Down to Earth: A New Vocabulary for Climate Justice from Bruno Latour

How are we to inhabit a world ravaged by the Modern? To Bruno Latour, the triple crises of climate change, migration, and rampant social inequality share a common root: the increasing concentration of value in fewer hands. He describes the global elite’s realization since the 1990s that the fruits of modernity cannot extend to all humanity on this finite and degraded planet, and their decision to betray their fellow humankind along with all species of Earth. The elite chose to accelerate processes driving the crises for short-sighted personal gain. So, how do we exist in this place, this outcome of that decision? Latour argues we must “come down to earth,” radically rethinking how we orient ourselves in the world and through discovery of how our existence is tied to others. We must (re)consider with whom we will share resources and create “dwelling places.”

Climate Justice and the Modern

We see a resonance between Latour’s diagnosis and critique from climate justice activists of uneven, unjust, and ecologically devastating global development. While the language differs, the climate justice movement in its variegated guises also urges us to critically and compassionately rethink both the distribution of impacts and benefits of the processes driving climate changes, and the wider relationship between humans and the world in which our existence is embedded.

Mt Huacaran seen from cultivated fields at Shecllapata (Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen).

Latour rehearses a familiar argument: the Modern is an artefact of our times, an outcome of particular historical moments. Because it relies on a distinction between Nature and Society, a separation between humans and their surroundings, the Modern has been a driving force in Earth’s exploitation. The current crises make it all too obvious that such a conceptualization can no longer be sustained. Instead of seeking to return to an illusionary Local or Tradition— as the opposite of the Global or Modern— Latour suggests that we reorient our mode of dwelling toward the “Terrestrial”: that we become rooted in soils, places, and networks.

But what does such a rooting look like, far from the Burgundy soils of Old Europe where Latour crafted his reply to the current state of affairs? What of the many who have never been part of the modernization project? Our own work in Peru and Tanzania has taken place among communities far from mainstream modernization. Modernity— in the guise of colonial masters or post-colonial extractivist or development States— was never really about them. The vanishing glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca in Peru and the few remaining patches of ice on Mt. Kilimanjaro link in intimate and culturally specific ways to local lifeworlds and social imaginaries. Their destruction stand as the expression of how the Modern operates both as a horizon of development and as a force, which crushes dwelling places in the Latourian sense. The sharp edge of modernization falls on these communities in ways that disrupt rooted networks. It is here that the extraction of capital N “Nature” enables Modern, or imperial, modes of living in the global north.

Epistemologies of the Critical Zone

This extraction and the acceptance— or indifference— to its devastating consequences are themselves enabled by an epistemological regime that has come to be associated with the Modern. Objective, external, and disinterested knowledge, as opposed to subjective, situated and sentimental. This is what allows climate scientists to dryly remark, “Oh well, the planet will be fine,” when discussing our global environmental predicament. Through removing ourselves from Nature, seeing it from a distance and observing the slow increment in global atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses, we remain unaffected. This, Latour argues, is why we need to reorient our thoughts about knowledge and science— to take seriously knowledge that allows for affect and politics.

A view of the mountain Qeullaraju in Tanzania (Source: Jens Friis Lund).

When climate scientists measure stream flows or ablation rates, complex processes are distilled into numbers, which travel well between locations. Flows measured in cubic meters per second or recession rates measured in meters per year communicate a particular version of reality, which hinges upon a problematic separation between an external world and human beings. The point is not that we should throw science away. The project is not one of becoming less knowledgeable about the world, but to allow for that knowledge to take root and become anchored in places and networks. To understand the world in a different way, we need sciences that are positioned differently. We cannot understand and therefore, we cannot remedy climate change if we do not understand nature as a process in which we are enmeshed, and one which in itself requires that we confront different kinds of knowledges. To Latour, the sciences of nature as process— which, for our specific concerns, would include glaciology and hydrology— cannot assume a “lofty and disinterested epistemology,” but must be prepared to exist in a world of controversies.

The aim is for science and politics to be able to link social struggles to ecological struggles. In a world of dependencies, where different beings, actors, and agents are interconnected in systems of engendering, the distinction between nature and society becomes impossible to uphold. Latour is interested in the diagnosis of major diplomatic events: the Paris agreement in 2015 and President Trump’s later withdrawal from it that reveals that climate is being re-politicized. To the people that we have been working with in the Andes and Tanzania, the struggle to connect ecologies and politics, to connect other forms of agencies and beings, is real and everyday. To learn about their way of being terrestrial could reveal other ways of thinking about engendering connections in the Critical Zone, that thin layer which can sustain life on our planet.

A possible convergence

Plowing a field, with Huascaran in the distance, Peru  (Source: Kate Dunbar).

Down to Earth” is a provocation. It invites its readers to become terrestrials, to assess their needs, wants and desires, and how these conflict with the needs, wants and desires of others. It sketches out a possible exit-plan, a way of thinking economic, social and ecological relations in new ways that are attentive to our presence and entanglement in the world. But if this is to become more than a linguistic exercise on where we would like to land and with whom we would like to share, we need a different kind of commitment. We cannot trust the apparent forces of self-organization of the terrestrials, which might be implied. As Latour himself identifies, global elites are becoming ever more efficient in hoarding resources for their own good. Surely, their needs, wants and desires run counter to those of most other beings, human and otherwise. Our horizons have ceased to be shared.

Whose attention is Latour then seeking? Surely not the many people who mobilize climate justice discourse and vocabularies across the planet, struggling to stave off extractivism and other projects of ‘development’ that tend to enclose or destroy local environments while siphoning value. They have found— and are actively defending— their place and those with whom they share it, against the forces that drive the triple crises of climate, migration and ravaging social inequality. Latour’s analysis of a triple crises with a common root is familiar to many of these activists who share the view that the planet is not able to shelter modernization. It is also not likely a text directed at the people who are turning toward the local out of a feeling that the Modern is passing them by. Rather, Latour is seeking the attention of people like us, the upper middle classes of what has been called “the West” who have to a large extent benefitted from the Modern, demanding that we declare our allegiance to the terrestrial and join the struggles of those seeking to defend it. This book may open up a space for a productive dialogue. It is perhaps no coincidence that “Down to Earth” was released within days of the latest diagnosis of our time by Bill McKibben in The New Yorker, entitled “How Extreme Weather is Shrinking the Planet.” The climate justice movement and Latour have a shared analysis, if not language, and both invite us to engage in the struggle of our time.

 

 

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Inequality, Climate Change and Vulnerability in Peru

Agriculture is the most affected activity by hydrological changes (Source: Musuq/Flickr).

