Photographer David Villacrés’ Twitter feed is teeming with various types of landscape photographs— from city streets to starry night skies and enormous volcanoes. For the Ecuador-based Villacrés, his home country is his muse. “All you need is Ecuador” is a frequent hashtag on his posts. Primarily a nature photographer, he often photographs the Ecuadorian Andes, which is home to the country’s glaciers.
Ecuador contains one of the densest concentrations of volcanoes on the planet. At last count, 84 volcanic centers straddle the Andes mountains, which run through the country north to south. As many as 24 of those volcanoes are potentially active and some are covered in glaciers, which compound the threat of an eruption with the addition of ice and glacier debris. A history of major eruptions and recent volcanic activity, including on the glaciated stratovolcano Cotopaxi, has unnerved Ecuadorian citizens and prompted government action.
On April 19, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) issued an early action protocol (EAP) to ameliorate the health, livelihood, and food security impacts of ash fallout from volcanic eruptions on Ecuadorian communities.
The EAP is the result of a project, spearheaded by the German Red Cross, to coordinate forecast-based financing to reduce the impact of extreme natural disasters in 20 countries. Ecuador was selected to receive support for a volcanic ash fallout plan.
When a volcano erupts, there is often a period of unrest, precursor signals of an eruption, in which ash is spewed from the volcano. Ash fallout can affect health, livelihoods, and food security for people living in the deposition zone. Unrests can be prolonged events, like that of Cotopaxi in 2015, which lasted four months and did not result in an eruption – yet. Unrests can be longer, shorter, or there can be no sign of unrest at all.
The early action protocol cites its objective to “establish appropriate early action using volcanic ash dispersal and deposition forecasts that benefit the most vulnerable families in the most potentially affected areas.” The early actions identified were based on the ash fall produced by eruptions over the past 20 years, including that of Cotopaxi, which is located 31 miles south of Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. A major eruption would rain ash on the three million inhabitants of Quito and disrupt air travel.
The phases of early action for ash fall depend on the depth of forecasted ash deposition: distribution of health protection kits for ash fall between two and five millimeters, a livelihood protection package to protect livestock and harvested crops from ash fall between five and ten millimeters, and the addition of cash-based interventions for ash fall greater than ten millimeters.
Benjamin Bernard, a volcanologist at the Geophysical Institute of Ecuador’s National Polytechnical School (IG-EPN), works with the Ecuadorian Red Cross and the Red Cross Climate Center. According to Bernard, the objective of the project is to reduce the impact of extreme events based on scientific forecasts and early actions.
“This EAP is a significant improvement because in Ecuador, until this project, humanitarian financing was only for response to the emergency,” Bernard told GlacierHub. “It has already been proven in this project that early actions can significantly reduce the impact of extreme weather conditions and we hope that it will do the same for volcanic eruptions.”
In 2017, The Atlantic published an article titled “The ‘Anticipatory Anxiety’ of Waiting for Disaster,” which documented the trauma of Ecuadorians living in the shadow of Cotopaxi. Patricia Mothes, a volcanologist with Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute, told the magazine, “Of the five eruptive periods from 1532 to now—and this is number six—it always ends (or at least has) in a major eruption.”
Ahead of the anticipated major eruption, however, falling ash disrupts life for communities in the vicinity of Cotopaxi.
Ash fall from eruptions can have a significant health and economic impacts for downslope communities. “In previous events of ash fall, people have had to transport their animals to safe areas free from ash fall or have had to sell their cattle up to 70 per cent less than their normal commercial value, generating a negative impact on household economies,” the Ecuadorian Red Cross report reads. “In other cases, their animals died, which led to a serious impact on their economic stability. In these cases, affected households had to resort to bank loans that they continue to be unable to repay.”
But it’s not the lava or even the ash that worry those who live near glacier-clad Cotopaxi, The Atlantic reported, it’s the lahar—a superheated deadly slurry of mud, water, volcanic rock, ice, and other debris.
