glacier. From the Alaska Earthquake Center
Hundreds of small seismic events have occurred in an area near Pothole Glacier. From the Alaska Earthquake Center

By KTUU: “Earlier this summer, the scientists at the Alaska Earthquake Center began monitoring a swarm of small earthquakes in an area about eight miles west of Mt. Spurr. According to State Seismologist Dr. Michael West, they probably aren’t earthquakes at all…The Alaska Earthquake Center worked with the Alaska Volcano Observatory and largely ruled out volcanic activity. That left glaciers as the most likely explanation.”

“Most ‘glacier’ quakes are caused by large icebergs calving into water. West says some of these can be felt hundreds of miles away. Glaciers can also cause the ground to shake from crevassing, grinding against the underlying rock and pieces falling off ice falls.”

Learn more here.

In Argentina, Tensions Remain Between Mining and Glacier Protection

A recent article “Defending Glaciers in Argentina” in the journal Peace Review, written by Asmaa N. Khadim, explores the history of one of the world’s largest mining companies, Barrick Gold Corporation, and its conflict with Argentina’s environmental protectors. Many of its mining projects are in proximity to glaciers, which are a crucial water source for local residents.

Argentina mining (Credit: Wikimedia)
Argentina mining, province of San Juan (Credit: Wikimedia)

In recent years, to bolster its economy, the Argentine government created incentives to attract foreign capital to invest in mining, which includes lower royalties, favorable foreign investment laws, and a competitive tax regime. But it has not always paid attention to environmental issues.

Many multinational companies want a share of Argentina’s natural resources, like Barrick Gold, Strata, and Meridian Gold, all which have invested heavily in the country’s mining industry. Many of their gold mining operations lie in the Andes, and this region is considered to be one of the most important gold and silver districts across the world. However, many ore deposits lie near glaciers. This location creates risks of water pollution and of mismanagement of water resources, including groundwater. Mining operations could also create soil and air pollution in these settings.

The Perito Moreno glacier in southern Patagonia
The Perito Moreno glacier in southern Patagonia (Credit: Wikimedia)

Two particular projects, Veladero and Pascua Lama, in this region have caused many of the disputes, because of their proximity to numerous glaciers high in the Andes. These two projects are run by Barrick Gold Corporation, a Canadian company. The Andes are environmentally sensitive, not only because it is home to massive glaciers, but also because of the significance of glaciers as a source that contributes to Argentina’s water supply.

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission released the paper Our Common Future defining sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This paper reframed the vision of environmental rights, which led many countries, including Argentina, to add environmental protection to their constitutional frameworks.

In late 1990s, local environmental organizations saw the risks of mining development in the Andes. They started to press the Argentine government for a law to protect glaciers. As the paper in Peace Review recounts, “The first bill was approved by Congress in 2008, but was subsequently vetoed by President Cristina Fernandez on the basis of economic development arguments.”

Later, in September 2010, a new version of the glacier protection law, the National Glacier Act, was ratified by the Argentine senate. The role of this law is to act as an inspector to identify areas that require protection. This law faced significant resistance from mining companies. The companies allocated funds to lobby legislators to oppose the  bill. They also paid for nationwide advertising campaigns which opposed this bill and its enforcement. Jorge Daniel Taillant, an Argentine researcher, has documented these efforts in his book Glaciers: The Politics of Ice.

As a result of the pressure from powerful mining companies, a federal court judge suspended the implementation of the 2010 glacier protection law within the province of San Juan, where many mining projects are located. It was not until 2012 that Argentina’s Supreme Court overruled this decision and restored the application of the law to this province.

Environmental law in Argentina (Credit: Wikimedia)
Environmental law in Argentina (Credit: Wikimedia)

The tension between mining interests and environmentalists has become more severe as the mining projects continue. Mining brings negative impacts on ecosystems and  biodiversity, water quality, and human health. Khadim describes how Barrick Gold Corporation has hired private security and pressured local provincial police to repress the environmental organizations. Violence and riots have resulted.