Local communities in the Andes are dependent on water resources from glaciers and precipitation for their agricultural activities. Unfortunately, climate change has made these mountain populations highly vulnerable to alterations in the hydrological cycle. A recent study by Anna Heikkinen of the vulnerability of small-scale farmers in Ancash, Peru, suggests that climate change is just one of several factors placing pressure on farmers; rather, a collection of socio-political and economic factors are the main cause of vulnerability.

The research, published in the Iberoamericana – Nordic Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, measured the vulnerability to climate and hydrological changes of local communities along the Quillcay River basin, situated in the city of Huaraz in northern Peru. The river originates in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, which preserves the largest reserve of tropical glaciers in the world. Meltwater from glaciers is a major source of water for the communities located throughout the region. Additionally, as indicated in the study, rain contributes to the river watershed during the rainy season, which starts in October and ends in March.

The author investigated the relationship between glacier retreat, changes in rainfall patterns, and socio-economic elements on vulnerability in the region. For the research, she used mixed methods: a qualitative and a quantitative assessment. For the qualitative aspect, the researcher interviewed local authorities and 16 small-scale farmers about their perceptions of climate change and external supports. For the quantitative part, she analyzed statistical data of harvested areas, the value of agricultural products, and the growth rate of local population. The results of the quantitative method were then compared to the qualitative findings to endorse the results from the qualitative evaluation.

According to the research, water in the river has diminished as a result of a shorter rainy period and reduced glacier melt. Moreover, during the wet season, there are heavy and less continuous rains than what was observed decades ago. These findings were further supported by Junior Gil Rios, a water resource management specialist at the Peruvian National Superintendence of Sanitation Services, who told GlacierHub that it has been estimated that the rainy season has been reduced from six to three months, running from December to February.

“This does not indicate that it rains less,” he said. “The precipitation intensity has increased.”

The Valley of Quebrada Cojup in Huaraz. Several of the mountains that surround the valley have already lost their snowpack (Source: Anna Heikkinen).

Rural populations are highly vulnerable to these alterations in rainfall patterns and changes in the water level of the Quillcay river due to glacier melting because the main economic activities of these communities are small-scale agriculture and cattle production. As access to potable and irrigation water is limited, crops are impacted and income levels have fallen.

Javier Antiporta, a researcher at the regional NGO CONDESAN, told GlacierHub that local residents in the Quillcay river basin rely on glaciers as a main source of water. The accelerated glacier retreat and water scarcity represents a danger for the communities. In addition, variations in precipitation patterns have changed the crop seasons and reduced the agricultural area.

However, Heikkinen, the author of the study, told GlacierHub that climate change itself does not make these populations vulnerable, as it is often claimed.

“The vulnerability of population in the Quillcay River Basin has existed long before,” she said, noting other factors such as historical marginalization, transformations in political-economic structures, and globalized market forces.

The research points out that government officials, who were interviewed for the study, consider major socio-economic issues like education, technical agricultural knowledge, lack of political entitlement, and other problems as leading contributors to vulnerability and development.

“In the rural highland regions access to education, health care or social services is often limited, and therefore, rates of school attendance are low and illiteracy, malnutrition or infant and maternal mortality high,” Heikkinen explained. “Poverty levels in the rural highland regions are also relatively higher than elsewhere in Peru. People who already live in deprivation, not having the economic assets or other capacities to adapt, are the ones who are the most vulnerable to climatic changes.”

The majority of the population in the Quillcay River Basin are native Quechua speakers. Their main economic activity is small-scale agriculture (Source: Anna Heikkinen).

She further indicated that for smallholders in the rural highlands, it has become difficult to compete with the large-scale farming industry. Smallholders produce fewer crops and have higher production prices, higher transportation costs, more challenging climate circumstances, less access to modern irrigation technologies, and less knowledge in modern seeding techniques, for example.

“The challenges posed by climatic changes only make their situation worse,” Heikkinen said. “The options for other sources of income for highland farmers are very limited considering the long traditions of small-scale farming and limited access to education to be trained for other professions.”

The study revealed that in order to adapt to these changes, locals are seeking alternative livelihoods, constructing canals and irrigation systems, and diversifying their crops. Educated populations have the strongest adaptation capacities to climate changes, but the majority of the locals do not have access to education. To sustainably eliminate vulnerability, policies should aim for structural changes to reduce the inequalities between rural highland residents and other sectors. For example, policies should provide equal opportunities for political representation, promote greater autonomy in decision-making, improve infrastructure, and give fuller access to agricultural markets.

“These kinds of policies would create more possibilities for local people to be able to influence development, such as building roads, bridges, water management systems and schools of the region, and most importantly to have more equal opportunity to receive income and accumulate assets in order to to build capacities themselves to mitigate vulnerabilities as glaciers retreat,” Heikkinen said. The most important adaptation measure would be to transform the current social, political and economic structures to promote sustainable development to reduce the vulnerability of Andean local communities to climate change.

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Glacial Retreat and Water Impacts Around the World

The availability of water under ever-increasing climate stress has never been more important. Nowhere is this more apparent than in glacial mountain regions where runoff from glaciers provides water in times of drought or low river flows. As glaciers retreat due to climate change, the water supplied to these basins will diminish. To better understand these hydrological changes, a recent study published in Nature Climate Change examined the world’s largest glacierized drainage basins under future climate change scenarios.

Photo of a glacier in the Pamir Mountains
A glacier in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia where some of the largest runoff changes are projected to occur (Source: ‏Nozomu Takeuchi‏/Twitter).

Expansive in scale, the study differentiates itself from previous research that assessed the hydro-glacier issue at more localized scales like specific mountain ranges, for example. This study analyzes 56 glacierized drainage basins on four continents excluding Antarctica and Greenland. The basins examined were selected based on their size: they needed to be bigger than 5,000 km2, in addition to having at least 30 km2 of ice cover and greater than 0.01 percent of total glacier cover during the chosen base period of 1981 to 2010.

The motivation behind the study’s global scale, the first ever completed, according to Regine Hock, one of the study’s authors, is that “at a local scale you can only cover a fraction of the glaciers/catchments that may be relevant.” She told GlacierHub that while there are advantages to local studies because they can be more detailed and accurate, the advantage of a global study is that spatial patterns across regions can be identified and analyzed.

In order to calculate changes in glacial mass and accompanying runoff, defined as water that leaves a glacierized area, the authors utilized the Global Glacier Evolution Model to simulate relevant glacial processes including mass accumulation and loss, changes in glacial extent, and glacier elevation. The glacier model was driven by three of the IPCC’s Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP). These are future greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration scenarios based on different socio-economic pathways. The RCP’s chosen by the authors were the 2.6 scenario, which they note is the most similar to the 2015 Paris agreement, the 4.5 scenario where GHG concentrations stabilize by 2100, and the 8.5 or “business-as-usual” scenario where GHG concentrations continue to increase past 2100.