Cotopaxi poses dramatically different hazards to nearby populations, according to Mothes. When combined with hot ash and flowing rock, an eruption of a glaciated volcano can create a lahars, which are known to travel downhill at speeds of up to 200 kilometers per hour (120 miles per hour). Ecuadorian government has installed eruption warning systems to alert communities in lahar zones. The moment monitors detect seismic activity consistent with an eruption, automated sirens rouse communities downslope.
Ecuador is the only country with glaciers straddling the equator. Though Ecuador is seldom thought of as a glacier country, so prominently do glaciers figure in the nation’s landscape they even appear on its national flag.
Bolívar Cáceres is the head of Ecuador’s glaciers program within the country’s National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology. “The Secretary of Risk of Ecuador has worked extensively on the matter, I believe we would be prepared,” he told GlacierHub on Ecuador’s readiness for an eruption. “The latent threat of Cotopaxi is there, waiting for the big event.”
From the Cryosphere: “Changes in the area and number of glaciers in the Georgian Caucasus Mountains were examined over the last century, by comparing recent Landsat and ASTER images (2014) with older topographical maps (1911, 1960) along with middle and high mountain meteorological stations data. Total glacier area decreased by 8.1±1.8% (0.2±0.04%yr−1) or by 49.9±10.6km2 from 613.6±9.8km2 to 563.7±11.3km2 during 1911–1960, while the number of glaciers increased from 515 to 786. During 1960–2014, the total ice area decreased by 36.9±2.2% (0.7±0.04%yr−1) or by 207.9±9.8km2 from 563.7±11.3km2 to 355.8±8.3km2, while glacier numbers decreased from 786 to 637. In total, the area of Georgia glaciers reduced by 42.0±2.0% (0.4±0.02%yr−1) between 1911 and 2014. The eastern Caucasus section had the highest retreat rate of 67.3±2.0% (0.7±0.02%yr−1) over this period, while the central part of Georgian Caucasus had the lowest, 34.6±1.8% (0.3±0.01%yr−1), with the western Caucasus intermediate at 42.8±2.7% (0.4±0.03%yr−1).
Glacial lake expansion on the Tibetan Plateau
From Society & Natural Resources: “Global climate change is causing the majority of large lakes on the Tibetan Plateau to expand. While these rising lake levels and their causes have been investigated by hydrologists and glaciologists, their impacts on local pastoral communities have mostly been ignored. Our interviews with pastoralists in central Tibet reveal their observations and beliefs about Lake Serling’s expansion, as well as how its effects are interacting with current rangeland management policies. Interviewees reported that the most negative effects on their livelihoods have been reduced livestock populations and productivity due to the inundation of high-quality pastures by saline lake water. However, pastoralists’ collective efforts based on traditional values and norms of sharing, assistance, and reciprocity have helped them cope with these climate change impacts. These local, traditional coping strategies are particularly worthy of attention now, given that the transformation of traditional pastoralism is a goal of current government development initiatives.”
An early warning plan for Ecuador
From the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: “This Early Action Plan aims to establish appropriate early action using volcanic ash dispersal and deposition forecasts that benefit the most vulnerable families in the most potentially affected areas. Ecuador is a country that is under the influence of several natural hazards due to its geographical location, atmospheric dynamics and geological characteristics. The country has historically faced several important events such as floods, water deficit, earthquakes, volcanic activity and landslides, among others, which leave thousands of people affected and generates millions of dollars in losses.”
It Doesn’t Matter If Ecuador Can Afford This Dam. China Still Gets Paid
From the New York Times: “This giant dam in the jungle, financed and built by China, was supposed to christen Ecuador’s vast ambitions, solve its energy needs, and help lift the small South American country out of poverty. Instead, it has become part of a national scandal engulfing the country in corruption, perilous amounts of debt—and a future tethered to China. Nearly every top Ecuadorean official involved in the dam’s construction is either imprisoned or sentenced on bribery charges. That includes a former vice president, a former electricity minister and even the former anti-corruption official monitoring the project, who was caught on tape talking about Chinese bribes.”
