Last month, a German court ruled that it will hear a case brought by a Peruvian farmer against Germany’s largest energy producer, RWE, potentially having huge ramifications in so-called climate justice cases. Farmer Saul Luciano Lliuya sued the company in 2015 for emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases, increasing the threat of glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) that endanger his home in Huaraz, in the foothills of the Andes.
This is only the second time a case against a greenhouse gas emitter has reached this stage— the first coming in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, which was swiftly reversed— says Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, who spoke to GlacierHub about the proceedings. Gerrard noted that this case is “very unusual,” and added, “We’ll see what happens with this one.”
NEWS: German Higher Court recognizes that a private company can be held liable for the climate change related damages resulting from its ghg emissions as a general matter and moves case forward to evidentiary stage. Update in our Case Chart: https://t.co/jZyLasfk76
The claim cited a 2013 report that stated RWE emitted 0.47 percent of worldwide carbon and methane emissions from 1751-2010, since industrialization, partly due to its use of coal-fired power plants. To reflect this figure, Lliuya is only seeking reimbursement of 0.47 percent of the damages, or $20,000, out of a total cost of about $4.3 million, to help pay for his home flood defenses.
Justin Gundlach, staff attorney at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told GlacierHub, “Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the case, the court’s order to the parties to submit evidence is highly significant. Effectively, the court is announcing that it is theoretically possible to trace liability for harms arising from climate change, in part, to a particular corporate defendant.”
“I think the case is mostly seeking to establish legal precedent,” said Gerrard. “He’s alleging very significant injury with a clear causal to climate change.”
Huaraz, a city of population 200,000, was struck by a GLOF in the past from nearby Lake Palcacocha. In 1941, about 5,000 were killed from a GLOF event, and another flood in 1970 also killed thousands following a 7.9 earthquake. While pipes have been installed to lower the water when it gets too high, climate change continues to melt glaciers, some by 90 percent, and increases the size and threat of glacier lakes.
A report in The Guardian indicated that the judges in the case said “Even people who act according to the law must be held responsible for damage they cause to property.”
According to Deutsche Welle, a German news organization, a representative for RWE stated, “We don’t believe it’s possible under civil law to hold a single emitter responsible for something that countless human and natural resources also contribute to.”
Gundlach told GlacierHub that while RWE may not be liable, “Its decision to admit evidence indicates to would-be plaintiffs around the world that they might prevail if they can present the right set of facts.”
In the last week, calving events at Lake Palcacocha in the Peruvian Andes released masses of ice from a glacier on Mount Pucaranra. The ice fell into the lake, sending waves across the lake that destroyed infrastructure designed to prevent dangerous outburst floods. Fortunately, the waves were not high enough to overtop the moraine dam and send floodwaters downstream, where they could have taken many lives and damaged urban infrastructure. A glacial lake outburst flood from Palcacocha devastated Huaraz, the largest city in the region, in 1941, killing about 5,000 people. Other, more recent, glacier floods in the region have also been very destructive.
Marco Zapata, the director of glacier research at INAIGEM, the Peruvian National Institute of Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, spoke about the events recently in a press conference reported in the Peruvian daily El Comercio. A Spanish-language video of the full press conference is available online.
Zapata indicated that the calving event occurred around 8 p.m. on May 31. The resulting waves, three meters in height, were strong enough to move and damage ten large pipes, rendering them inoperable. These pipes, known locally as “syphons,” are designed to draw water from the lake at times when its level is high; in this way, they were thought to reduce flood risk significantly. They had been a point of local pride, seen as a successful application of modern technology to protect against the dangers to which the region has long been subject.
Zapata mentioned that the waves also destroyed several gauges and a sensor which measures lake levels. And the event was not an isolated one, at least according to a regional newspaper, which reported a second calving event at 5:40 a.m. on June 2.
Representatives of INAIGEM and two other organizations, the National Water Authority and the local municipality of Independencia, visited the lake a few days later. They found that the workers on Pucarthe site had restored two of the drainage pipes. These officials anticipated that the other eight will soon be functional. Zapata and the other authorities called for increased investment in infrastructure at the lake to reduce the risks of a flood. They estimated that an expenditure of US $6 million would prevent about $2.5 billion in potential damages, including a hydroelectric plant and irrigation facilities on Peru’s desert coast; it would also protect the lives of the 50,000 people who live in the potential flood zone.
The Causes of the Calving Events
These events were not entirely unexpected. Marcelo Somos Valenzuela, a postdoctoral fellow at the Northeast Climate Science Center at the University of Massachusetts, is the lead author of a study, published last year in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, which concluded “there is consensus among local authorities, scientists and specialists that Lake Palcacocha represents a glacier lake outburst flood hazard with potentially high destructive impact on Huaraz.” This paper also stated that a “small avalanche” like the ones that recently occurred are “the highest likelihood event” and that they would “produce significantly less inundation.” Somos Valenzuela wrote to GlacierHub, “There are empirical models and hydrodynamic models which provide estimates of the height of the wave in the lake… In this case, it seems that the ice-fall was small, and 3 meters is a reasonable estimate of the wave height.”
