Photo Friday: Images From Huascaran Research Expedition

Huascaran National Park covers 1,375 square kilometers of the Cordillera Blanca in the Ancash region of north-central Peru. The Cordillera Blanca hosts hundreds of glaciers and glacial lakes.

An international team of scientists taking ice cores from glaciers on Huascaran, Peru’s tallest peak, was forced to halt their research and evacuate the mountain in early August. Residents of the nearby Musho village suspected the scientists were damaging the mountain and mining illegally.

After leaving the mountain, the scientists negotiated with locals and government officials for a solution that would enable them to retrieve their ice cores. After a few tense days, the government provided a helicopter to transport the ice cores and drilling equipment.

The episode hightlights the sometimes tense relations between researchers working in the field and local populations.

Check out GlacierHub’s report on the Huascaran dispute and take a look at images from the excursion provided to GlacierHub by Ivan Lavrentiev, a member of the research team.

View of Huascaran from the Corillera Negra (Source: Ivan Lavrentiev)
On the way to the Col of Huascaran (Source: Ivan Lavrentiev)
Ascending Huascaran (Source: Ivan Lavrentiev)
Researchers climb the slopes of Huascaran, where they will drill ice cores (Source: Ivan Lavrentiev)
Researchers drill ice cores on the summit of Huascaran (Source: Ivan Lavrentiev)
Ice core samples taken from the summit of Huascaran will help researchers better understand the climate of the past. (Source: Ivan Lavrentiev)
Researchers collect the last ice core from the summit of Huascaran. (Source: Ivan Lavrentiev)
Researchers examine the final ice core taken from the summit of Huascaran. (Source: Ivan Lavrentiev)
After successfully drilling on the summit of Huascaran, researchers pose with their equipment at an elevation of 6,768 meters. (Source: Ivan Lavrentiev)
After evacuation from Huascaran, researchers pose with the Peruvian crew that transported them from the summit. (Source: Ivan Lavrentiev)

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How Simmering Suspicions Over Mining Threatened Glacier Science In the Andes

A multinational team of scientists taking ice cores from glaciers on Peru’s tallest peak, Huascaran, withdrew from their research site on August 5 due to opposition from residents of the nearby Musho village, who suspected the scientists of causing environmental damage to the mountain and of illegal mining. 

When they were asked to leave, the scientists had been on Mount Huascaran for about four weeks and had already completed the extraction of the two pairs of ice cores that they needed for their project. The team was evacuated soon after by a helicopter provided by the national police force. However, they left the samples they had collected on the mountain. Soon after, they entered talks with locals and government officials to find a solution that would enable them to retrieve the ice cores. After a few tense days, the government provided a helicopter to transport the ice cores and drilling equipment. Peruvian members of the expedition were allowed to bring the ice cores and drilling equipment down the mountain, and the expedition came to a successful close.  

Where the dispute took place

Huascaran National Park covers 1,375 square kilometers in the Cordillera Blanca in the Ancash region of north-central Peru. It is home to 660 glaciers, 300 glacial lakes, and 27 snowy mountains, Huascaran being just one. The park was created in 1975, declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1977, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985

Mount Huascaran has a northern [left] and a southern summit. 
Source: Stanislav Kutuzov

Some of the tension that led to the conflict can be traced back to historical influences from the founding of the park and the governance of land areas within it. The park is managed by the National Service of Protected Areas (SERNANP), under Peru’s Ministry of the Environment. There are a number of communities, Musho village included, located close to its boundaries. The roads into the park pass through community lands and the peasant communities often exercise rights over those roads. They sometimes regulate, limit, or close traffic to the park. In theory, the government could set rules for travel on the roads, but local communities exercise control over them. Additionally, local communities hold customary rights over pastures and woodlands within the park. Those rights existed prior to the establishment of the park. However, now the communities’ access to these areas is more limited.

Peru passed legislation that bans resource extraction within protected areas without explicit government approval. For those projects that do receive approval, concessions are granted within park land, usually to private firms. In spite of this legislation, the area has a long history of illegal mining operations which take place without formal approval. Over time, they have generated suspicion in local communities of the intentions of outsiders visiting Huascaran.  