Read more about China’s role in Ecuadorian dam construction here.
Recycled Cashmere Sweaters by Patagonia
From Business Insider: “The process of creating cashmere is so inherently detrimental—requiring lots of resources and incurring lots of environmental degradation—that any claim of sustainability is pretty much moot. It may make us happy to have, but it sure isn’t preserving the grasslands of Mongolia. Patagonia’s cashmere line is the best no-compromise option I’ve found. Each piece is made out of 95 percent cashmere scraps collected from European garment factories, plus 5 percent virgin wool for strength. Altogether, it’s a line of durable, warm, guilt-free cashmere sweaters, hats, and scarves with way less ecological impact, plus the added benefit of Patagonia-level quality and design. You can also view “The Footprint Chronicles” to learn about their supply chain and the sewing factory that made your sweater.”
Read more about Patagonia’s cashmere sweaters here
Ecuador’s Independence Day, or “Día del Primer Grito de Independencia de Quito,” as it is known in Spanish, is celebrated on August 10. Today marks 209 years since the city of Quito declared independence from Spanish colonizers. It was the first Latin American country to declare independence from European rule, and even though short-lived, remains a major milestone in Latin American independence.
In honor of Ecuador’s National Day, we dedicate this week’s Photo Friday to looking at how glaciers have been used as national symbols in Ecuador. From the coat of arms to stamps, Ecuadorians have long recognized how important glaciers are to the country and its people. Glaciers can be found on Antisana, Cayambe, Chimborazo, and Cotopaxi in the Ecuadorian Andes. Ecuador is the only place on Earth where glaciers are found on the Equator. Unfortunately, the glaciers are rapidly receding due to climate change and may disappear completely before the end of the century. For now, they can still be seen residing on some of the tallest volcanoes on Earth and in the country’s national symbols.
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Which of these countries has a glacier-covered peak on its national shield? For the answer, check @GlacierHub Photo Friday on 10 Augst.
The volcano, Chimborazo, in Ecuador, is home to a glacier that like many tropical glaciers is quickly receding. When Jeff La Frenierre, a geographer at Gustavus Adolphus College, headed to the Andes, his main objective was to understand how glaciers on this particular mountain had been responding to climate change. However, in the midst of his research, he realized he couldn’t reconcile precipitation data from weather stations with changes in the area of the glacier. To resolve this data-conflict, he turned to a technique too often ignored in the sciences: he talked to people.
La Frenierre published his findings which drew from these conversations last February, illustrating the importance of synthesizing empirical data with information from other sources, like the observations of local residents, to better understand the local effects of climate change.
Chimborazo, just south of the equator, is a place where you wouldn’t expect to find glaciers, but with a nearly four-mile-high peak (6,263 meters) the temperatures remain below freezing, so snow doesn’t melt, turns to ice and can eventually form glaciers. The glaciers found on Chimborazo are extremely important to the communities that live near the mountain. For example, glacier ice-melt is used to irrigate crops and to supply households for their domestic needs. Because of this reliance on glacial water, the people living around Chimborazo took notice when their water supply changed.
Across the board, locals in the area said that they noticed a change in rainfall and surface water in the last several decades. Though meteorological records indicated there was some warming between 1986 and 2011, the precipitation records did not suggest that rainfall amounts had changed, according to La Frenierre’s findings. But this didn’t match with the observable decrease in total ice on the mountain. The increase in temperature shown in the instrumental records could only account for about half of the glacier’s ice loss, while the survey results from local residents overwhelmingly supported the ice records.
“It would’ve been very easy, and the typical thing that many scientists would do, to look at an instrumental record and say: ‘There’s my data, there’s my conclusion from that data,’” La Frenierre told GlacierHub by phone. “If I’d left that alone then I would have had one perception of what was happening here, but clearly, looking at the instrumental data alone wasn’t good enough.”