Moreover, several sources indicated high risks at this time of year. Noah Walker-Crawford, an anthropologist at the University of Manchester, spoke recently with the workers at the drainage site at the lake. He wrote to GlacierHub, “According to the people who work at the lake, the icefalls were likely due to unusually strong fluctuations between cold nights and warm days.” He mentioned that they said “there is a block of ice that is ready to fall, but we hope that that won’t happen.”
Jeff Kargel, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, told GlacierHub that both calving events and avalanches at Palcacocha “dump energy into the lake, and if they are large and sudden enough, a big wave can form. As with other more classical tsunamis, the shoaling in Palcacocha toward the south end of the lake— where the syphons are— can cause a relatively small displacement wave to build up to a much larger size when it nears the shore. Avalanches and calving events are frequent occurrences at this lake, and both should be especially active in the late May-July period, which tends to be the dry season, hence mainly sunny, thus allowing high solar radiation. The air temperature doesn’t vary much throughout the year, this being deep into the tropics, so variations in sunny versus cloudy days are the main seasons.”
The weather data indicate some warm days in May at Palcacocha. The data also demonstrate that May had less rain than usual, particularly toward the end of the month. Such dry weather is typically associated with less cloud cover, supporting Kargel’s suggestion and a report in a regional newspaper, Ancash Noticias, which stated that “intense solar radiation” in recent weeks had been the cause of the calving events. The data also support the observations of the local residents about the temperature fluctuations between day and night, since cloudless nights in this region are colder than ones with overcast skies.
Responses to the Calving Events
What can be done to protect Huaraz and neighboring communities from floods, now that the syphons are damaged? Mark Carey gave a long-term view to this question. “Palcacocha has its history of death, destruction, and near misses,” he wrote to GlacierHub. “The issue is partially one of climate change and ever-shrinking glaciers that have caused the lake to expand and fill with more water, creating a hazard waiting to morph into a disaster if Palcacocha’s dam ruptures. Avalanches provide the trigger to help destroy dams.” Referring to Peruvian activities, starting in the 1940s, to lower the lake level and to reinforce the moraine, he added, “The story is also one of engineering and technology. Since the 1990s, funds and political support for actual glacial lake engineering projects have been extremely limited. Now we have regular declarations of states of emergency at Palcacocha, but no engineering projects to provide a more long-term solution.” He also pointed to the need for “an early warning system, and… educational programs to train the population how to respond in the event of an outburst flood or alarm system.”
It might be thought that the damage to the syphons would generate support for such solutions. However, obstacles still limit effective responses. Barbara Frazer, a journalist based in Peru for many years, offered a note of concern, linking these events with other disasters in Peru. She told GlacierHub, “Peru’s response to natural disasters is improving, but the country still clearly lags in prevention. The most recent flooding on the coast was an extreme reminder, but every year, there are also landslides on the Central Highway, and children die of pneumonia during the cold snaps high in the Andes. And every year, there’s an emergency response, but little or no long-range planning. Part of that is due to the way responsibilities and budgets are divided among the various levels of government, part to turnover of government staff, and part simply to a lack of a culture of prevention and planning.”
A recent online exchange in Huaraz shows awareness in the region of these issues raised by Carey and Frazer. Most discussants call for greater investment in infrastructure to protect the areas below Palcacocha. However, others suggest that self-interested government agencies play up the risk in order to increase their budgets, which they will divert to personal ends. A scientist, Sonfia González, commented that the regional government lacks the skills needed to manage risks. Others expressed a concern that publicizing the risks would harm the region by reducing tourism. These disagreements point to a lack of confidence, at least on the part of some local residents, in the agencies whose task it is to protect them from natural hazards.
The calving events confirmed scientific research in the area. They also showed the weakness of the existing infrastructure, designed to protect the region from floods. And the discussions in Huaraz show a second, equally serious deficit: the limits of the trust between society, experts, and public agencies, even in ones of the areas of the world most familiar with glacier risks.
Alton Byers discussed a recent glacier hazard in Nepal with GlacierHub. Byers is a senior research associate at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado and co-manager of High Mountains Adaptation Partnership (HiMAP). He has been recognized as an Explorer by National Geographic. The account below is based on interviews with Byers and emails from Dhananjay Regmi, a geographer at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.
On May 2, Daene McKinney, Dhananjay Regmi and Alton Byers flew from Dingboche over the Sherpani Col and into the upper Barun valley in the eastern Himalayas of Nepal in an effort to determine the source of an April 20 flood.
Dorje Sherpa, a resident of Yangle Kharka, reported that the lake burst around 1 p.m., flooding down the Barun River, and reached his village about a half-hour later. The settlements of Langmale, Zak Kharka and Rephuk Kharka remained largely undamaged, as did lodges in the area, but Yangle Kharka suffered a loss of at least three buildings and many hectares of valuable grazing land. Tematang, further downstream, is located on a high terrace and was fortunately spared damage. However, all local bridges were washed away.