It remains a question whether the 2010 law will protect glaciers and water resources. “While constitutional entrenchment alone may not be sufficient to achieve the protection of environmental rights, it appears to be a core foundational step upon which an effective regulatory system may be built,” Khadim states. The outcome of this conflict will have consequences not only in Argentina, but in other areas of the world, such as Central Asia, where mining companies seek to expand into environmentally sensitive mountain areas with glaciers.


A Glacier Makes a Cameo on ‘Madam Secretary’

Glaciers made an unusual appearance on a primetime American television network last month: the television series Madam Secretary aired an episode whose plot involved a conflict between mining interests and an transnational public over the fate of a glacier in Chile.

Téa Leoni plays Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord in the series. Credit: CBS.
Téa Leoni plays Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord in the series.
Credit: CBS.

The show, on CBS, stars a fictional Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord (played by Téa Leoni). In “Higher Learning,” Secretary McCord is pulled into a conflict sparked a hemisphere away when protesters bar an American mining company’s trucks from entering an indigenous heritage site in the Andes. Viewers learn through protesters’ shouts that the miners intend to extract gold that lies beneath the glacier at the site. The miners planned to dig through the glacier to access the gold, and the opponents of the operation say this will destroy the glacier.

The mining company is American, and has a contract with the Chilean government. When an American employee is injured by a protester, the company calls on the State Department to ensure the safety of its workers.

The Secretary attempts to intervene on behalf of the company by negotiating with the Chilean government to shut down the protests. The issue hits her agenda just as she is preparing to leave on a trip with her daughter Alison to visit the fictional Rafferty College, which Alison hopes to attend. Stopping by the office, where she is briefed by her team of four staffers, she points out that she understands the protesters’ perspective, saying, “It’s not surprising that people would object to moving an entire glacier to dig the gold out.”

Mountain glaciers in Magallanes Province, Chile, where the protests are set. Credit: Neil Moralee, Flickr.
Mountain glaciers in Magallanes Province, Chile, where the protests are set in the episode. Credit: Neil Moralee, Flickr.

An advisor, Jay Whitman, played by Sebastian Arcelus, also points out that the whole affair has “a strong whiff of neo-colonialism.” However, the White House Chief of Staff pressures her to respond to the mining company’s interests because the company is based in the home state of a potential ally of the president. Furthermore, the mining company has a legal contract to extract the gold, so the Secretary is left in the position of having to try to protect their right to operate.

The story takes another twist when the Secretary arrives at the college campus she is visiting with her daughter and is confronted by a group of vocal students who demand justice for the Chileans and for the environment. The students jumped on the issue when the media picked up the story of a solo protester who began a hike up the glacier saying he will reach the top to pay tribute to the glacier one last time, or die trying.

GlacierHub has covered controversy over mining in glaciated areas, for example when state-owned Codelco proposed expanding Chile’s largest copper mine in 2014. The expansion, which Codelco announced would continue, albeit with some redesigns, requires major operations near glaciated territory and the removal of six glaciers. The company initially claimed that there would be little environmental damage. Greenpeace responded to Codelco’s move by declaring Chile’s glaciers an independent “Glacier Republic.” This move was a sign of protest against the failure of the state to protect glaciers. Also, in Kyrgyzstan, the Kumtor gold mine’s operations has threatened glaciers and water.

As these stories show, the episode of Madam Secretary is fairly realistic in its depiction of geopolitical issues. We see how transnational politics play a role in resource extraction. We also see how a Secretary of State uses political channels, leveraging US trade policy in a conversation with the Chilean ambassador, who she calls on to shut down the protests. At the same time, we see the human aspects of this political role, as the Secretary follows the Chilean protester’s hike and handles the confrontation with students on the campus who seek to protest injustice.

