Glacial Melting Isn’t Someone Else’s Problem

This article was originally published on SAPIENS on February 28, 2018.

High in the Ecuadorian Andes, the peak of Cotacachi was once reliably white. But by the early 2000s, the glacier on top of this dormant volcano, which reaches more than 16,200 feet, had disappeared. This made it—as anthropologist Robert E. Rhoades and his co-authors Xavier Zapata Ríos and Jenny Aragundy Ochoa wrote in the 2008 book Darkening Peaks—one of “the first Andean mountains in the past half-century to completely lose its glacier as a result of recent accelerated global warming.”

As many glaciers throughout the world are retreating at faster rates, they have become powerful symbols of global warming. But glacial retreat is still an abstract idea for many people, which makes it easy to ignore. As environmental historian Mark Carey puts it, “Most people in the United States have never encountered a glacier; nor would they be able to identify one even from close proximity.” Yet due to global interconnection, our actions have far-flung consequences—in unfamiliar landscapes and in places we cannot see.

In communities from the Andes to the Alps to the Himalayas, glacial loss affects people’s lives in concrete ways. In Ecuador, when the last ice crystals from Cotacachi’s glacier melted, a once-reliable source of water evaporated. According to farmers in the area, it also doesn’t rain as much as it used to, Rhoades and his co-authors wrote in Darkening Peaks. The combined effect of less rainfall and drier rivers and streams has made agriculture more challenging, as multiple consequences of climate change intersect.

In some places where glaciers are retreating, meltwater provides a temporary windfall for these communities— by producing more water for irrigation. Yet water quality can also be compromised: As the journalist Nicholas Casey recently wrote in The New York Times, heavy metals exposed by glacial retreat in Peru “are now leaking into the ground water supply, turning entire streams red, killing livestock and crops, and making the water undrinkable.”

This mountain in Ecuador, which is known locally as Mama Cotacachi, used to be capped by a glacier that was a dependable source of ice and water for nearby communities (Source: Florent Figon/Flickr).

While receding glaciers expose rocky mountain peaks, they also expose the complexity of social connections. As anthropologist Ben Orlove and his co-authors Ellen Wiegandt and Brian H. Luckman wrote in their chapter in “Darkening Peaks,” “The global scale of climate change means that the people most directly affected by glacier retreat make a very small direct contribution to the worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases that are its root cause. As a consequence, their behavior will have little impact on the future course of this shrinkage.”

This global inequality is one of the greatest tensions at the heart of climate change. According to data from the World Bank, for example, while the United States emitted 16.49 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person in 2014, Ecuador emitted 2.76 metric tons per person.

Because the United States and many countries in the European Union have historically emitted a far greater global share of carbon emissions, representatives from the global south have argued that they should also bear greater responsibility in responding to global climate change.

This graph shows carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. and Ecuador from 1960 to 2014 (Source: The World Bank).

As for the communities that live near glaciers, is there anything they can do? There is no equivalent of a tree-planting campaign to respond to glacier loss. Even so, in the Alps, some communities have covered parts of glaciers with synthetic fleece blankets and foam— but while such efforts may slow glaciers’ retreat, they can’t stop it.

What about the rest of us, then— those of us who may never see a glacier, but whose lifestyles are contributing to global warming? How should we respond to communities who are losing the glaciers they have lived with— and, in many cases, depended upon— for centuries? What steps will we take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to hold our public officials accountable? These are just a few of the many difficult questions that we should be asking ourselves.

Meanwhile, the glaciers keep melting.

Glacier Hub’s 1st Birthday Invitation!

GlacierHub is approaching its one-year anniversary on Tuesday 7 July. Over the past year, we had over 45000 visitors  and up to 500 subscribers to our newsletters, as well as 250 followers on our Facebook page. We are grateful to all our readers for loving glaciers and supporting GlacierHub! We aim to bring you more up- to-date news, interesting stories, and breathtaking photographs of glaciers in the future.

We are currently working on a special post to celebrate the birthday, and as part of that we are encouraging you, our readers, to share insights on our work over the last year. To do so, you can take a quick survey attached below. As added incentive, we will randomly pick two participants to win a copy of a book Darkening Peaks: Glacier Retreat, Science, and Society. The book’s author, Ben Orlove, is the managing editor of GlacierHub.