The flood arrived at the confluence of the Barun and Arun Rivers around 4 p.m., where the debris dammed the Arun River, forming a temporary lake 2-3 km long. This setting is remote, a two-day walk from the district capital of Khandbari. The lake presented a serious threat, since it would have created a second, more destructive flood in the densely populated areas downstream had it breached the dam.
The government response was swift. Police reached the site on the morning of April 21 and started to plan how to protect the endangered communities. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Bimalendra Nidhi issued a directive to open the dam in order to reduce the threat of flooding. The Natural Disaster Rescue Committee, an organization within the Nepali Ministry of Home Affairs, met in Kathmandu to discuss the situation. Fortunately, the lake began to drain spontaneously around 2 p.m. on April 21, with some local flooding below, but far less than was feared.
Rather than originating in the Lower Barun glacial lake or as a result of heavy rains and flooded tributaries, as some surmised, the flood’s trigger appears to have been two surficial glacial lakes on the Langmale Glacier just east of the Langmale settlement area, most likely supplemented by englacial conduit and subglacial conduit, as in the Lhotse glacier flood Byers observed and recorded last June. The combined volume of water cascaded over the Langmale’s terminal moraine, creating a huge torrent that picked up more material and debris as it cascaded down the Barun River channel, carving out massive new river channels and flooding large areas of grazing and forest land.
Regmi and Byers spoke with 16 villagers in Yangle Kharka, who said that they would be rebuilding them and returning home soon. The villagers expressed deep concern about the impacts of the flood on the coming tourist season. The damaged trails and bridges make it difficult for local porters and foreign trekkers to reach the region, and the dramatically changed landscapes, with landslide scars, are less visually appealing to tourists.
McKinney, Regmi and Byers were only able to fly another 10 km or so down valley because of fuel shortages before returning to the upper Barun and Khumbu, but they noticed another very large and fresh torrent scar on the right bank of the Barun. They plan to study it as well and learn more about its possible role in the accumulation of debris and creation of the lake. Through this research, they hope to contribute to the active discussion of glacier hazard mitigation in Nepal and other mountain regions in the Himalayas and around the world.
It is a peaceful experience to walk near the glacial lake near Colonia Glacier, one of several prominent glacier lakes in Patagonia, Chile. The breeze on the lake helps you relax as you look out on the distant glaciers. In such a tranquil setting, it is hard to imagine that a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOFs) could pose a threat to the area. However, GLOFs have become a significant but poorly understood hazard of a warming global climate.
The truth is, melting Colonia Glacier, located in the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, Chile, has caused dozens of GLOFs over the years. The lake near Colonia Glacier, Cachet II, has been drained frequently after unexpected floodings. The people living nearby are under constant threat of a sudden flood, which could completely destroy homes and livelihoods.
Actually now, in the Chilean and Argentinean Andes, recent research by project member Pablo Iribarren Anacona has identified at least 31 glacial lakes have failed since the eighteenth century, producing over 100 GLOF events.
“These lakes can be dangerous, and we need to take action,” Alton Byers, a geologist at the University of Colorado, told GlacierHub.
A group of scientists concerned about GLOF risk have initiated a project, “Glacier Hazards in Chile,” which aims to answer key questions concerning past, present and future glacial hazards in Chile. One of the members is Ryan Wilson, a glaciologist at Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom.
“The project will assess the changing magnitude, frequency, and distribution of different glacial hazards in Chile under current and future global climate change,” Wilson explained to GlacierHub. At the moment, Wilson and the other researchers are focusing on understanding the processes that govern the development of GLOFs in Chile.
The fieldwork of Wilson and his team was recently featured in Science. The them held a workshop at Aberystwyth University in July 2016, during which they discussed progress on their Chilean fieldwork, glacial lake mapping, glacial hazard assessment, outburst flood modeling and climate modeling.
To assess GLOFs and GLOF risk, the team compiled a glacial lake inventory for the central and Patagonian Andes (1986 – 2016). Wilson said they used remote-sensing and fieldwork to find past GLOF sites around the major icefields, satellite glaciers and snow-and ice-capped volcanoes of Chile.
“We have managed to use this lake inventory to inform field campaigns in February to two interesting glacial lake sites in Chile,” Wilson said. “We conducted aerial drone surveys and collected lake bathymetry data.” The team will next analyze flood hydrographs (a graph showing the rate of flow versus time past a specific point in a river) of selected former GLOFs and use these to establish the patterns of downstream impacts. They are proud of their work so far, which they hope to publish soon.
Using the inventory across Chile, the team and local community are able to assess the potential damage GLOFs can cause. Wilson et al. plan to “conduct numerical simulations of downstream impacts for selected potential GLOF sites using physically-based numerical flood models.”
In collaboration with Chilean partners, this research will be used to develop early warning systems and raise awareness about quantified GLOF risks. Glacial hazards have threatened various commercial and governmental stakeholders across Chile, making GLOFs a pressing priority.
The ultimate goal of the project is to provide a framework that can be applied to other lower income countries, since GLOFs pose threats in multiple countries.