A protester demonstrating against gold mining in Chile in 2005. Credit: David Boardman, Flickr.
A protester demonstrating against gold mining in Chile in 2005. Credit: David Boardman, Flickr.

As the protester continues on his hike, he is lost in an avalanche. The mining company and the Secretary discuss workarounds including the use of an independent monitor group to supervise the operations and the possibility of mining the glacier from a site at a lower elevation, which would avoid destroying it. After this hike put the spotlight on the conflict, reports point out that the Chilean government has violated its own laws by granting indigenous lands to a mining interest. The mining company decides to abandon its plans (it finds another site in Argentina) and the protester is rescued.

The episode can be watched for free online for a limited time, here.

Central Chile’s Valleys Irrigated by Glacial Waters

Glaciers are an important factor for the success of agriculture in valleys in Chile. According to a recent study in the International Journal of Water Resources Management, the presence of glaciers at high elevation is one of the distinguishing factors that led to different degrees of agricultural development through irrigation among four valleys in Chile.  More glaciers were present in the higher peaks of the Andes, which are located to the east of the valleys they studied.

The study region in central Chile, with the Andes to the east and the Pacific to the west. Credit: Google Earth .

Author Peter Frederiksen documented the expansion of irrigation and changing land-use patterns in the valleys through in-person and archival research between 2000 and 2014. The study looked at the Petorca, La Ligua, Putaendo, and Aconcagua valleys of Central Chile, which is a major fruit-growing region. The southernmost valley, the Aconcagua Valley, had the greatest water resources, measured in streamflow, while the northern valleys had less. The difference was correlated with altitude, which allows for the presence of glaciers, and a larger catchment area, Frederiksen writes.

5178631212_c58e87029f_o (1)
The Aconcagua valley, with a snow-tipped Andean peak in the background. The river at the valley floor is the source of irrigation. Credit: Robert Cutts/Flickr

More water meant greater development of new fruit orchards, since irrigation was aided by the availability of surface water. While irrigation and fruit plantations expanded in all four valleys during the 14 years, there were differences in the amount of irrigation and the patterns of water use and allocation, with Aconcagua Valley having the most expansion of agriculture.

In addition to studying changes in patterns of natural resource availability and agricultural development, Frederiksen shows that who controls water and land resources has changed with globalization. He found, through interviews with local residents and stakeholders, that large companies and wealthy individuals are the main developers of new irrigation. The pressure of new irrigation increases the demand on water resources, and Frederiksen documents how development plans for fruit export led by wealthy and powerful influences outmatched water management groups that had self-organized.

Looking to the future, Frederiksen identified two trends that will impact irrigation development: climate change and the continued expansion of water resource development. Increased heat in the Andes will melt glaciers, which have already been retreating over the 20th Century. While snowpack is the main contributor to streamflow, glaciers become more important to water supply during dry years, such as La Nina years, when precipitation is usually low. Glacier meltwater thereby reduces the year-to-year fluctuations in water supply.

The government plans to meet the growing needs of fruit irrigation with future dams, improvements in irrigation including canals and use of drip irrigation, and harvesting of groundwater. But if glaciers melt and precipitation decreases, these steps might not be enough. Frederiksen writes, “The two opposite tendencies – the policy and plans for continued irrigation development, and climate change – define uncertain futures.”

Plum orchards in a region to the south of the study area. Credit:

Frederiksen’s study is motivated by the need for “wise, intelligent, and informed strategies” for bringing together water institutions and agents with the goal of protecting water resources, in the face of challenges including climate change, globalization, and development of water resources in more parts of the world. The study puts forward a model for understanding water resource development that is useful, Frederiksen writes, in overcoming confusion and barriers to implementation in water resource management.


Roundup: South American Glacial Research Efforts

Glacial and Social Model of Chilean Irrigation

“The model showed how external influences (globalization, climate, mountains) and complex adaptive systems (water conflicts, institutions and markets) influenced the evolution of irrigation development (the extension and emergence of novel properties) towards constructive (planned irrigation development) and destructive (climate change) futures… The model showed how external influences (globalization, climate, mountains) and complex adaptive systems (water conflicts, institutions and markets) influenced the evolution of irrigation development (the extension and emergence of novel properties) towards constructive (planned irrigation development) and destructive (climate change) futures.”