Of course, it was important to make collecting survey data from local residents rigorous. La Frenierre accomplished this in several ways, aiming to get as broad a perception of environmental change as possible. He only collected information from people who had lived in the area for at least 10 years, for example. He also randomized the sample population by going to randomly generated coordinates within the sample area and speaking with the nearest person or household, using open-ended questions. He also conducted focus groups with members of one of the major irrigation systems.
“That’s why for me, it’s really convincing,”La Frenierre said. “There’s so much ubiquity in certain responses, so the fact that there’s less precipitation, that other sources are drying up, that the vast majority, 90 percent of people, are saying the same thing, and they’re saying it without having been given the leading questions.”
Changes in glacier size and ascension were established through remote sensing techniques, compositing satellite imagery and aerial photographs from different years. This process was complicated by the volcano’s location, because there is no cold or warm season this close to the equator, making it a challenge to determine how much of the glacier is actually glacial ice versus snow. Generally, when mapping glacial extent over time (particularly in temperate regions), researchers look at the end of the warm season. After summer melt there is minimal fresh snow and it is easy to see the entirety of the landscape.
At Chimborazo, because it is so close to the equator, there wasn’t a single image that had both the least amount of snow and was free of cloud cover. Because of this, La Frenierre ended up making mosaics combining several images that were at times months apart. This means the data cannot clearly say what the glacier extent was on any given day, but it still gives a reasonable sense of what the glacier extent was like in a certain year. This data, the changes in the glacial extent and collected opinions of locals, all pointed toward a decrease in overall precipitation. Or, as La Frenierre speculates, a change in the timing of precipitation: “In the tropics, a huge control on melting ice is the surface albedo [how much sunlight is reflected off] of the glacier. A lower frequency of snowfall, even if the same amount of snowfall falls, could actually accelerate the glacier melting.” In other words, a given amount of snow would increase the reflectivity, the albedo, of the glacier if spread over a longer period of time.
La Frenierre’s paper is not the first to be published that combines both physical instrumental or observed data with public observations. The authors cite others who have also successfully used a mixed-methods approach. But, according to La Frenierre, there should be more like it. “The reality is, especially when looking at things like environmental change, your instruments can only tell you so much. And if you can find that people are experiencing something that your instruments can’t rectify, then I think we have an obligation to try to understand where that disconnect is and look for information that answers it without assuming that our instruments are right and our people are wrong.”
The people living around Chimborazo are already directly experiencing the impacts of climate change. Although there are local actions that may have contributed, most of what is happening to the glacial ice on Chimborazo is due to global actions. “The glacial retreat that we’re seeing here is a function of the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that the developing world put into the atmosphere,” said La Frenierre, “We’re looking at a problem for people who are on the front lines of experiencing impacts, yet they were not the ones to benefit at all from the development that we got from putting these greenhouse gases [into the atmosphere].”
From Iceland Monitor: “Glacier bus Sleipnir, named after Odin’s eight-legged-horse in Norse mythology, is the largest such truck in the world. It features eight wheels and is currently being tested on Langjökull Glacier where it passes with flying colors. It features comfortable leather seats inside for passengers with views to both sides of the vehicle and through the roof. The vehicle cost around 70 million ISK to make and it can cross glacial crevasses measuring up to three meters.”
Determining Distribution of Insects in Andean Rivers
From Ecohydrology: “This research was conducted in the high-Andean basin of the Zhurucay River in southern Ecuador. In 4 river reaches, 19 sampling campaigns were conducted per reach spread over a period of 35 months. The biotic samples were selected in the periods with greatest flow stability… In conclusion, although macroinvertebrates are currently employed in water quality studies, riparian vegetation and hydromorphological factors are determinant for their communities in pristine Andean rivers. Such factors are therefore crucial in the study of environmental flows and the assessment of the ecological integrity.”
Learn more about what influences the distribution of insects in glacier streams in Ecuador here.
