The environmental and socioeconomic benefits of the world’s glaciers, from their role in water storage to their influence in tourism, have led to the development of national laws to protect glacial environments from activities like mining that could adversely alter them. While legal protections aim to safeguard glaciers and the value they generate, the laws often fail to account for the actions necessary to mitigate glacial hazards or adapt to climate change. A recently published study in Ambio examined glacier protection laws in Argentina and Chile in an effort to explore how laws could better address interventions in rapidly changing glacial areas.
The study was part of the Newton Picarte project on Glacial Hazards in Chile, a partnership between Universidad Austral in Chile and Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom. Its goal, according to author Pablo Iribarren, a glaciology lecturer at Universidad Austral, was to emphasize that glaciers not only provide environmental and socioeconomic benefits but also pose a threat to mountain communities. In addition, Iribarren told GlacierHub that “…this duality must be considered by Glacier Protection Laws (GPLs) to better face challenges associated with a rapidly changing cryosphere.”
It might seem impossible to protect glaciers, except by reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. But there are other concrete steps that countries can take, particularly in relation to mining. GPLs are a relatively new phenomenon intended to preserve glaciers and their surrounding environments from commercial endeavors. Argentina was the first country to ratify a GPL in 2010. Chile and Kyrgyzstan have also developed GPLs, although these laws have yet to be ratified, due largely to the power of the extractive lobby. The opposition to GPLs from the mining industry and even the government is robust because of the economic benefits of natural resource extraction. For example, in the central Chilean Andes 55.1 billion dollars were generated from 2004 to 2011 and over 60,000 people were employed by the industry.
Mining and other natural resources extraction activities on and near glaciers in many cases destroy ice or cover it with debris and contaminate water resources. Chiles’s unresolved GPL, for instance, stemmed from a mining project known as Pascua Lama developed by Barrick Gold, a Canadian mining company that proposed the removal of glacial ice for mining purposes. However, despite intending to protect glaciers from destruction or alteration, GPLs can also inhibit the mitigation of glacial hazards and climate change adaptation by limiting intervention in glacial environments.
Glacial hazards are primarily caused by three sometimes concurrent processes: glacial advance, glacial blockage of mountain streams, and the growth and subsequent failure of glacial-dammed lakes. In the case of advancing glaciers, their leading fronts can become stranded, blocking streams and creating lakes. These glacial dams are then particularly vulnerable to melting. A well-known glacial disaster occurred through this mechanism in the Argentinian Andes in 1934, when an ice-dam blocking a stream failed. The resultant flood inundated a valley below, killing 20 people. Conversely, retreating glaciers often leave in their wake glacial lakes, some of which can be very large in volume. When the volumes of these lakes increase or when waves from glacial calving strike the dam, damaging outburst floods can occur.
To reduce the risks posed by glacial hazards, different strategies can be employed. One strategy for an ice-dammed lake is the modification of the ice dam itself through reinforcement methods like increasing its impermeability. Another strategy involves the actual excavation or blasting of ice to prevent glacial advance or to preemptively drain an ice-dammed lake. In another form of intervention, local communities near glaciers might utilize glacial lakes as a water reservoir in response to reduced water availability due to climate change or reduce the risk of outburst floods by lowering lake levels.
However, conflict arises between these glacial interventions and GPLs because interventions usually involve the modification of the glacial environment. Under Argentina’s GPL Article 6, activities that modify a glacier’s natural condition or result in the destruction or movement of glacial ice are prohibited. Section 6b continues by prohibiting the construction of infrastructure on or near a glacier, although it does allow infrastructure for scientific purposes or to prevent risks.
Glacial hazard mitigation and climate change adaptation would fall under this article, but any proposed intervention would be subject to an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), according to Article 7 of the GPL. Thus, the authors presume that “the most likely scenario for handling a hazard would be to conduct an EIS, yet this procedure may take months or even years.” During this possibly time-consuming process, a hazard “could put lives and infrastructure in danger.” For another view on this issue, GlacierHub spoke to Jorge Daniel Taillant, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Environment, and author of “Glaciers: The Politics of Ice,” who finds it unlikely that preventive action against a potential glacial hazard would be delayed by a GPL and an accompanying EIS.
Why the disconnect between Argentina’s GPL and glacial interventions for hazard mitigation and climate change adaptation purposes? For Iribarren, it’s a result of the GPL being developed in response to conflict between mining and local communities fighting to protect their water supplies. Glacial hazards were simply ignored in the midst of a seemingly existential fight between international mining conglomerates and local people.
The omission of glacial hazards and climate change adaptation during the development of GPLs means intervention into the glacial environment could possibly be impeded or even prohibited altogether. To improve upon this current intersection, the authors argue that GPLs should include allowances for glacial interventions that protect lives or infrastructure. They further argue that the process to authorize intervention should be sped up so that hazards are addressed in a timely manner, reducing the possibility of disaster. Finally, they propose that GPLs should clearly designate the government institutions responsible for glacial interventions.
While these proposals would likely help to improve GPLs, challenges would still remain. The biggest of these, according to Iribarren, is the possibility that GPLs that allow for easier glacial interventions could be used as a loophole for parties to intervene in glacial environments for strictly economic purposes like mining.
With Argentina’s GPL, the only one of its kind enacted worldwide, future research is undoubtedly needed to truly assess the conflicts these laws potentially pose. A first step in this process, Iribarren believes, is to study how other glacial countries like Peru or Switzerland have balanced “conflicts between economic interests and the protection of the cryosphere and surrounding landscapes.”