Glacier-fed watersheds such as this, fed by the Dickson Glacier in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile provide water for irrigation. Credit: John Spooner/Flickr.
Glacier-fed watersheds such as this one, which is fed by the Dickson Glacier in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile, provide water for irrigation. Credit: John Spooner/Flickr.

Read more about the story here.


Managing Water Resources in Peru’s Glacial Catchments

“Water resources in high mountains play a fundamental role for societies and ecosystems both locally and downstream…Our integrative review of water resource change and comparative discharge analysis of two gauging stations in the Santa and Vilcanota River catchments show that the future provision of water resources is a concern to regional societies and must be factored more carefully into water management policies.”

The Vilcanota River in Peru. Credit: Vlad Karpinskiy/Flickr.
The Vilcanota River in Peru, which is featured in the study. Credit: Vlad Karpinskiy/Flickr.

Read more about the story here.


French Lead International Collaboration in Andes

“The IRD [French Institut de Recherche pour le Développement] funded the international GREAT ICE (Glacier and Water Resources in the Tropical Andes: Indicators of Changes in the Environment) program in 2011 to strengthen glaciological studies in the tropical Andes; promote collaborative projects between Andean institutions in glaciology, climatology, and hydrology; and develop education and student training programs with local universities.”

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, one of the research sites of the GREAT ICE program. Credit: Stuart Rankin/Flickr.

Read more about the story here.

Peru Faces Tensions Over Water

Pastoruri, Peru. Image by Taco Witte/Flickr
Pastoruri, Peru. Image by Taco Witte/Flickr

Peru will face a “new normal” as greater agricultural and energy demands, population growth and climate change chip away at what is left of its glaciers, according to a recent article in the Yale Journal of International Affairs. Glacial retreat could ultimately lead to conflict in the country, the author found.

“Peru offers an early view of the challenges mountainous regions worldwide may face in coming decades,” wrote Peter Oesterling, the author. “The country—if successful—may also provide the world a model for effective policies to mitigate threats to environmental and human security.”

For people in Peru, glaciers are the essence of their existence. Most people live on the west coast, an arid region, and rely on glacier meltwater for day to day use, crops, hydroelectric power and mining. But since the early 1980’s, Peru’s glaciers have shrunk by more than 22 percent. Further loss could lead to increased risk of flooding and water scarcity as well. Already, seven out of nine watersheds in the Cordillera Blanca are already past “peak water,” meaning that the glaciers have passed the upper limit of melt water they can release.

At the same time, water demand in Peru is on the rise as water security dwindles. The population is projected to grow by 35 million by 2020, which will put pressure on the country’s existing land and water resources. Millions of households rely on the  Cañon del Pato hydropower plant on the Rio Santa, but as water availability declines, the plant could lose 40 percent of its power generating capability.

The country’s mining industry also consumes a great deal of water. Eleven percent of Peru’s land is being mined for minerals. In addition to using water for mineral extraction, mining releases contaminated water back into the watershed.

View to Tocllaraju Summit, 6036m. Photo by Twiga269/Flickr
View to Tocllaraju Summit, 6036m. Photo by Twiga269/Flickr

“Peru’s trends in water use and supply are incompatible,” wrote Oesterling. “Glacially-fed rivers are already at emergency levels—insufficient for the country’s agricultural and hydroelectric demands during the dry season.”

The result has been socio-environmental tensions in the country, which have roots in the country’s history. Peru’s government historically cut indigenous communities off their land and limited their access to water resources for the sake of economic development. Still now local populations are dis-empowered and unable to take part in any decision making processes on their land even though they are the first to suffer from water contaminated by mining. Oesterling discusses a protest in which angry villagers blocked a major highways for several days, even though they were physically attacked by police, in order to bring attention to the concerns over pollution from mines.