Interpreting Exposure Ages from Ice-Cored Moraines
From Journal of Quaternary Science: “Be dating of moraines has greatly improved our ability to constrain the timing of past glaciations and thus past cold events… Here we present 28 new Be ages from ice-cored Neoglacial moraines on Baffin Island, Arctic Canada, and explore the processes at play in moraine formation and evolution through field observations and a numerical debris-covered glacier model… Three Baffin Island moraines yield Be ages suggesting formation at 5.2, 4.6 and 3.5 ka, respectively, adding to a growing body of evidence for significant summer cooling millennia before the Little Ice Age.”
On August 14, 2015, Ecuador’s glacier-capped Cotopaxi erupted for the first time since the 1940s. A billowing plume of ash rose early in the morning and grew through the day, reaching heights of over three miles. Two small eruptions rained ash on the southern outskirts of Quito, Ecuador’s capital 45 kilometers from the volcano. These dramatic events rattled the country and punctuated a period of seismic and low-level volcanic activity that lasted from April to November 2015.
Recently, scientists at Ecuador’s Instituto Geofísico Escuela Politécnica Nacional (IGEPN) analyzed both the physical properties of the episode and the institutional and community responses of this “dry run,” yielding information that will help Ecuador prepare for future events. Lead author and IGEPN geologist Patricia Mothes told GlacierHub that among the most important lessons learned from the period of restlessness were that “changes can occur very rapidly,” and that certain seismic trends and deformation of the volcanic cone will act as precursors to actual eruption.
The report found that over the seven months of earthquakes, degassing, ground deformation, glacial melting and plumes towering over the landscape, the activity level of the episode actually remained relatively low, at two out of eight on the Volcanic Explosivity Index.
Nevertheless, the impacts of the activity were manifold. Heat from the rising magma, in tandem with the layer of dark ash that formed on the glaciers, increased melting and formed new crevasses. People donned masks to avoid breathing in the ash, which damaged crops, sickened livestock, and lowered visibility on the roads for people in transit across the country. Some residents hastily sold their land and livestock or abandoned them entirely. The net effect was to depress the local economy.
With this geophysical unrest came unrest to those living near the volcano. The controversial President Rafael Correa declared a state of emergency, and thousands of residents of nearby villages evacuated to safer areas. After weeks to months of displacement in shelters and other towns, some returned to their homes, but recovery was slow and incomplete. In addition to economic harm, the volcanic activity had psychological dimensions. The Atlantic reported that people living in the risk zone experienced sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The most intense threat to Ecuadorians was the potential of lahars, slurries of mud and melted snow and ice that can flow for tens of miles and devastate landscapes. The geologic record shows that in each major eruption, most recently in 1877, Cotopaxi has spawned major lahars on each of its flanks. During the 2015 event, glacial melt formed small lahars that sometimes covered the road to the volcano.
In the event of a more major eruption, glacial outburst floods could occur, according to Mothes. “If impacted by hot pyroclastic flows that would come out of the summit crater and careen down the steep flanks, the glaciers would be greatly eroded, ripped up, and much internal glacier water would likely be released,” she told GlacierHub. During the eruption of 1877, between five and ten meters of ice melted, and giant lahars formed. In the event of an eruption in the future, “the only mitigation scheme is to have people go to higher ground, out of the areas to be potentially affected by lahars,” said Mothes.
Communication surrounding the eruption events at the science-society interface was fraught, according to the IGEPN report. Though the agency released three updates daily, misinformation spread broadly through social media, causing panic. In response, emergency services and the IGEPN formed a “vigía” (“look-out” in Spanish) network of observers near the volcano, who disseminated observations of Cotopaxi on local radio stations.
Though the 2015 period of restlessness was traumatic to those that lived through it, the authors note that the landscape and local residents have recovered from Cotopaxi’s eruptions several times throughout history. Reports from as far back as the 16th century indicate that Cotopaxi typically “warms up” slowly before erupting. At present, the IGEPN has over seventy-five scientific instruments on the volcano, continuing monitoring that began in 1986. “At the moment, there is nothing to suspect,” said Mothes.