Luis Vicuña, a sociologist at the University of Zurich, explained that the Ancash region is the site of many environmental problems related to mining. He told GlacierHub that “in recent years, illegal mining has increased in this region,” referring to small scale operations by individuals and groups.   

Legal mining operations conducted by large, international firms have also raised suspicions. Some of these operations have caused soil and water contamination. People in affected communities have suffered a variety of health problems, from nosebleeds and headaches to cancer and neurological disorders, and their water supplies have become too polluted to serve for irrigation or domestic use.

The parties involved  

The three main parties to the dispute were the team of scientists, the government agencies which issued the permits, and the local communities who objected to the expedition.

Lonnie Thompson, who led the expedition, speaking at a press conference in Lima, Peru on June 27. 
Source: MinamPeru/Twitter

The expedition was led by the renowned American paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thompson. It was  composed of about a dozen scientists hailing from around the world. Team members were French, Russian, Italian, American, Mexican, and Peruvian, and included scientists from the National Research Institute for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (Instituto Nacional de Investigación en Glaciares y Ecosistemas de Montaña or INAIGEM). Over the course of his career, Thompson has published 245 peer-reviewed publications, acquired 76 research grants, and gained world-wide recognition for being one of the first scientists to collect and analyze ice cores from mountain glaciers in tropical and subtropical regions. His expedition was funded with $1.5 million provided by the National Science Foundation. Analysis of the samples was planned to be conducted at Ohio State University, where Thompson has been a professor since 1991.

Gustavo Valdivia, who assisted Thompson with logistics for his expeditions, described it as a joint project between Ohio State University and INAIGEM. “INAIGEM has been doing field research in the Huascaran Glacier since 2014, so this expedition was supposed to build on INAIGEM knowledge, research experience, and relations in the area,” he told GlacierHub.   

Paolo Gabrielli, an Ohio State University researcher and one of the scientists on the expedition, told GlacierHub that “the major goal of the expedition was to collect a tropical ice core that was cold enough to extract a pristine record of methane.” 

Methane is an important greenhouse gas that is more powerful in retaining heat than carbon dioxide, despite being less common. It is also less well understood than carbon dioxide. 

“Another important objective,” added Gabrielli, “is to infer information about the development and evolution of this large forested area [in South America] since the last glacial age (25,000 years ago).” The National Science Foundation website has an online summary of the award Thompson received to fund the expedition. It lists six main objectives for the research, including establishing timescales for the ice cores and studying climate and environmental effects variations in the mid-Holocene period.

Peruvian government agencies granted permits to the research team. The Ministry of the Environment and INAIGEM, a specialized technical body attached to the Ministry of Environment, oversaw the granting of the permits. According to its website, INAIGEM was founded to promote scientific and technical research on glaciers and mountain ecosystems for the benefit of citizens and to adopt adaptation and mitigation measures in the face of climate change. 

The locals came from the village of Musho, a small village near the national park. It is the main entry point to the park for climbers who wish to summit Huscaran. The researchers went through Musho on their route to ascend to the glacier. The research team chose mountain guides and porters in the best interest of safety and the training and experience of the guides, Thompson told GlacierHub. “Most of the high elevation porters came from Huaraz and Cusco while porters, arrieros and burros/horses were hired from Musho. Local Musho residents transported expedition equipment, core boxes etc. from Musho up to the Alpine Hut,” he said.

Timeline of Events

“Press conferences were held in Lima on June 27, Mancos on July 4, at the base of Huascaran and on July 5 at the headquarters of the Huascaran National Park,” Thompson told GlacierHub. He continued, stating that they were held “to explain the scientific objectives and to answer questions and concerns of local people and the press concerning the Huascaran Expedition before starting the project. These press conferences were widely aired on TV and local papers.” 

An article announcing the upcoming expedition was published on June 26 in Agencia Peruana de Noticias, a news outlet run by the Peruvian government. Prior to the 26th, foreign scientists and Peruvian agencies coordinated with each other about the expedition. On June 27, the Ministry of the Environment tweeted about the goals of the group’s work and included photos of Thompson meeting with Minister of the Environment Lucia Ruiz Ostoic and the executive president of INAIGEM Gisella Orjeda Fernández at the Lima press conference. 