To prevent future conflict, the country will need better regulatory processes that shifts the responsibility of environmental impact assessments away from private companies and into the hands of government bodies, said Oesterling. Existing regulatory government bodies could also benefit from being strengthened.

“With a sound response that addresses clean water access, environmental protection, and public participation in resource allocation decision-making, Peru can mitigate the effects of glacial recession and acclimate to new environmental realities,” he concluded. “Yet—much like Peru’s water supply—the time for effective action against glacial recession is dwindling—and quickly.”

Photo Friday: The Snow Star Festival

In the Peruvian Andes, tens of thousands of pilgrims climb to the Sinakara valley to participate in an annual, multiple day celebration – Qoyllur Rit’i, or the Snow Star Festival. Held under a waning moon, the festivities are surrounded by the looming glaciers of Mount Qullqip’unqu. The Catholic festival celebrates not only Jesus, but also the mountain gods that indigenous  South Americans worshipped before the adoption of Christianity.

Photographer Timothy Allen had the rare opportunity to document the annual festival, which was originally featured on BBC here.

[slideshow_deploy id=’5910′]

Thanks to Timothy Allen for giving us the permission to use his photos. He can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Instagram.


GlacierHub posted a previous article about the Snow Star Festival that examines the effects of glacial melt on the festival’s traditions, as well as the origins of the festival. Check it out!

Roundup: Black Carbon, Winds, and Supraglacial Lakes

Light-absorbing Particles in Peru


“Glaciers in the tropical Andes have been rapidly losing mass since the 1970s. In addition to the documented increase in temperature, increases in light-absorbing particles deposited on glaciers could be contributing to the observed glacier loss. Here we report on measurements of lightabsorbing particles sampled from glaciers during three surveys in the Cordillera Blanca Mountains in Peru.”

Read more here.

Winds on Glaciers


“We investigate properties of the turbulent flow and sensible heat fluxes in the atmospheric surface layer of the high elevation tropical Zongo glacier (Bolivia) from data collected in the dry season from July to August 2007, with an eddy-covariance system and a 6-m mast for wind speed and temperature profiles. Focus is on the predominant downslope wind regime.”

Read more here.

Supraglacial Lakes in Central Karakoram Himalaya


“This paper discusses the formation and variations of supraglacial lakes on the Baltoro glacier system in the Central Karakoram Himalaya during the last four decades. We mapped supraglacial lakes on the Baltoro Glacier from 1978 to 2014 using Landsat MSS, TM, ETM+ and LCDM images. Most of the glacial lakes were formed or expanded during the late 1970s to 2008. After 2008, the total number and the area of glacial lakes were found to be lesser compared to previous years.”

Read more here.


Climate Change Adaptation is Key to Water Security

A significant research gap may be hindering community efforts to withstand climate-induced glacier melt, according to a new review from researcher Graham McDowell and his colleagues at McGill University.

Understanding how to help communities adapt to the effects of glacier melt, which threatens water sources for communities worldwide, will require deeper assessments of existing projects, the review found. A research agenda should focus on assessing different adaptation measures to better inform policy and community projects in the future.

The glacier region in the Lewis Range, Glacier National Park in the U.S. state of Montana, Source: Flickr
The glacier region in the Lewis Range, Glacier National Park in the U.S. state of Montana, Source: Flickr

Glaciers are key water sources in mountain areas, especially in South America and South Asia. More than 72 million people live in mountain regions, and large proportions of these populations reside in glaciated regions. Without glaciers, the livelihoods and health of communities worldwide will be threatened, but the issue is not well understood. Only 36 studies of adaptation projects have been published. In total, studies document 74 adaptations, mainly in Peru, India and Nepal, though the lack of research in this area suggests the number of existing adaptation plans may be greater than researchers have studied.