“We will make recommendations for GLOF hazard assessment protocols and mitigation strategies in lower income countries globally,” Wilson told GlacierHub.
An earthquake in Peru earlier this year produced significant ground shaking in highland regions of the country. It set off a wave of panic that glacial lakes in the Andes might burst their banks and create devastating floods.
The quake, of magnitude 5.3 on the Richter scale, took place at 1:42am local time on January 28. As reported by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earthquake Hazards Program, its epicenter was located under the Pacific Ocean, about 55 kilometers from the port of Chimbote in the region of Ancash, where the shaking was most instance. It was felt up and down the coast, as far north as Trujillo and as far south as Lima. The tremors also extended inland.
This earthquake was the first of a cluster. The second occurred five hours later in the town of Ica to the south of Chimbote. The third took place two hours after that, near Arequipa, still further to the south. These were smaller—4.7 and 4.4, respectively—but close enough in time to create a stir in the media, with extensive coverage all day long in national media. Moreover, Peru had experienced mudslides and debris flows in the months before the earthquake, adding to the sense of concern.
The first earthquake was a source of great concern in the highland areas closest to Chimbote, particularly in the Callejón de Huaylas—the long valley along the Santa River, just below the Cordillera Blanca, the mountain chain which contains the largest area of glaciers in Peru. The regional capital of Huaraz and several other sizable towns are located in this valley, which has experienced a number of destructive glacier lake outburst floods. Christian Huggel, a Swiss glaciologist who was working in the area at the time, wrote, “We felt the earthquake here in Huaraz during the night.” He added, “I did not see any damage in the morning, so everything seems to be okay around here.”
Benjamin Morales, the director of Peru’s National Institute for Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, told GlacierHub that “the heavy rainfall and landslides in central and southern regions [of Peru]” added to the concern following the earthquakes, sensitizing the whole country to the risk of natural hazards even though risks were not as severe in Ancash and north of the country, where, he said, “rainfall is lower.”
Tony Oliver-Smith, an anthropologist at the University of Florida with extensive experience in the region, indicated to GlacierHub that the timing of the events, in the middle of the rainy season, was significant. He wrote, “Those of us who have worked in the Callejon de Huaylas are always alert to the effects of earthquakes and landslides, particularly in the rainy season,” when soils are moist, and more likely to erode.
The greatest fear was in Carhuaz, a provincial capital to the north of Huaraz. It lies near Huascaran, the tallest peak in the Cordillera Blanca, and the site of one of the world’s largest glacier lake outburst floods in 1970. This event, triggered by an earthquake, led to a debris flow which covered the town of Yungay, with about 6,000 fatalities.
A series of smaller aftershocks which followed the main earthquake kept the tensions high in Carhuaz. A Peruvian newspaper, Primera Página, reported that people were concerned that “blocks of ice would detach from glaciers and fall into the lake.” The resulting waves could overtop the rock walls that rim the lake and create a flood.
The residents of Carhuaz were also aware that the town had become more vulnerable to floods. A few months earlier, villagers had vandalized equipment that had been installed at a high mountain lake, called Laguna 513, directly above the town. The instruments, brought to the region at significant expense, were designed to provide warnings if the lake destabilized and threatened to flood the settlements below. As Morales, Huggel and other sources told GlacierHub, the reasons for this destruction are still not clear; they could have involved distrust of foreigners involved in the project, or beliefs that local spirits were offended by the equipment, or simply rivalry between different political factions.
A recent video offers testimony to the damage at the site:
Whatever the precise motivation of the people who attacked the warning system, the timing of the earthquake, coming soon after it was disabled, added to the concern. Primera Página reported that people felt “unprotected.” Cesar Portocarrero, a Peruvian glaciologist who lives and works in the region, wrote to GlacierHub, “In Carhuaz they felt the shaking and of course they immediately thought about the lake where the early warning system had been completely destroyed. It is very sad that the instruments were taken away.”
In the weeks after the earthquake, the aftershocks abated and concerns diminished. Patricia Hammer, an anthropologist who lives outside Carhuaz, wrote to GlacierHub in February of the “tremor,” saying that it left “little impact here in the highlands.” Nonetheless, the region remains vulnerable to earthquakes and floods. The challenges in establishing locally acceptable warning systems make these risks even greater.
Glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) pose an immediate threat to locations in mountain regions where rising temperatures contribute to glacier melt. This risk makes it crucial that communities at risk to GLOFs develop early warning systems (EWS) to alert residents of impending danger. In order for EWS to be effective, gender needs to be prioritized. In a recent paper published by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Mandira Shrestha et al. evaluated flood early warning systems in Bhutan and found that many EWS exclude women, who are especially susceptible to natural disasters like GLOFs.
GLOFs, which are difficult to predict and devastating to local populations, occur when meltwater is suddenly released from a lake just below a glacier. When this occurs, large amounts of water rush down valleys, picking up debris. They can lead to many deaths and to extensive destruction of fields and property.