Gabrielli maintained a log of the expedition’s progress on his Twitter account. It tells how the team began ascending the mountain with an acclimatization hike to Laguna Shallap (elevation 4,250 meters), before reaching the Refugio Huascaran, a rustic mountain lodge (elevation  4,675m).

On July 9, the president of Peru, Martín Vizcarra, flew in a helicopter to visit  the research team at the climbing hut above the village.The trip was reported on by several Peruvian news outlets, both on their own websites and on their social media feeds. Stanislav Kutuzov, another member of the research team, told GlacierHub that during his visit the president “offered all support including providing a helicopter for the transport of the equipment and ice cores from the basecamp to the heliport at the valley.”

Members of the expedition hiking on Huascaran. 
Source: Stanislav Kutuzov

After President Vizcarra’s visit, the researchers continued up the mountain, making camp at various elevations. On July 20, the 24th day of the expedition, the first ice core was extracted and on day 27 the drill reached bedrock at 167 m. On day 28, the team started to drill a second core at the same altitude, which they completed two days later, on July 26. Drilling began at the south summit to collect the second pair of ice cores on July 31 and both were completed by August 3.

Two researchers with drilling equipment on the mountain. 
Source: Stanislav Kutuzov

The villagers from Musho first expressed their discontent with the expedition around July 31 or August 1. Kutuzov was a member of the team that had gone up to the summit to check progress on the drilling. “The drilling team was still at the summit of Huascaran when we received the text message that the local villagers are not happy about this project and suspect a mining operation at Huascaran mountain,” he told GlacierHub. “The next day (1 or 2 August) about 50 agitated local people went up to the basecamp and demanded an immediate termination of all works, and that all foreigners should leave the mountain, ” Kutuzov said. 

Thompson and two other members of the expedition met with the group of protestors at the basecamp and listened to the complaints. “The complaints ranged from our team polluting the local drinking water to the President’s helicopter killing a cow,” Thompson said. 

On August 5, a Peruvian police helicopter evacuated all foreign members of the scientific team to the city of Huaraz to wait until a solution could be found. This was done to meet the local community’s demands. All the materials, equipment, and ice cores were left on Huascaran. 

The porters and mountain guides were asked to descend from the mountain on August 7. On their way down, they and their police escorts were detained by local people in a field outside of Musho. The group remained in the field until 6am when 30 police cars and armed officers arrived to escort them out of Musho. 

A Facebook page was launched in the immediate aftermath of the evacuation called La Frente de Defensa por los Intereses del Nevado Huascarán (The Defense Front for the Interests of Mount Huascaran). It posted statuses explaining why locals interrupted the research and stating concerns of illegal mining and a lack of information coming from the Peruvian government regarding the expedition. 

The meeting between the scientists and the villagers of Musho. Police in riot gear were in attendance to keep the peace. 
Source: Frente de Defensa por los Intereses del Nevado Huascaran

On August 10, Gabrielli tweeted that the scientists, villagers, and local institutions were working to resolve the situation. On August 11, the researchers were invited to Musho village to explain the goals of the project to the local communities, Kutuzov told GlacierHub. The video below shows Thompson speaking at the meeting in Musho village. It was taken by a local resident who posted it to Facebook.

After several days of negotiations, it was agreed that the ice cores and drilling equipment could be retrieved from the mountain, a point which had been a matter of deep concern for the scientists. However, Wilmer Sanchez Rodriguez, an environmental engineer and a member of the expedition, told GlacierHub that only the Peruvian porters, mountain guides, and scientists from the expedition were allowed back on Huascaran. The foreigners did not return.

A member of the expedition on Huascaran.
Source: Wilmer Sanchez Rodriguez

The team was given three days from the first helicopter flight to retrieve the ice cores and remove all the materials left on the mountain. The time was set from the first flight because the team needed time to get people back on the mountain after everyone had been evacuated. The three day period lasted from August 16 to 18. 

The expedition came to an end on August 18 when the last of the materials was removed. Orjeda, the president of INAIGEM, and the Ministry of the Environment tweeted that the expedition achieved its goals that day. Various news sources posted articles stating that the expedition successfully concluded on August 19 and 20. However, the Frente de Defensa por los Intereses del Nevado Huascaran posted on August 21 and called the incident an attack on the country’s heritage and ecosystems.