Almost 50 percent of documented adaptation plans are driven by a need to cope with the repercussions of climate change. Adaptation plans differ depending on how communities living near glaciers make their livelihoods, whether they are in ski towns in the European Alps or subsistence agrarian communities in the Himalayas and Andes.

Country-level distribution and count for documented adaptations, Source: Graham McDowell et al/Climatic Change
Country-level distribution and count for documented adaptations, Source: Graham McDowell et al/Climatic Change

McDowell found that most of the work on adaptation in glaciated regions comes from academic institutions, while NGOs and governments contribute much less. 50% of the projects in the papers which McDowell et al. reviewed concentrated in agricultural sector, followed by hazard management (31%), tourism (26%), water management (24%) and public health security (19%).

McDowell’s assessment suggests that adaptations to climatic changes are frequently embedded within responses to other socio-economic, political, and environmental challenges. To address these challenges, autonomous adaptation without government help at local scales may be especially important in often-remote glaciated mountain regions, where 58 % of adaptation initiatives were at an individual, household, or community scale, and 46 % were categorized as being autonomous, the review found.

Communities in need

South America, which holds more than 99% of the world’s tropical glaciers, is particularly vulnerable to global warming.

As climate change converges with human activities in glacier-filled mountains, the degradation of high Andean ecosystems is accelerating. These glaciers, which provide drinking water and sustain rivers, are crucial to water supply in South America and are used for agriculture, hydroelectricity and industry such as agro-exports and mining. At the same time, there are growing concerns that the rainy season will bring a higher risk of flooding, even if climate change leads to seasonal drought in the region. Facing abnormal rainfall, local farmers have to adapt to avoid economic loss.

Unavoidable glacier melt will severely reduce water supply in a continent that is already water-poor. In Peru, 8.9 million people live in rural areas and 3.3 million currently don’t have access to safe portable water. Around 3 million people, most of them children, die each year related to disease linked to consumption of contaminated water.

In order to provide more safe potable water, people are now trying to build large public facilities, such as reservoirs to store drinking water. However, microorganisms such as E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter are a concern as studies show increased temperatures favor conditions under which these microorganisms thrive.

A research agenda that addresses projects that can help communities adapt to the cascading effects of climate change is becoming increasingly urgent as the lives of millions come under threat.

For more information about adaptation in glacier areas, look here.

The Chameleon Glaciers

Figure 1: Glacier Noir in the French Alps on 20/08/2014.
Figure 1: Glacier Noir in the French Alps on 20/08/2014.

Can you spot the glacier on the picture above? Not that easy… Glacier Noir is a debris-covered glacier located in the French Alps. Contrary to clean-ice glaciers which are shiny white or blue ice masses, debris-covered glaciers are ice masses with a layer of rock debris on the top which makes them look like their surrounding environment: they are the “chameleon glaciers”. They are currently called debris-covered glaciers but in the early 2000s, you could hear “debris-mantled glaciers” and even “buried glaciers” in the 1960s. They are often confused with rock glaciers. There are a lot of names and confusion around debris-covered glaciers. Why? Simply because they are difficult to find, define and study as you can imagine from the picture above.

Debris-covered glaciers represent around 5% of all mountains glaciers in the world. So why is it important to study them – there are many more clean-ice glaciers, aren’t there? Yes, debris-covered glaciers are a small fraction of all glaciers but like any other glacier, the melting of debris-covered glaciers contributes to sea level rise and there is currently huge uncertainty about how fast they melt compared to clean-ice glaciers. In addition, in the Himalayas, they make up a greater proportion of the glaciers and in many valleys, debris-covered glaciers are the main and often the only source of drinking water, like for example the famous Khumbu Glacier just below Mount Everest on the Nepal side.

Figure 2: Mount Everest area in Nepal with Khumbu Glacier and the other important glacier: Ngozumpa Glacier. The proportion of debris-covered glaciers in this zone speaks for itself.
Figure 2: Mount Everest area in Nepal with Khumbu Glacier and the other important glacier: Ngozumpa Glacier. The proportion of debris-covered glaciers in this zone speaks for itself.