Aerial photo of the Susitna Glacier of south-central Alaska.
The Susitna Glacier of south-central Alaska, which feeds the Susitna river basin, is not expected to reach peak water until the end of the 21st century. The vegetation appears red due to the wavelengths used by the satellite (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Creative Commons).

How do these three scenarios impact glacial volume in the study’s glacierized basins? After running the glacier model, total volume was projected to decrease in all three with a decrease of 43±14 percent for the 2.6, 58±13 percent for the 4.5, and 74±11 percent for the 8.5, respectively.

A decrease in glacial volume will in the short term mean an increase in water for a basin as runoff increases, that is until the point of “peak water,” where the amount of glacial runoff begins to decrease as glacier volume declines. Distressingly, peak water has already been reached in 45 percent of the basins examined in the study including most of the Andes, Alps, and Rocky Mountains.

Three factors— total glacial area, ice cover as a fraction of the basin, and the basin’s latitude— influence the timing of peak water occurrence in a basin. Basins with many large glaciers at higher latitudes like in coastal Alaska were projected to reach peak water near the end of the century whereas basins closer to the equator with small glaciers like the Peruvian Andes have already experienced or will soon experience peak water. Furthermore, the Himalayas are projected to experience peak water around mid-century as their high elevation tempers the effect of their relatively low latitude.

Map of peak water occurrence across all studied basins.
Time of peak water occurrence in all of the studied basins (Source: Huss & Hock).

The study also examined changes to glacial runoff on a monthly timescale for the years 2050 and 2100, focusing specifically on the melt season from June to October in the Northern Hemisphere and December to April in the Southern Hemisphere. The monthly results showed spatial consistency, which surprised the authors, according to Hock, with runoff increasing in almost all basins at the beginning of the melt season (June/December) and decreasing toward the end (August and September/February and March). Another unexpected finding was the significant reduction in overall runoff, up to a 10 percent decrease by 2100 in at least one month, in basins with very low glacial cover, a phenomenon that was observed in a third of the basins, Hock added.

It is important to remember that these changes in basin runoff mean more than just changing numbers and statistics: there are people and communities that rely on water provided by glaciers. The authors note that 26 percent of the Earth’s land surface is covered by glacierized drainage basins, impacting a third of the world’s population.

Photo of a glacier in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru.
A glacier in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. Basins of the Peruvian Andes are especially at risk to climate change as many have already reached peak water (Source: Dharamvir Tanwar‏/Twitter).

The ramifications of glacier retreat will not be felt equally across the basins observed in this study. When asked what regions are most at risk, Hock identified both the Andes and Central Asia as places of concern. In the Andes, runoff is decreasing in almost all basins. This is of particular concern due to the limited water resources of the South American west coast. In Central Asia, glaciers contribute to basin runoff in all months, leading to potential problems if runoff is significantly reduced.

These regions, along with other glacier reliant places, face an uncertain and atypical water future, one that will likely see an increase in glacial runoff, followed by a sharp decline.To prepare for these forthcoming challenges, further study is needed, particularly with a focus on the human dimensions of glacial retreat.

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These Indigenous Communities are Models for How to Adapt to Climate Change

This op-ed originally appeared on WashingtonPost.com and was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post. 
The Quillcay River in 2011. Rocks have turned reddish-orange from iron from exposed rocks once covered by glaciers (Source: D. Byers/WashingtonPost.com).

When the poisoned river ran red with heavy metals, people from nearby communities didn’t believe at first that climate change was to blame. In this small village nestled in the Cordillera Blanca, a majestic mountain range that contains several of the highest peaks in South America, the glaciers melted and metal-rich rocks were exposed to the air for the first time in thousands of years.

The glacial meltwater washing over the exposed rocks carried metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and iron into area waterways, turning rivers like the Rio Negro a rust red. This contaminated both soil and water and posed a significant health risk. Over time, people, wildlife and livestock who drank the water became sick, and crop productivity plummeted.

As headlines of global climate change become more alarming, it’s easy to forget that climate change is also an intensely local problem. Startling statistics announcing that the snowcaps of the Andes or Alps will disappear before the end of this century conceal the fact that hundreds of smaller glaciers in these mountain ranges have already melted away, leaving a trail of devastation and threatening thousands of families’ way of life.

In Peru, the government conducted a national inventory in 2013 and found that between 1970 and 2003, the 19 Peruvian mountain ranges with glaciers lost around 40 percent of their total ice surface. Some very large glacier ranges have already lost a third of their perennial ice, and some smaller glaciers no longer exist at all.

Maps of the Nor Yauyos Cochas Landscape Preserve in Peru (Source: A. Zimmer/WashingtonPost.com).

Silently, climate change has started to leave a trail of disasters in these mountains, and that has consequences for major lowland cities that rely, knowingly or not, on mountain ecosystems for food and water, agriculture and livelihoods. In a place like Peru, climate change adaptation begins in the mountains. And alpine communities are scrambling to find ways of adjusting to a new reality.

In the remote mountain villages around the Rio Negro, that adaptation effort took a curious and innovative form. To restore the poisoned river water and contaminated landscape around it, villagers collaborated with scientists from the Mountain Institute and with academic specialists. With training, they built a water purification system that collects the acidic river water in small ponds. Then, using local traditional knowledge, they planted native plant species that could absorb metals from the water.

Involving the communities on the front lines of climate change in this way is vital to finding concrete solutions to local problems; the open dialogue and collegial relationship with the scientists empowered the local community, sparking a palpable sense of pride in both local traditions and scientific solutions to complex climate problems.

And it wasn’t the only time traditional knowledge helped restore a landscape degraded by climate change.

The Wacra Glacier vanished, leaving only dark rocks. The peak was once covered in thick ice (Source: The Mountain Institute/WashingtonPost.com).

In the Nor Yauyos-Cochas Reserve of central Peru, Guadalupe Beraun, a wise and respected grandmother from the small village of Canchayllo, was showing me around the parched pastures where her sheep and cattle used to graze. The mountain peaks towered darkly above us. A small glacier called Wacra used to glisten there, a blinding white against the dark mountain and blue sky beyond. But year after year, it receded, finally disappearing completely around 1990.