In total, Bhutan has 24 lakes which are capable of causing GLOFs. As temperatures rise, glacier melt increases, leading to exposed moraines and larger volumes of water. However, an EWS can help save lives during a GLOF, especially if it is combined with preparatory actions before a flood occurs.
In Bhutan, the EWS was first introduced in 1988 as part of the Hindu Kush Himalayan – Hydrological Cycle Observing System (HKH-HYCOS), a project developed by ICIMOD, national governments in the region, and the World Meteorological Organization. However, Shrestha et al. found that none of the current policies in Bhutan’s EWS address specific needs and experiences of women during natural disasters. In planning documents, women are described as victims, rather than presented as playing an important role in disaster risk management.
The Bhutan EWS contains four major elements, also found in other warning systems: risk assessment, monitoring and warning, dissemination and communication, and response capability. The Bhutanese government first prioritized flood early warning systems in 1994, following a detrimental GLOF, which killed 12 people, destroyed 21 homes, and washed away nearly 2,000 acres of land. Shrestha et al. point out that even a good warning system would not be fully effective in preventing such a tragedy if it fails to reach vulnerable populations like women, as well as other such populations including children, disabled people, and the elderly.
As Shrestha et al. explain, while women in Bhutan make up 49% of the population and legally have equal rights and access to education, public services, and health care, most women engage in household labor, while men dominate political work. The authors indicate that only 25 percent of women in Bhutan are involved in non-agricultural work. Extensive male out-migration in Bhutan, as elsewhere in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, leaves women to carry out the work in domestic agriculture. As a result, Bhutanese women are excluded from decision-making processes at community or larger scales.
This pattern is reflected in other nearby countries as well. One study done on disaster-affected people seeking mental health care in Bangladesh, which has the highest natural disaster mortality rate in the world, found that women have higher mortality rates in natural disasters, and are also extremely vulnerable in the aftermath of a natural disaster. For example, they are more likely to face food shortage, sexual harassment, and disease, among other issues.
Shrestha et al. describe how the social structure in Bhutan leaves women dependent on men for receiving disaster information, because these details are shared in public places, where women typically do not go. Many of the alerts are done through sirens, but some women cannot hear them as they are located in towns rather than rural areas. Even if women do receive the information, it is often too late. Due to cultural norms that restrict their freedom of movement when in public, women are frequently left waiting to ask for permission from men to take actions that can save their lives.
Gender-inclusive EWS emphasizes assuring that women receive early warnings, but also, more importantly, that they participate in decision-making processes. Without these features, early warning systems may prove inadequate to save the lives of women in natural disasters like GLOFs.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
Situated on a high plateau in northwest India, the Ladakh region is part of the contested Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. While local communities share similar linguistic, cultural, and religious beliefs with Tibet, Pakistan and India continue to disagree on territorial claims in the region. Located in the Himalaya Mountains, the Ladakh region is home to some of the world’s largest glaciers outside of polar regions with 266 glacial lakes, according to Mountain Research and Development. Given the recent warming temperature trends, the glacial retreat in the region places Ladakh’s small mountain communities at risk for destructive events known as glacial lake outburst floods or GLOFs. A GLOF occurs when the terminal moraine dam located at the maximum edge of a glacier collapses, releasing large volumes of water.
In an attempt to minimize these threats to small mountain communities, the International Research Institute of Disaster Science, the Department of Environmental Science at Niigata University, and the Ladakh Ecological Development Groupoffered a one-day workshop to educate populations on their local risks due to the increased numbers of glacial lakes in the region. Three months after the workshop, facilitators returned to the area to survey local villagers to measure the retention and overall success of this adaptive approach.
In the article, scientists report that knowledge of risks was limited: “Most villagers knew of some but not all of the glacier lakes in the valley – primarily those closest to the regular routes used in their daily lives, such as near pasturelands in the headwater areas and along trade routes to the adjacent valleys.” The majority of villagers obtained their knowledge from communications with people who had come across the glacial lakes accidentally, according to the researchers.
By presenting and encouraging action that complemented daily lives, the scientists believed they were able to better prepare communities for climate risks increases. The scientists were able to provide local villagers with information on how to more accurately assess glacier lakes and the potential risk for a GLOF by developing an understanding of local routes. These tools were promoted to help villagers contribute to a stronger, more resilient local mountain community.
A warming planet has caused glacial melt to increase in regions like northwest India, leading to the formation of more glacial lakes since the 1970s, according to NASA. With the increased number of glacial lakes located in theLadakh region, the risk for glacial outburst flood rises, as stated by Worni et al. Given the high altitude origins of these glacial lakes, a sudden release of water can have similar catastrophic impacts as a massive avalanche. The sudden force is capable of leveling anything in its path, including villages.
“[GLOFs] result in serious death tolls and destruction of valuable natural resources, such as forests, farms, and costly mountain infrastructures,” according to the India Environmental Portal. “The Hindu Kush-Himalayan region has suffered several GLOF events originating from numerous glacial lakes, some of which have trans-boundary impacts.” Educating and preparing small mountain communities becomes increasingly critical because forecasting abilities for these events are limited.