Some debris-covered glaciers, like the Tasman Glacier, the biggest glacier in New Zealand, are very large features that can be the origin of risks and hazards. The debris layer creates numerous ponds filled with meltwater on the surface of glaciers. These ponds can hold monumental volumes of water that can be suddenly and brutally drained through crevasses in the ice or a breach on their edge. This drainage can create an outburst flood and submerge the valley below.

Figure 3: Top: Close up of the Khumbu Glacier tongue. Beneath each arrow there is a pond. Bottom: One of the numerous ponds on surface of Glacier Noir.
Figure 3: Top: Close up of the Khumbu Glacier tongue. Beneath each arrow there is a pond. Bottom: One of the numerous ponds on surface of Glacier Noir.

Debris layers on top of glaciers can come from rock falls, like for the Sherman Glacier in Alaska. This rock cover modifies the dynamics of the ice by slowing down the melting happening underneath. This insulation process creates various phenomena, like thickening of the ice under the debris, building hills of ice slowly moving down the glacier or advancement of the glacier’s tongue. These two phenomena can block or deviate water streams and again generate massive floods.

A less obvious reason to study debris-covered glaciers is that if glaciers on Mars exist, they are debris-covered. So studying debris-covered glaciers on Earth can contribute to space conquest and the human adventure on Mars. In the same vein, studying current debris-covered glaciers and their behavior in the face of climate change can help us understand and interpret the climate of the past. There is an example of a potential misinterpretation of the Waiho Loop moraine in New Zealand in front of the Franz-Joseph Glacier: 12000 years there was a worldwide cooling event (called Younger Dryas) that might have led to the formation of the very large moraine of Waiho Loop. Or, a massive rock avalanche landing on Franz-Joseph Glacier triggered its advance and the deposition of the moraine.


I’ve already described a few examples of debris-covered glaciers: Glacier Noir, Khumbu Glacier, Tasman Glacier, Sherman Glacier and maybe Franz-Joseph Glacier. But where else can you find debris-covered glaciers? They can actually be found in every mountain range: from the Miage Glacier (Italy) in the European Alps with  to the Inylchek Glacier (Kyrgyzstan) or Langtang (Nepal) glaciers in the Asian High Mountain; from the Black Rapids Glacier (Alaska) in the Rocky Mountains and the Dome Glacier (Canada), to the Andes with Grosse and Exploradores glaciers in Patagonia (Chile). There are debris-covered glaciers even in Antarctica in the Dry Valleys, such as the Mullins Glacier.

Figure 5: Where to find debris-covered glaciers
Figure 5: Where to find debris-covered glaciers

So understanding debris-covered glaciers is an international problem. This is my final reason to study them. I study debris-covered glaciers and their past, present and future evolution. I focus more on glacier-wide aspects like length, surface area and volume change to model their future behavior.

They do not make up a large number, but debris-covered glaciers are important. In the face of climate change, debris-covered glaciers may be the last standing glaciers, as their evolution is slower. But at the current pace, they will still end up like all other glaciers: ice chunks melting in the sun…


About Pierre

Pierre is a PhD student at the Centre for Glaciology at Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK (started 2013). His Earth Sciences Master degree from the University of Grenoble, France and his 4 years as a surveyor in the National Institute of Geographic and Forestry Information (IGN) drove his research interests toward field observation techniques, remote sensing and glacier-wide digital modeling. His current project is entitled “Predicting the effect of climate change on debris-covered glaciers evolution”.