Once the glacier was lost, the wetlands started drying up, and sheep and cattle had to be moved down the mountain to pastures that still had a few ponds. Wild vicuna, a relative of llamas, also had to migrate elsewhere. I asked Guadalupe what these drastic, local changes have meant to her. She paused and said, “It’s changed my whole way of life. When I walk here now, I long to see vicuna in the grasslands, like before. I used to sing to them to show my happiness and gratitude to this place.”

Where Guadalupe lives, people have relied on glacial meltwater to supply their alpine wetlands and grasslands, known as the puna, for as long as anyone can remember. The puna ecosystem extends from around 13,000 feet to 16,000 feet, a belt of pastures above the tree line and below the glaciers. Traditional ways of making a living at this high altitude rely on a healthy ecosystem. Villagers raise sheep, cattle and alpaca and also sheer wild vicuna for their valuable wool. Local farmers grow native potatoes and lesser-known tubers such as oca, olluco and mashua as well as corn, quinoa, broad beans, squash, fodder crops and much more. Their food and water security has always depended on glacial meltwater.

Guadalupe Beraun in the Nor Yauyos-Cochas Reserve of central Peru in 2013 (Source: E. Segura/The Mountain Institute).

As glaciers receded, dozens of villagers like Guadalupe left their highland pastures years ago and began to over-exploit grasslands at lower elevations. But those pastures, too, were only going to last a few years. Locals were well aware that the puna would continue to degrade, livestock would suffer, and the ecosystem itself would eventually collapse. A more permanent solution — a sustainable adaptation to climate change — had to be found.

Together with scientists from the Mountain Institute and the National Agrarian University in Lima, villagers from Canchayllo and nearby Miraflores planned a “back-to-the-future” solution. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, they chose to honor their ancestors’ impressive engineering by restoring ancient, local infrastructure that was used to regulate water in the puna.

The water management systems developed in ancient Peru involved a set of technologies designed to slow or retain water in high alpine territories. The purpose was to keep water available for use as long as possible in the dry season. These ancient systems included dams and reservoirs of different sizes, irrigation canals and large silt traps that kept soil from being eroded in years of intense rain. They also encouraged wetlands to develop. The excess soil in these silt traps could be “harvested” and used in terraces in warm valleys below the puna.

Wetlands in Nor Yauyos-Cochas Landscape Reserve (Source: E. Segura/The Mountain Institute).

Pre-Inca civilizations in the Andes maintained highland pastures with water technologies that slowed the movement of water through grasses and soils and provided a buffer against flooding and drought. Local wildlife flourished. A steady supply of water supported lush pastures and livestock, who in turn provided manure, used as fertilizer for corn, tubers, hard grains and the hundreds of potato varieties that are native to mountain valleys in the Andes.

Over the centuries, most of this infrastructure was abandoned. Today, older villagers only remember some of the locations and uses. The social and demographic collapse of indigenous cultures after the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1532 helps explain why these ancient socio-technological systems decayed. In more recent times, glacier retreat, changes in precipitation, loss of local labor and shifts away from traditional herding and farming practices have all contributed to the abandonment of this infrastructure and the degradation of the puna ecosystem.

But that’s starting to change. Villagers and scientists worked together to restore some of the ancient canals, and the wetlands began coming back to life. Cattle and sheep graze once again in revitalized highland pastures. The approach once again produced a strong sense of pride that traditional knowledge was being used to enable the community to become more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Guadalupe Beraun (middle) stands with other high-mountain villagers beside one of the ponds restored by a revitalized canal in 2013 (Source: A. Gomez/WashingtonPost.com).

The disappearing glaciers of the tropical Andes are our preview of what climate change has in store for mountain communities as well as the millions of people in lowland areas whose livelihoods depend on high-elevation ecosystems. We must prepare in our own regions by following the lead of these mountain people and learning from them as agents of change. We should pay close attention; mountains near the equator are our canary in the coal mine. They are the Earth’s thermometer — an early indicator of a planetary fever.

I am hopeful and inspired by the mountain communities that live at the foot of receding glaciers. Their creativity, tenacity and resilience come from their deep trust in nature and their kinship with the mountains that surround them. They can teach all of us how to start adapting to a future without glaciers.

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Water Access and Glacial Recession in Peru

The glaciers of the Peruvian Andes have long served as a key water reserve in a region where precipitation patterns are highly seasonal and vary greatly from year to year. However, the retreat of these glaciers because of climate change threatens to alter the balance of water resources. A new paper detailing this transformation titled “Glacier loss and hydro-social risks in the Peruvian Andes” was recently published in the journal Global and Planetary Change and has attracted interest from others including the Mountain Research Initiative.

Diagram depicting connections between biophysical and social processes (Source: Mark et al.).

GlacierHub spoke with Molly Polk, one of the authors of the paper, about its findings. Dr. Polk was in contact with three of her eleven co-authors, including Bryan Mark, Kenneth Young and Adam French, all who helped provide feedback to GlacierHub. Their paper examined the effects of glacial retreat on water resources based on the results of long-term research on water access and its impacts on hydro-social risks in Peru. The research focused on how water in the Andes connects both biophysical and social processes to evaluate regional vulnerability to hydrological changes caused by retreating glaciers.

Research for this collaborative project grew in scale and focus over time, according to the authors. In the beginning, the project focused on the impacts of glacial retreat on rural livelihoods within the Santa River watershed near Huaraz, Peru. The initial results pointed to the importance of coupled hydrological and social systems in the region. From there, the project received an award from the National Science Foundation enabling the formation of an interdisciplinary team of eleven researchers with extensive experience in Peru.

The team focused on two areas: the Santa river watershed, which drains the Cordillera Blanca, the most glaciated tropical mountain range in the world, to the Pacific, and the smaller Shullcas River watershed, east of Lima, which drains the Mantaro and Ucayali rivers before joining the Amazon River. Both areas contain mining operations, agricultural regions, and hydroelectric stations, making them ideal to study the impacts of glacial retreat through the lens of biophysical and social processes

Map of Peru detailing the two watersheds examined in the study (Source: Mark et al.).

Biophysical Processes

Both watersheds have experienced substantial losses in glacier mass in recent years. Observations of the Cuchillacocha glacier in the Santa watershed, for example, show the glacier’s surface area retreated from 1.24 km2 to 0.82 km2 and lost a volume of 0.02 km2, equivalent to a 10-m lowering of the glacier’s surface, from 1962 to 2008. Notably, the authors found their volume-change analyses showed a 37 percent greater loss in glacial mass than what could be projected using surface area measurements alone. These analyses could infer that the region’s glacial water reserves have been overestimated.