The forecasting challenges surrounding GLOFs makes communicating risk to local communities difficult. In an attempt to reach and effectively communicate risks to remote mountain villages in the Ladakh region, the International Research Institute of Disaster Science, the Department of Environmental Science, Niigata University, and the Ladakh Ecological Development Group developed a concept for the one day workshop. According to thereport, of the 120 people participating, three villages were represented, all possessing different leveled risks. Villagers were picked at random and varied in age from school children to elderly members in the community. Once the workshop began, facilitators encouraged the conversation and integration of both villager observations and scientific fact provided by scientists working for the Ladakh Ecological Development Group.
The workshop began with villagers sharing their knowledge and perceptions on changes in the region. By providing material in both English and the local language, Ladakhi, the workshop tried to make the scientific material more accessible to villagers, regardless of their preferred language. Additionally, many of the challenging scientific processes were presented visually and had accompanying text in both languages. Finally, this information was merged and displayed in terms of future countermeasures needed to reduce flood risks. Success was measured after the workshop had completed.
Three months after the workshop, a survey suggested that the local communities had benefited from the experience: “Of the 60 respondents, 34 stated that they had acquired new information from the workshop and booklet. Among them, 18 had not participated in the workshop,” according to the report. While these numbers show an opportunity to improve understanding and retention, the feedback also demonstrates that the workshop was successful in providing villagers who attended with accurate, accessible information. It generated important discussion about confronting risks associated with a changing glacial landscape, as demonstrated by half of the people surveyed not having attended the conference.
Integrating climate science and culture is the future to building resilient communities. As was discovered in the Ladakh region, religion helped shape the local communities view of natural environmental processes. “Some Domhar villagers came to think of these lakes as sacred places; this belief is still alive among some villagers, especially the older people,” according to the researchers. “Participants of one of the four discussion groups mentioned a belief that sacred horses and sheep lived at lakes in the headwater areas of the Gongpa-Rangchong Valley, and that floods or other disasters would occur if these animals were offended…. Furthermore, the participants of the same discussion group also noted that they could see Tibetan temples and landscapes reflected on the surface of the lake.”
Respecting and acknowledging local belief systems is imperative and proved to be useful in the case of educating local mountain communities in the Ladakh region. Reflections appearing in the lakes is deeply-rooted in the religious cultures of the Ladakh region, which is primarily Tibetan Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, according to the Yale Journal. By creating a workshop that encouraged conversation about the climate changes in the region, the scientists were able to direct the retention of information by providing a learning environment that validated all views. Additionally, by listening and honoring local culture, scientists were able to present scientifically accurate information in a way that would incorporate everyday culture.
Educating communities is the foundation of creating and implementing a successful adaptation plan, as seen with the work done in northwest India. Educating and adapting ensures resilience to risks associated not only with glacial outburst flood risks, but also other risks associated with changing climates. The methods highlighted by this report of educating through culturally-aware discussions showed promising results worth building upon. As global communities continue to face challenges associated with changing climates, it’s worth exploring methods that have successfully started to implement change.
New York Times: “Gordon Hamilton, a prominent climate scientist who studied glaciers and their impact on sea levels in a warming climate, died in Antarctica when the snowmobile he was riding plunged into a 100-foot-deep crevasse. He was an associate research professor in the glaciology group at the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. He was camping with his research team on what is known as the Shear Zone, where two ice shelves meet in an expanse three miles wide and 125 miles long. Parts of the Shear Zone can be up to 650 feet thick and ‘intensely crevassed.’ Dr. Hamilton’s research, aided by a pair of robots equipped with ground-penetrating radar instruments, focused on the impact of a warming climate on sea levels. He was working with an operations team to identify crevasses.”
Journal of Asian Earth Sciences: “Antimony (Sb) is a ubiquitous element in the environment that is potentially toxic at very low concentrations. In this study, surface snow/ice and snowpit samples were collected from four glaciers in the southeastern Tibetan Plateau in June 2015… The average Sb concentration in the study area was comparable to that recorded in a Mt. Everest ice core and higher than that in Arctic and Antarctic snow/ice but much lower than that in Tien Shan and Alps ice cores… Backward trajectories revealed that the air mass arriving at the southeastern Tibetan Plateau mostly originated from the Bay of Bengal and the South Asia in June. Thus, pollutants from the South Asia could play an important role in Sb deposition in the studied region. The released Sb from glacier meltwater in the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding areas might pose a risk to the livelihoods and well-being of those in downstream regions.”
The Climate Change Adaption Strategies: A recently edited book, “The Climate Change Adaptation Strategies – An Upstream – Downstream Perspective,” edited by Nadine Salzmann et al., has several chapters on glaciers. The chapter “Managing Glacier Related Risks Disaster in the Chucchún Catchment, Cordillera Blanca, Peru” discusses some of these glacier related risks: “Glacial lakes hazards have been a constant factor in the population of the Cordillera Blanca due their potential to generate glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) caused by climate change. In response, the Glaciares Project has been carried out to implement three strategies to reduce risks in the Chucchún catchment through: (1) Knowledge generation, (2) building technical and institutional capacities, and (3) the institutionalization of risk management. As a result, both the authorities and the population have improved their resilience to respond to the occurrence of GLOF.”