The report concluded, “Overall, the volcano’s manifestations served as a warning to everyone to keep attentive of Cotopaxi’s capacity to cause destruction and possible severe ruin.” With a major eruption likely to be forthcoming, the authors called such a warning “benevolent.” Ecuador will continue to await the eventual eruption.
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.
Ash erupted from Ecuador’s glacier-covered Cotopaxi volcano last week after seventy quiet years. The debris shot five kilometres into the air, covering homes, cars, fields and roads as it descended, according to the Independent.
Patricio Ramon, of Ecuador’s Instituto Geofísico, said the eruption was phreatic, meaning that molten rock encountered water, creating a forceful release of steam.
“[I felt] in shock, not knowing what to do when I saw everything was moving. Then a strong smell of sulfur filled the mountain. Tourists were also concerned and wanted to leave as soon as possible,” resident Franklin Varela told Ciudadana, an Ecuadorean radio station.
Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second highest volcano, peaks at 5,897 metres and lies 45 kilometres from the capital, Quito. Its glacier, also named Cotopaxi, is considered to be of significant economic, social and environmental importance, according to reports of the United Nations Environment Programme. Meltwater from the glacier provides Quito with water and hydroelectric power, but in the last 40 years, the ice has thinned by more than 38 percent. Most of this retreat is attributed to climate change, but eruptions can exacerbate glacial retreat by rapidly melting ice and triggering floods. Researchers from Instituto Geofísico told El Universal they considered Cotopaxi one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world due to its potential for lahars, or mudflows, often triggered by glacial melt. When Cotopaxi erupted in 1877, lahars travelled as far as 100 kilometres from the volcano.
The most recent ash eruptions led to the evacuation of hundreds of residents and livestock from El Pedregal, a community close to the volcano, reported La Hora. Farmers have expressed concerns that the ash that fell on their livestock feed will harm their animals.
Residents have been warned to avoid inhaling ash. Quito’s Mayor, Mauricio Rodas, told citizens he would hand out masks and told the city to remain calm.
Researchers continue to observe Cotopaxi’s activity as the volcano’s activity increases. On Saturday, Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, declared a state of emergency.
The president’s announcement comes the same week as a series of strikes against his government’s labor policies and changes to the constitution that would allow him to run for president at the end of his term. The army and police have been dispatched and civil guarantees are temporarily suspended.
“We declare a state of emergency due to the unusual activity of Mount Cotopaxi,” Correa said. “God willing, everything will go well and the volcano will not erupt.”
Ecuador has a series of beautiful cone-shaped volcanoes along the Andes. This week, GlacierHub features three volcanoes from Ecuador: Cayambe, Chimborazo, and Tungurahua. Cayambe, locating in the Cordillera Central, is a Holocene compound volcano. Chimborazo, locating in the Cordillera Occidental, is the highest mountain in Ecuador. These two volcanoes are currently inactive. On the other hand, Tungurahua is an active volcano, located in the Cordillera Oriental.
Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at email@example.com.
“Glacial Balance,” A New Documentary by Ethan Steinman on Climate Change
“Water and its sources have historically been the key factor in the establishment of cities, of civilizations. But we are at a critical point in the environment and mankind’s existence. . . GLACIAL BALANCE takes us to Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador, getting to know those who are the first to be affected by the melting glacial reserve.”
“Requiem of Ice” Amazing Timelapse Video Shows Melting of the Largest Glacier Cave in the Country
“The cave systems have been mapped and surveyed since 2011 by Brent McGregor and Eddy Cartaya of the Oregon High Desert Grotto and in that time they have discovered more than a mile of caves and passages beneath the Sandy Glacier.”
A team from Uncage the Soul Productions shot “Requiem of Ice” in two caves named Pure Imagination and Snow Dragon, demonstrating the effect of the changing landscape.