Land cover changes within the watersheds were also found to be an important proxy for monitoring glacial retreat. As glaciers recede the bare ground they leave behind is colonized by plants, changing hydrologic flows. This “greening” of land cover causes lakes and wetlands below glaciers to expand during the peak of the melting and shrink thereafter. By analyzing this expansion and shrinkage, the authors were better able to evaluate glacial recession and its impact on water recourses.

Molly Polk and field assistants taking a peat sample in Huascaran National Park within the Santa River watershed (Source: Kenneth Young).

Social Processes

To assess the social aspects of water access and glacial retreat, the study first evaluated the perceptions of local water users regarding water availability finding that perception varied across time and space. Most surveyed users perceived declining water availability during the dry seasons, with the greatest awareness of declines among users in areas with the least glacial cover and least awareness in areas with high glacial coverage.

The diversity of water users in the study area was also found to be an important aspect of water accesses and availability. Rural households use water for agriculture and livestock, usually relying on springs and glacial-fed streams. Recent expansion of mining within the watersheds has increased water demand as well as contamination risks. Survey results indicate local residents have negative opinions of mining operations and their effects on water quality and availability. Further downstream, growth in large-scale irrigation for agriculture and hydroelectric production divert large quantities of water from the watersheds. This growth has fostered the development of large water infrastructure projects to meet water demands, like multiple irrigation projects, for example, that divert water from the Santa river for agriculture along the arid Peruvian coast.The authors note that while this infrastructure is economically important, it is also at risk to natural disasters such as earthquakes and weather variability, most notably the El Niño Southern Oscillation that threatens water access.

Water governance in a region experiencing economic development and urban population growth should be a key social priority, but formal action has yet to develop. New watershed management processes were developed in 2010 but failed to take hold due to intra-regional and inter-regional political problems, according to the authors. This lack of governance has led to water scarcity during the dry season and conflicts over water between users. Attempting to remedy the situation, the state has tried to formalize water rights, but this led to differing opinions, with small-scale water users fearful of privatization and large-scale users arguing that water rights will allow for more efficient water usage.

The paper’s authors visiting one of the Santa River water diversion projects that provide water to costal irrigators (Source: Kenneth Young).

Future Outlook

Glacial recession in the Peruvian Andes is increasing the hydro-social risks faced by water users in the region, risks that are likely to only get worse over time. The authors highlighted three challenges to GlacierHub that necessitate future research to better address these risks. First, expanded monitoring of glacier and hydrological changes would aid in detecting changes in water storage. Secondly, the complex interactions associated with local water access need further investigation to better inform water management. Finally, the effects of elements outside of the watersheds, such as the global or regional economy on access to local water resources, needs further examination. Ultimately, the authors were able to examine the transformation affecting glacierized, hydro-social systems through a transdisciplinary approach across both physical and social processes, enabling the assessment of risks and vulnerabilities faced by a diverse group of water users in a rapidly changing region. And while these transformations have the potential to drastically change the region, enthusiasm and dedication still prevail, Dr. Polk says, as people from diverse backgrounds come together to figure out the best way forward.

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Wildfires in Peru Could Increase Glacial Melt

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

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

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

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

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

Huascaran Park Glaciers (Source: Sergejf/Flickr).

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

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

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

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

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Using Drones to Study Glaciers

Understanding the nature of glacial changes has become increasingly important as anthropogenic climate change alters their pace and extent. A new study published in The Cryosphere Discussions journal shows how Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, can be used to do this in a relatively cheap, safe and accurate way. The study represents the first time a drone has been used to study a high-altitude tropical Andean glacier, offering insight into melt rates and glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) hazards in Peru.

The researchers used a custom-built drone (Source: Oliver Wigmore).

The study was carried out by Oliver Wigmore and Bryan Mark, from the University of Colorado Boulder and Ohio State University respectively. It is part of a larger project aimed at understanding how climate change is affecting the hydrology of the region and how locals are adapting to these changes.

The researchers used a custom-built hexa-multirotor drone (a drone with propellers on six arms) that weighed about 2kg to study changes in Llaca Glacier in the central Cordillera Blanca of the Peruvian Andes.

Llaca, one of more than 700 glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca, was chosen for both logistical and scientific reasons. It covers an area of about 4.68 square kilometers in Huascaran National Park and spans an altitudinal range of about 6000 to 4500 meters above sea level. Like other glaciers within the Cordillera Blanca, it has been retreating rapidly because of anthropogenic climate change.

The researchers hiked to the glacier to conduct surveys (Source: Oliver Wigmore).

To obtain footage, the researchers had to drive three hours on a winding, bumpy road from the nearest town, located about 10km away from the valley. “This was followed by a halfhour hike to the glacier,” Wigmore stated.

To overcome some of the challenges of working in a remote, high-altitude region, the drone was custom-built using parts bought directly from manufacturers. In this case, a base was bought from a manufacturer. “I modified it by making the arms longer, lightening it with carbon fiber parts, and adding features like a GPS, sensor systems, infrared and thermal cameras, and other parts required for mapping,” Wigmore shared.

Building their own drone allowed the researchers to repair it or replace parts when necessary, as sending it off to be repaired while in the field was not possible. It also allowed them to customize the drone to their needs.

A drone selfie taken by Wigmore, with the shadow of the drone in the bottom right corner (Source: Oliver Wigmore).

“No commercial manufacturers could promise that our equipment would work above an altitude of about 3000m, which is well below the glacier,” Wigmore said.

Using drones to study glaciers has advantages over conventional methods in terms of access to glaciers and spatial and temporal resolutions of data. These advantages have been further enhanced by hardware and software developments, which have made drones a relatively cheap, safe and accurate remote sensing method for studying glaciers at a finer scale. For example, Wigmore can build a UAV for about $4000, compared to the high cost of airplanes and satellites also used in remote sensing.

Wigmore and his team carried out aerial surveys of the glacier tongue (a long, narrow sheet of ice extended out from the end of the glacier) and the proglacial lake system (immediately beyond the margin of the glacier) in July 2014 and 2015. The drone was flown about 100 meters above the ice while hundreds of overlapping pictures were taken to provide 3-D images and depth perception.

High resolution (<5cm) Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) and orthomosaics (mosaics photographs that have been geometrically corrected to obtain a uniform scale) were produced, revealing highly heterogeneous patterns of change across the glacier and the lake. The data also revealed that about 156,000 cubic meters of ice were lost within the study period.

High resolution images showed rapid ice loss around exposed cliffs and surface ponds (Source: Wigmore and Mark, 2017).