This Week’s Roundup: Glaciers are being collected in Antarctica, “quietly transforming the Earth’s surface” and causing floods
A team of scientists, aware of the need to obtain ice cores from threatened glaciers, are working to create a glacier archive bank in Antarctica
From CNRS News: “By capturing various components of the atmosphere, ice constitutes an invaluable source of information with which to examine our past environment, to analyze climate change, and, above all, to understand our future. Today, the science of ice cores lets us study dozens of chemical components trapped in ice, such as gases, acids, heavy metals, radioactivity, and water isotopes, to name but a few…”
“We plan to store the boxes in containers at a depth of 10 meters below the surface in order to maintain the glacier cores at an ambient temperature of – 54°C. The Antarctic is in fact an immense freezer with an ice sheet up to 4 kilometers thick, and is far removed from everything; in addition, it is not subject to any territorial disputes. The subterranean chamber will be large enough to house samples taken from between 15 and 20 glaciers.”
Study finds that ancient melting glaciers are causing sea levels to drop in some places
From Smithsonian Magazine: “But a new study out in the Journal of Geophysical Research shows that in places like Juneau, Alaska, the opposite is happening: sea levels are dropping about half an inch every year. How could this be? The answer lies in a phenomenon of melting glaciers and seesawing weight across the earth called ‘glacial isostatic adjustment.’ You may not know it, but the Last Ice Age is still quietly transforming the Earth’s surface and affecting everything from the length of our days to the topography of our countries.”
Glacial flood emerges along Iceland’s Skaftá river
From Iceland Magazine: “A small glacial flood is under way in Skaftá river in South Iceland. The Icelandic Met Office (IMO) warns travelers to stay away from the edge of the water as the flood water is carrying with it geothermal gases which can be dangerous….The discharge of Skaftá at Sveinstindur is presently 270 cubic metres per second. The flood is not expected to cause any downstream disruption.”
Over 30 people, including government officials, researchers, students and journalists, recently visited Palcacocha, a lake at the foot of a large glacier high in the Peruvian Andes. This one-day trip was a tour that came the day after an international glacier conference held nearby. The group discussed natural hazards and water resources associated with the lake. The conversation revealed that a number of different agencies and organizations have claims to the lake, and that their concerns, though overlapping, differ in important ways, raising challenges for those who wish to manage it. These issues of governance are characteristic of the management of glacier lakes in other countries as well, including India, Nepal, Bhutan, Switzerland and Tajikistan.
Lake Palcacocha, located about 20 kilometers northeast of the city of Huaraz at an elevation of 4550 meters above sea level, is well-known in Peru and beyond as the source of a major glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF). This event occurred in 1941, when a chunk of ice broke off the glacier above the lake, sending waves that destroyed the moraine that dammed the lake. The floodwaters, mixed with rock, mud and debris, rushed down the canyon and inundated Huaraz, located well below the lake at an elevation of 3050 meters. The death toll was high, exceeding 5000 by many accounts, and large areas of the city were destroyed. The residents of the city remain keenly aware of the risks presented by GLOFs, known as aluviones in Spanish.
The visitors traveled up to the lake in buses and vans, hiking on foot to cover the final, and roughest, kilometer of the road. They assembled at the wall at the base of the lake that had been built in the 1940s to reinforce the moraine dam. The first person to speak was César Portocarrero, an engineer from the Peruvian National Institute for Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, the group which organized the international conference. This institute, known by its Spanish acronym INAIGEM, is a branch of Peru’s Ministry of the Environment. It is charged with managing glacier issues in the country, including this lake. Portocarrero discussed the wall, indicating that it has been repaired several times after damage from earthquakes. He showed a sluice gate through which a number of plastic pipes were threaded. These serve to siphon water from the lake and pass it into the outlet river below, relying on gravity rather than pumps to move the water.
By lowering the level of the lake, the agency also lowers the risk that waves in the lake (which could be produced by icefalls, avalanches, or earthquakes) would overtop the wall and create another GLOF. Portocarrero indicated as well that an intake valve further downstream directs the water from the river to the city of Huaraz. This lake supplies the city with nearly half its water. The key goal, he emphasized, was to keep the lake level low. He mentioned that glacier melt was particularly heavy in January, due to high temperatures associated with an El Niño event. The lake was so high that the siphon pipes had to be removed, allowing the maximum possible flow through the sluice gate. It took several months after the excess water was drained to thread the pipes through the gate and reinstall them.
The second person to speak was Eloy Alzamora Morales, the mayor of the district of Independencia, the administrative unit in which the lake is located. He emphasized the importance of a multisectoral approach that would link disaster risk reduction with sustainable water use, providing potable water to Huaraz and to rural areas above the city, and supporting a hydroelectric plant that he wished to build. He expressed his hope to coordinate government agencies, civil society organizations and private firms to promote sustainable development through integrated water management. The key goal, he indicated, was to keep the lake at an intermediate level, retaining enough water for urban consumption and hydropower generation while also reducing hazard risks.