Find Pierre on the net:

Twitter: @PierreEtLaGlace

Google+: +PierreLARDEUX

Facebook: pierre.lardeux31

Blog: Ice & Rock

University Profile:

Project page: Predicting the response of debris-covered glaciers to climate change


New Report Addresses Mountain Sustainability

A major new report provides a thorough summary of research and an innovative discussion of development efforts in mountain regions. This report, titled ‘Mountains and Climate Change: A Global Concern,’ was published in December 2014 by the Mountain Partnership as part of the UN Sustainable Mountain Development Series. The Mountain Partnership is an international organization, dedicated to sustainable mountain development, which partners with the United Nations.

Sheep grazing below Mt. Huantsán in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen
Tropical Andes: Sheep grazing below Mt. Huantsán in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen

The report was developed for the 20th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP20), which was held in Lima, Peru, in December 2014. Integrating a variety of perspectives from researchers and practitioners, the report synthesizes and analyzes adaptation-mitigation strategies and relevant policy recommendations about climate change vulnerabilities in the mountain regions in order to understand problems and solutions. These together seek to define and understand both the problem space and the solution space for sustainable mountain development globally world-wide. Case studies on glaciers presented in the report cover the mountains of the Alps, the tropical Andes, the Himalayas, the Carpathians of Eastern Europe and Kyrgyzstan.

One of these case studies reports on historical and current changes in the tropical Andes. It finds that smaller glaciers have been retreating relatively faster than larger glaciers. It includes projections for the 0°C mean annual isotherm (the altitude at which the average temperature is at the freezing point of water) so that glaciers may be maintained. This isotherm, also known as the freezing level, may move upslope by hundreds of meters by the year 2100, leading to increased melting and glacier retreat. The report suggests that precipitation patterns over the Andes are stable and will not raise water scarcity concerns, but rising temperatures at higher altitudes will increase evaporation and lead to water deficiencies.

This short 2012 World Bank Video ‘Melting glaciers: The Slow Disaster in the Andes’ provides an overview of impacts of changing climate on Andean water

The Carpathian region in Europe, discussed in a second case study, is home to a long mountain range with relatively fewer and smaller glaciers. These mountains are also facing impacts from climatic changes. At the Fourth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Carpathian Convention (COP4) in 2014, strategies for adaptation to climate change in this region was adopted. Some of these recommendations include developing funding mechanisms including a plan for compensating mountain areas for the service and goods they provide, building  knowledge hubs and platforms for sharing information.

A glacial peak in Tatra National Park, Slovakia, in the highest section of the Carpathians (Source: Peter Fenďa/ Flickr)
A glacial peak in Tatra National Park, Slovakia, in the highest section of the Carpathians (Source: Peter Fenďa/ Flickr)

Temperatures during the summer have shown an increase in the Carpathian region, contributing to melting, even though winter temperatures remained relatively unchanged. The report suggests that in the last 50 years, precipitation over this mountain region has overall been more intensified and displays a spatially varying “mosaic pattern” which has anomalous increase in few locations and decrease in others. These changes have been attributed to the effects of a pattern of increasing localization of storms. The report calls for further studies to describe processes that affect glacier retreat and to reduce the uncertainties in projections, and it places high priority on the regional capacity building and financial investment in the region.

A Himalayan Avalanche (Photo:Flickr)
A Himalayan avalanche (Source: Pavel Matejicek/Flickr)

This report reasserts with higher confidence findings in earlier documents such as “Mountain glaciers are key indicators of climate change” and “Glacier changes are the most visible evidence of global climate change we have.” It underscores that retreating glaciers are modifying the regions’ hydro-climatology, and this change is in turn causing a cascade of hazards such as landslides, glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), and rock falls. The report recommends sustaining mountain economies through integrated risk management and water management approaches incorporate participatory governance and decision making. It stresses that most mountain ranges are found in developing countries, but that the bulk of the responsibility for climate change lies with developed countries. Finally, the report highlights the importance of including glaciers and mountain climate change in the United Nation Development Programme’s Post-2015 Development Agenda and in Sustainable Development Goals which will orient global development efforts in coming decades. In this way, the report serves not only as a synthesis of prior research but as a guide for future action.