The images revealed, for example, that the location of exposed cliffs and surface melt water ponds serve as primary controls on melt rates in the glacier tongue. Exposed cliffs lack the insulation of thick debris that are common on the glacier tongue, while ponds are less reflective than ice and absorb more solar radiation, causing higher melt rates.

The thickness of debris layers on the glacier constitute a secondary control. Thicker layers (often over 1m deep) provide insulation from solar radiation, while thinner layers increase the absorptivity of the surface to solar radiation.

The study also found that the upper section of the proglacial lake contains sections of glacier ice which are still melting. This suggests that the extent and depth of the lower section of the lake will increase as the ice continues to melt. This could increase the risk of GLOF, as expansion of the lake will bring it closer to the steep headwalls of the valley, which are potential locations for avalanche and rockfall debris.

Wigmore’s research is part of a series of larger projects still under publication that involve using drones to study glaciers, wetlands and proglacial meadows in the region. The results contribute to our understanding of hydro-social changes in the Cordillera Blanca, and how they can be managed.

Find out more about drone research here, or learn about Wigmore’s other research here.

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Photo Friday: The Melting Andean Glaciers

In South America, the tropical glaciers of the Andes have been shrinking at an alarming rate, leaving the local communities at risk of losing an important water source. In Bolivia, for example, an Andean glacier known as the Chacaltaya Glacier disappeared completely in 2009, cutting off a valuable water resource to the nearby city of La Paz during the dry season.

In total, the Andes Mountains are home to nearly 99 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers, with 71 percent located in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca and 20 percent in Bolivia, according to UNEP. Other tropical glaciers are found in the equatorial mountain ranges of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. Over the past 30 years, scientists estimate that the glaciers of the tropical Andes have shrunk by 30 to 50 percent. This rate of decline predicts that within 10 to 15 years many of the smaller tropical glaciers will have completely disappeared.

Take a look at GlacierHub’s collection of images of the rapidly retreating Andean glaciers.

 

The Chacaltaya glacier in Bolivia disappeared completely in 2009. 350.org climate activists visited the area in 2009 to raise awareness (Source: 350.org/Flickr).
After the Chacaltaya Glacier in Bolivia disappeared completely in 2009, 350.org climate activists visited the area to raise awareness about climate change (Source: 350.org/Flickr).

 

 

Laguna Glacier in Bolivia's Cordillera Real mountain range (Source: Alma Apatrida/Flckr).
Laguna Glacier in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real mountain range (Source: Alma Apatrida/Flckr).

 

 

The Antisana glaciers which are experiencing retreat, according to UNEP (Source: Sid Ansari/Flickr).
The Antisana glaciers in Ecuador are experiencing rapid retreat (Source: Sid Ansari/Flickr).

 

 

The Llaca Glacier of Peru (Source: dmitriylit/Creative Commons).
The Llaca Glacier of Peru (Source: dmitriylit/Creative Commons).

 

 

Looking up the Pacific coast of South America at the snow-covered Andes Mountains, which contains the world's largest glaciated area of the tropics (Source: Stuart Rankin/Flickr).
Looking up the Pacific coast of South America at the snow-covered Andes Mountains, the world’s largest glaciated area of the tropics (Source: Stuart Rankin/Flickr).

 

 

Quelccaya Glacier located in the Cordillera Blancas (Source: Edubucher/Creative Commons)
Quelccaya Glacier located in Peru, where glaciers have retreated by over 20 percent since 1978, according to scienceline.org (Source: Edubucher/Creative Commons).

 

 

Nevado Coropuna, Peru from the NASA International Space Station, 10/06/10 (Source: NASA/Flickr).
Nevado Coropuna, Peru, from the NASA International Space Station, 10/06/10 (Source: NASA/Flickr).

 

 

View of Nevado del Huila in Colombia. Four of Colombia's six glaciers are found on volcanos, (Source: Joz3.69/Flickr).
View of Nevado del Huila in Colombia. Only six glaciers remain in Colombia and four are found on volcanos (Source: Joz3.69/Flickr).

 

 

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Andean Farmer Demands Climate Justice in Germany

In the Cordillera Blanca Mountains of the Peruvian Andes, glacier retreat caused by climate change has led to an increased risk of flooding for residents living below. Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a farmer and mountain guide who faces the imminent threat of losing his house in a massive flood, argues that large polluters are to blame. This led him to file a lawsuit against the German energy giant RWE demanding the firm take responsibility for its CO2 emissions and help reduce the risk of flooding.

The lawsuit could set an important precedent – if Luciano Lliuya wins, anyone affected by climate change impacts could potentially sue for damages or compensation beyond the borders of their own country. This may provide a more fruitful strategy in light of stalling political efforts at the United Nations level to combat climate change and promote adaptation. In December 2016, the lawsuit was dismissed by the Essen Regional Court in Germany and is currently pending appeal.

Saúl Luciano Lliuya at the Essen Regional Court in Germany, November 2016 (Source: Germanwatch/Photo courtesy Noah Walker-Crawford).
Saúl Luciano Lliuya at the Essen Regional Court in Germany, November 2016 (Source: Germanwatch/Photo courtesy Noah Walker-Crawford).

Climate Change in the Cordillera Blanca

Growing up below the snow-capped mountains of the Cordillera Blanca, Lliuya has borne witness to a changing Andean climate over the past decades. Now aged 36, his work as a mountain guide brings him to high altitudes where he has observed the glaciers progressively receding year after year. This led the glacial lake Palcacocha to rise exponentially in volume – from 0.5 million m3 in 1974 to 3.9 million m3 in 2003 and 17.4 million m3 in 2016. A dislodged piece of glacial ice falling into the lake could lead to a massive outburst flood that would destroy large parts of the city of Huaraz below, according to a recent scientific study.

Huaraz is no stranger to disaster. In 1941, Lake Palcacocha produced an outburst flood that killed thousands and devastated the city. In subsequent decades, the Peruvian authorities drained Palcacocha and other glacial lakes, constructing dams to prevent future disasters. Residents of Huaraz rebuilt the city. Today, existing dams and drainage systems are no longer sufficient at Palcacocha as glacial retreat has increased dramatically and authorities struggle to fund security measures after neoliberal cuts to public finance since the 1990s.

In the short term, glacial retreat in the Cordillera Blanca causes the threat of too much water flooding populated valleys. But if glaciers disappear in the long term, the region will lose its primary source of water. Both scenarios can have devastating consequences. In addition, residents face an increasingly unpredictable climate that disrupts agricultural cycles.