After this second talk, most of the journalists who videotaped these first two speakers dispersed to take photographs of the lake, the glacier and the surrounding peaks, which rise up to over 6270 meters in elevation. A few remained to listen to Selwyn Valverde, a conservation manager at Huascaran National Park, the large protected area in which the lake, glacier and peaks are located. He emphasized the national park’s goals of supporting ecosystems in as pristine a condition as possible. He spoke proudly of the park’s biodiversity, emphasizing that it contains sizable populations of high mountain plants and animals that are more seriously threatened elsewhere in the Andes. Pointing to the outflow stream from the lake, he mentioned that it supports high-elevation wetlands which support groundwater recharge. The key goal, he suggested, was to manage the park to support biodiversity and provide ecosystem services; any alteration of unimpeded stream flow would require careful consideration.
Jeff Kargel, a geoscientist from the University of Arizona, spoke more informally, with one or two journalists taking notes. As a researcher who focuses on the earth and other bodies in the solar system, he, too, had a kind of standing to speak for the area. He pointed out the rocky bluffs halfway up the glacier. When glacier ice, moving downslope, reaches them, it tends to fall off because they are so steep. As a result, they appear as black masses halfway up the glacier. They are large enough to be visible in satellite images. Kargel reported that these were the features that NASA had interpreted in 2003 as newly formed cracks within the glaciers. They issued a warning of increased GLOF risk, which led to near-panic in the region and a sharp decline in tourism for over a year. This incident, he indicated, showed the importance of taking care in issuing warnings, and the danger of false alarms.
These discussions over, the group dispersed. Some people hiked down from the wall to the lake. One of these was Gualberto Machaca, a native speaker of Quechua, the indigenous language of the region. He works with a small NGO, Asociación Bartolomé Aripaylla, which focuses on the use of traditional knowledge and culture in promoting sustainability and well-being. His focus was on the indigenous communities that had long held traditional rights to the lake, but which were expelled from the park at its formation in 1975. Walking slowly around the shore of the lake, he commented that the customary rituals of making offerings to the lake spirits, common in other regions of Peru, seemed to be less evident here, but he thought it was likely that they were still carried on, probably at night, by small groups. He provided an overview of the lake rituals in which he had participated, further south in Peru. He suggested that the support of such rituals would promote the integration of indigenous knowledge into efforts to address climate change.
After a half hour, the conference organizers called the people to walk back to the vehicles. We drove a short distance to a cluster of stone huts, where the caretakers of the dam lived. They had prepared a lunch for us, a traditional meal of meat and potatoes baked in an underground oven. The group sat at rough-hewn tables and on benches, eating the local food with their hands, as is the customary practice—a striking contrast with the banquet that ended the conference, where food was elegantly served on fine dishes on tables covered with tablecloths. No discord was evident, even though different forms of management of the lake had been discussed, and the lake had been claimed by different organizations (a branch of a ministry, a municipality, a national park, international scientists and indigenous communities). It seemed that everyone could agree on the importance of the lake, the value of the excursion, and the affirmation of customary foods. As the visitors returned for the drive back to Huaraz, a number of people exchanged business cards and handshakes. From these networks and exchanges, new activities may emerge to address the substantial challenges that glacier retreat brings to the lake and to the area, offering lessons for mountain regions around the world.
Obama: Climate Change ‘Could Mean No More Glaciers In Glacier National Park,’ Statue of Liberty
“During Saturday’s Weekly Address, President Obama stated, “the threat of climate change means that protecting our public lands and waters is more important than ever. Rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers in Glacier National Park. No more Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park. Rising seas could destroy vital ecosystems in the Everglades, even threaten Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.”
To read the full transcript of the President’s Weekly Address, click here.
Melting Glaciers Pose Threat Beyond Water Scarcity: Floods
From VOA News:
“The tropical glaciers of South America are dying from soot and rising temperatures, threatening water supplies to communities that have depended on them for centuries. But experts say that the slow process measured in inches of glacial retreat per year also can lead to a sudden, dramatic tragedy. The melting of glaciers like Peru’s Pastoruri has put cities like Huaraz, located downslope from the glacier about 35 miles (55 kilometers) away, at risk from what scientists call a ‘GLOF’ — Glacial Lake Outburst Flood.”
Click here to read more about the risk of glacial lake outburst floods from GlacierHub’s founder and editor, Ben Orlove.
Yukon has a new lake, thanks to a retreating glacier
From CBC News:
“Yukon has lost a river, and now gained a lake, thanks to the retreating Kaskawulsh glacier.
Geologists and hikers first noticed earlier this summer that the Slims River, which for centuries had delivered melt water from the glacier to Kluane Lake, had disappeared — the glacial run-off was now being sent in a different direction. Now, the level of Kluane Lake has dropped enough to turn the remote Cultus Bay, on the east side of the lake, into Cultus Lake. A narrow channel of water that once connected the bay to the larger lake is gone, exposing a wide gravel bar between the two.”