Different Points of View

Vicuña said that the “two perspectives are lacking a kind of dialogue,” characterizing the breakdown in communication between the scientists (and the national agencies which supported them) and the local communities which led to the growth of rumors and divisions. 

From the point of view of those who supported the expedition, the scientific research could advance both basic and applied science. The expedition’s underlying scientific mission centered on studying changes in temperature, precipitation, atmospheric chemistry, temperature, and biodiversity in the region over the last 20,000 years. Huascaran is influenced by both the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Amazon to east—both areas of great interest in research. The research could also contribute to a better understanding of climate change and the challenges the region may face in the future as the glaciers melt and water supply from meltwater changes. The results could inform public policy going forward. Moreover, from the perspective of the scientists and the agencies, the expedition was fully legitimate. According to INAIGEM, the expedition was authorized by the Ministry of the Environment, through INAIGEM, and was authorized by the national park authority, SERNANP, to enter the park. In other words, they had obtained the necessary approvals to legally conduct their work. 

Additionally, Thompson told GlacierHub: “For the Huascaran project (and indeed all of our projects) local people are informed through local lectures, press conferences and a project brochure that are widely distributed before an expedition, written in both English and the local language (in this case Spanish).” Due to these actions, the research team believed they had taken the necessary steps to make residents aware of their work. 

Expedition members holding a piece of one of the ice cores. 
Source: Stanislav Kutuzov

Liam Colgan, scientific editor for the International Glaciology Society’s Journal of Glaciology, told GlacierHub about why the taking of ice cores in the Southern Hemisphere is considered particularly important research. “Since these records are often regional, Southern Hemisphere records are very valuable for complementing Northern Hemisphere records,” he said. 

Colgan added, “Mid-latitude Southern Hemisphere glaciers currently have some of the highest ice loss rates in the world, which makes them some of the most endangered ice masses on Earth.” 

From the point of view of the locals, however, there was great dissatisfaction with poor communication and concerns that nefarious activities were taking place. Some of their suspicions came from preexisting distrust created by illegal mining operations and from the long history of tensions between the park and the communities. Expeditions have sometimes been connected to mining that harmed the region and the local people were suspicious of outsiders who brought drilling equipment to the peak. Locals stated that they had not been involved in or notified of the permitting process carried out by INAIGEM and were unsure of the intentions of the scientists. 

A resident of a local village, Elmer Aguilar, told the Associated Press that villagers were angry that they had not been informed of the expedition and that many farmers were under the impression that the scientists were scouting for a mining company. An article in Prensa Huaraz also blames INAIGEM for a lack of communication. In addition to the rural residents who expressed concern, a more senior official, the mayor of the province of Yungay, Fernando Casio Consolación, told ABC Noticias Peru that he was never informed by INAIGEM that the research would take place. 

There was a large online response to the events by local community members, with discussion on certain groups, pages, and an individual’s status being shared hundreds of times. The Facebook page of Frente de Defensa por los Intereses del Nevado Huascarán posted on August 7 that 50 people were on the mountain illegally trying to extract minerals. The post was shared 617 times as of September 2. 

Similar Situations in Peru and Elsewhere

“As far as we know there are no official studies or statistics that refer to whether [such conflicts] are recurring,” Vicuna told GlacierHub. 

He gave an example of a project, financed by Swiss development assistance funds, which installed a high-tech early warning system for glacier lake outburst floods high in the Cordillera Blanca near Huascaran, at Laguna 513. A number of locals opposed it. The Laguna 513 case escalated. After rumors spread that the equipment was preventing the formation of clouds and causing a drought, a number of locals dismantled the station. 

Data on the frequency of such conflicts taking place in Peru does not exist.

Valdivia mentioned other occasions where agencies met opposition from locals. He cited problems with the National Meteorological Service installing a weather station and the Ministry of Culture operating archaeological excavation sites.

Potentially adding to or fueling the locals’ suspicions are the high rates of corruption in the Ancash region. According to a recent document produced by La Defensoría del Pueblo, a constitutional body meant to investigate claims against public authorities, the Ancash region experienced a 67 percent increase in cases of crimes against the state between 2016 and 2018, the highest increase in Peru. In 2018, there were 661 complaints of illegal agreements between public officials and entrepreneurs or large businesses. 