Lliuya argues that Peruvians have contributed little to these problems. “The big companies are mainly responsible for climate change through their emissions. They need to take responsibility and help us face the problems they caused,” Lliuya told GlacierHub. He wanted to take matters into his own hands. When a colleague put him in touch with members of the German environmental NGO Germanwatch, he found partners who were willing to help him take action. Introducing him to the German environmental lawyer Roda Verheyen, the NGO offered to support a legal claim for climate justice against a major polluter. In November 2015, he traveled to Germany and filed a lawsuit against RWE, the largest single CO2 emitter in Europe.

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Lake Palcacocha, December 2014 (Source: Germanwatch/Photo courtesy Noah Walker-Crawford)

The lawsuit

“This is a precedent. RWE AG releases significant emissions, principally through its coal-fired power plants, which makes global temperatures rise, causes glaciers to melt and leads to an acute threat to my client’s property,” Verheyen argued. “We request that the court declare RWE liable to remove this impairment.”

The lawsuit relies on article 1004 of the German Civil Code to argue that RWE is partially responsible for the impairment that Luciano Lliuya faces to his property through climate risk. Drawing on the Carbon Majors study which quantified industrial greenhouse gas emissions and linked them to individual companies, the lawsuit states that RWE contributed 0.47% to historical emissions and should provide its share to reduce flood risk in Huaraz. The Peruvian authorities are planning a multi-million dollar project to drain Lake Palcacocha and build a new dam. Lliuya demands that RWE pay 0.47% of this amount, or around $20,000. The amount is miniscule for a large company but could set a massive precedent.

RWE rejects the claim, arguing that climate change should be discussed at a political level rather than in the courts. In its legal response, the company claims that climate change is so complex that individual companies cannot be linked to specific impacts. In addition, the company denies that Huaraz faces an imminent risk of flooding. RWE did not reply to GlacierHub’s request for comment.

In December 2016, the Essen Regional Court dismissed Lliuya’s lawsuit on formal grounds, stating that his claims lacked legal foundation and coherence. In their verdict, the judges argued that RWE may have partially caused the risk of flooding in Huaraz in scientific terms, but this does not translate into causality in legal terms.

Roda Verheyen and Saúl Luciano Lliuya (Source: Germanwatch/Photo courtesy Noah Walker-Crawford).
Roda Verheyen and Saúl Luciano Lliuya (Source: Germanwatch/Photo courtesy Noah Walker-Crawford).

“The pollutants, which are emitted by the defendant, are merely a fraction of innumerable other pollutants, which a multitude of major and minor emitters are emitting and have emitted. Every living person is, to some extent, an emitter,” reads the finding.

Following the judges’ argumentation, individual polluters cannot be held responsible for climate change because emissions are so widely dispersed. While RWE welcomed the verdict, Lliuya is defiant and vowed to continue. His lawyer is currently preparing an appeal.

The lawsuit is the first of its kind to come this far, but it could set the stage for future climate justice initiatives. In glaciated mountain ranges around the world, people face increased threats of flooding. Even if Lliuya’s lawsuit fails upon appeal, it forms part of a larger trajectory of legal initiatives that demand immediate action while political solutions remain stymied. In the United States, Our Children’s Trust supports lawsuits by children and teenagers against local and federal authorities demanding more sustainable policies. In the Netherlands, the Urgenda citizen’s initiative successfully sued the Dutch government demanding more ambitious climate targets in a suit that is currently pending appeal.

In the long term, Lliuya hopes lawsuits against large polluters will create political pressure to find sustainable solutions to the impacts of climate change. These solutions should account for the historical responsibility of companies such as RWE. Only few people have the means to take legal action; a sustainable strategy must benefit all. As long as policy makers fail to make polluters pay, Lliuya will continue his legal battle against RWE.

“The biggest contributors to climate change must finally take responsibility,” he said. “I want justice.”

 

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Roundup: Sediments, Swamps and Sea Levels

Roundup: High Arctic, Peru, and Global Seas

 

Suspended Sediment in a High-Arctic River

From Science of The Total Environment: “Quantifying fluxes [the action of flowing] of water, sediment and dissolved compounds through Arctic rivers is important for linking the glacial, terrestrial and marine ecosystems and to quantify the impact of a warming climate… This study uses a 8-years data set (2005–2012) of daily measurements from the high-Artic Zackenberg River in Northeast Greenland to estimate annual suspended sediment fluxes based on four commonly used methods: M1) is the discharge weighted mean and uses direct measurements, while M2-M4) are one uncorrected and two bias-corrected rating curves extrapolating a continuous concentration trace from measured values.”
 
Read more about suspended sediment fluxes here:
 

View of the Zackenberg River and Zackenberg Research Station (Source: Moser på Nordøst-Grønland/Creative Commons).
View of the Zackenberg River and Zackenberg Research Station (Source: Moser på Nordøst-Grønland/Creative Commons).

 

Glacier Recession in Cordillera Blanca

From Applied Geography: “Receding mountain glaciers affect the hydrology of downslope ecosystems with consequences for drinking water, agriculture, and hydropower production. Here we combined land cover derived from satellite imagery and other environmental data from the northern Peruvian Andes into a first differencing regression model to assess wetland hydrologic connectivity… The results indicate that there were two primary spatial driving forces of wetland change in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca from 1987 to 1995: 1) loss in glacier area was associated with increased wetland area, controlling for other factors; while 2) an increase in mean annual stream discharge in the previous 12 months increased wetland area.”
 
Learn more about the study here:

 

View of mountainside of Cordillera Blanca, Peru (Source: MacDawg/Creative Commons).
View of mountainside of Cordillera Blanca, Peru (Source: MacDawg/Creative Commons).

 

Observation-Based Estimates of Glacier Mass Change

From Surveys in Geophysics: “Glaciers have strongly contributed to sea-level rise during the past century and will continue to be an important part of the sea-level budget during the twenty-first century. Here, we review the progress in estimating global glacier mass change from in situ measurements of mass and length changes, remote sensing methods, and mass balance modeling driven by climate observations. For the period before the onset of satellite observations, different strategies to overcome the uncertainty associated with monitoring only a small sample of the world’s glaciers have been developed. These methods now yield estimates generally reconcilable with each other within their respective uncertainty margins. Whereas this is also the case for the recent decades, the greatly increased number of estimates obtained from remote sensing reveals that gravimetry-based methods typically arrive at lower mass loss estimates than the other methods. We suggest that strategies for better interconnecting the different methods are needed to ensure progress and to increase the temporal and spatial detail of reliable glacier mass change estimates.”
 
Read more about global sea-level rise here:

 

Calving front of the Upsala Glacier, Argentina (Source: NASA/Creative Commons).
Calving front of the Upsala Glacier, Argentina (Source: NASA/Creative Commons).
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Andes Challenge: Extreme Sports, Tourism and Science in Peru

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Running on Vallunaraju Glacier in Andes Challenge (source: Benkelo Morales)

Four extreme athletes gathered before dawn on August 28 at a glacier in Peru to start a 170 kilometer race. Setting off from the foot of Mount Vallunaraju in the Cordillera Blanca range, they ran up to its summit at 5625 meters and down to the Llaca valley. They then alternated cycling and running, passing through the regional capital of Huaraz and over a second mountain range, the Cordillera Negra, before completing a descent of over 3500 meters through the coastal desert to the port of Huarmey on the Pacific Ocean. They finished the route in under 16 hours.

“It was really very moving. I received them at the port, along with regional mayors and other political authorities,” Benjamin Morales, the director of the Peruvian National Research Institute for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (INAIGEM) wrote to GlacierHub.

Athletes biking in the Cordillera Negra section of the Andes Challenge (source:AccesoPeru) https://67.media.tumblr.com/259acd28d0b65f6856b4b28193090f0c/tumblr_ocrnimX6gh1v1zkw0o1_1280.jpg
Athletes biking in the Cordillera Negra section of the Andes Challenge (source: AccesoPeru)

Described as one of the most challenging ultramarathons of the world, the Andes Challenge promotes  opportunities for  athletics and also tourism in Peru, showcasing the great ecological diversity of the Ancash region. The race passes through snowpeaks, forests, grasslands, farmland and desert— areas where INAIGEM conducts research on endemic plant species, glacier processes, and environmental issues such as water management and disaster risk reduction. The route provides a window into the region’s cultural diversity as well, since it includes indigenous and mestizo settlements of the highlands and coast. And the event organizers encourage participation, not only by top athletes in the one-day ultramarathon, but by others who move at slower paces, completing the route in two or more days, or simply hiking different sections of it. An additional goal of the event is to promote sustainable development of the region.

This event builds on earlier efforts dating back over 10 years. The head of Huascaran National Park, in which Vallunaraju is located, encouraged a Peruvian runner to complete a similar route in 2010. In the following year, over a dozen runners, including one woman, also ran the course. It then fell into abeyance until Benkelo Morales, an athlete, hotel owner and event organizer from Huaraz, decided to revive it. The full name which he bestowed on it, “Andes Challenge: The Route of Mountain Ecosystems and Climate Change,” signals his concern to build awareness of environmental issues. He drew support from the national park, INAIGEM, the regional office of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism, several municipal governments, an environmental NGO, the Peruvian mountain guides association, and two mining firms. A much larger version of the Andes Challenge will be held on June 29, 2017.

GlacierHub recently interviewed Benkelo Morales about the event.

Three athletes running in the Andes Challenge (source: Facebook) https://scontent-iad3-1.xx.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/14141539_1136067803116364_630030388729401205_n.jpg?oh=399a1b5fdfafc8321cc8014c62e0f2b2&oe=58378FEB
Three athletes running in the Andes Challenge (source: Facebook)

GlacierHub: What were the most important successes of the Andes Challenge this year?

Benkelo Morales: The Andes Challenge was born as an athletic initiative in 2004, with the idea of linking the snowpeaks of the Cordillera Blanca with the sea in less than a day, combining climbing, cycling and running. We tried it out a few times but never had much of an impact on the population of the region. This year, INAIGEM came up with an interesting idea – sport and science could work together. They suggested that the route of the race could be an area for tourism and for research on ecosystems. This way, tourists could visit the region, seeing an area where athletes race and scientists conduct research. Put simply, the most important success is that we achieved promoting science through sport and tourism.

 

Steep downhill section of the Andes Challenge in the Cordillera Blanca (source:Benkelo Morales)
Steep downhill section of the Andes Challenge in the Cordillera Blanca (source: Benkelo Morales)

GH: What support has been most important in the preparation for the Andes Challenge and in its operation?

BM: All activities require a budget. Since this was the first offering of the race, we did not have registration fees or private sponsorships. Because of this, the logistical support of INAIGEM was invaluable for us. INAIGEM helped us with vehicles and staff, so that we were able to gain Support from municipal governments along the route and from mining companies. In this way, we were able to launch the project. And we wish to thank the athletes who took part as well, the Ecuadorian Nicolas Miranda de Ecuador, Jenn Hrinkevich from the US, and three Peruvians, Emerson Trujillo from Huaraz, Hernan Henostroza and Richard Hidalgo.

 

GH: What was the biggest surprise of the event?

BM: There were many surprises, including the way the community members along the route came out to applaud the runners. But the most important surprise was that the Minister of the Environment showed herself to be so interested in the project. It is very difficult to make contact with ministers in Peru, but thanks to INAIGEM and the international forum which they organized, we had the opportunity to present the project to many groups, from major government figures to universities, students and the media.

 

Biking in the Cordillera Negra sction of the Andes Challenge (source:Benkelo Morales)
Athletes biking in the Cordillera Negra section of the Andes Challenge (source: Benkelo Morales)

GH: What was the greatest joy of the Andes Challenge?

BM: Extreme races have their risks. It was an enormous joy to see the athletes run into the ocean after 16 hours of uninterrupted effort, without any accidents at all. And also, seeing so many people along the route and at the finish on the beach were great incentives to keep on going, despite the fatigue.

 

Athletes biking in the coastal desert portion of Andes Challenge (source: Facebook) https://scontent-iad3-1.xx.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/14141539_1136067803116364_630030388729401205_n.jpg?oh=399a1b5fdfafc8321cc8014c62e0f2b2&oe=58378FEB
Athletes biking in the coastal desert section of Andes Challenge (source: Facebook)

GH: What do you anticipate for the Andes Challenge in the future?

BM: Well, I think the main thing is to position the entire route as a tourist corridor where people of all types and interests can take some time to cover the route. It’s such a diverse route that it could please all kinds of tourists. On the level of sport, we hope that it will become one of the most challenging in the world. We would like to see the world’s top runners and cyclists coming to take part. They could become “sports ambassadors” to promote awareness of climate change and adaptation.

 

arriving coast
Athletes reaching the Pacific Ocean at the end of the Andes Challenge (source: Benkelo Morales)

GH: What importance does the Andes Challenge have for the communities along the route and near it?

BM: To have an extreme race like this requires going through isolated areas that are difficult to get to, the same places where ecological research is often carried out. So these communities are the ones that are least favored by the government. So we can state that the Andes Challenge can bring different types of benefits to these communities, from tourism and economic activity, to training in environmental issues and in athletics, to education and employment. Stated simply, the Andes Challenge will put these communities on the map.

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