Outside of Peru, issues of land rights and sovereignty have led to similar conflicts and debate between scientists and local communities. For instance, the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii was temporarily blocked by protestors to whom Mauna Kea, where the telescope is being built, is sacred. The protests have brought up issues of land rights and self-determination of local communities. 

However, there have also been projects that have successfully been completed by building trust and relationships with local communities. One such case is that of construction of the Kitt Peak National Observatory, where relations between scientists and native peoples developed slowly over decades, allowing trust to be established. Scientists explained their purpose and goals to the tribal council elders who governed the Native American Tohono O’odham Nation and the elders willingly leased 200 acres of land for the construction of an observatory for educational and research purposes. The conflict in Peru played out more along the lines of the Kitt Peak case than the Mauna Kea dispute.

What caused the opposition?

The strength of the opposition in Peru stands in stark contrast to the large amounts of publicity which the expedition received in Peruvian media before it began. It is unclear why it took locals almost a month to respond to the researchers’ presence and how misinformation spread despite public endorsements of the expedition from the Ministry of the Environment, INAIGEM, and even a visit from Peru’s president. Valdivia pointed out how both INAIGEM and Thompson have a history of doing research in this area of Peru and emphasized the need to determine what was different about this expedition from past trips that took place more smoothly. 

“The project suffered greatly from inaccurate and deliberately false statements made on social media during the course of this project even by some of our own team members which actually put team members and the success of the project at risk,” Thompson told GlacierHub.

Some elements can be traced to explain this conflict, including the long history of tension between the park and the communities, the negative effects of mining in the region, and the corruption of officials. Scientists’ statements about their intention to drill down to bedrock may have also created concerns about covert efforts to develop mining. Flights of helicopters over Musho likely also contributed to speculation about the expedition and its purpose.

Gabrielli described how the research team was grateful for a visit from the president. He added that it was possible the visit put the expedition on locals’ radars for the wrong reasons. “This event put also our activity on the spot of the local population from the village of Musho and other communities,” he said. “They concluded that our ice core drilling activity was part of a business agreement between us and the Peruvian government to extract minerals such as gold and silver from Huascaran, heavily impacting this mountain,” he told GlacierHub. 

Thompson offered another possible explanation for the events. “According to the general overseeing the operations, instigators were being paid to cause our Huascaran project to fail since the President of Peru had endorsed the project,” he stated.

Valdivia said, “Reading this situation as a case in which the locals ‘confused’ this scientific expedition with a mining operation is too simplistic.” He suggested that outreach activities to inform Peruvians of the expedition were more focused on national and urban audiences than on the local rural populations. 

Resolution 

The solution that was reached rested on establishing a dialogue with the locals who objected. Valdivia suggested that if the locals had been fully informed of the expedition and its purpose, there might not have been a conflict. 

Similarly, Kutuzov ended his statement to GlacierHub by saying, “We’d like to thank everybody who was helping us in Peru, president of Peru Martín Vizcarra, president of the INAIGEM Gisella Orjeda Fernández, all the authorities, the people of Musho, and all the communities for allowing us to successfully complete the project.” His comment highlights the important role that communication played in resolving the conflict.

Thompson highlighted the complexity of the environment they were working in, saying “the important thing to understand is that we are the outsiders and do not and cannot fully appreciate the history and the culture and that we need to find a way to work through these issues as they arise.” He added, “the Huascaran project was one of the most successful of my career for which I credit an excellent international field team with an array of diverse talents, great team of mountain guides and porters, local support from friends and colleagues at INAIGEM, the Minister of Environment and the President of Peru, Mr. Martin Vizcarra, and indirectly, the people of Musho!” Thompson was invited back to the region to give lectures on the findings of the expedition. 

Despite the successful conclusion of Thompson’s expedition, the elements of discord that originated long before the researchers arrived—and which erupted in a dramatic fashion when they entangled with the project—seem to have returned to a simmer. The sudden and suspenseful turns near the end of the expedition might well bubble up again should the ingredients for conflict combine once more. 

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Adapting to Glacier Retreat in Peru’s Huascarán National Park

The quickly receding Pastoruri glacier may not have too many years left at the rate it’s melting (Source: Joao Diniz/Flickr).

Environmental anthropologist Jessica O’Reilly stated in her 2017 book on science and policy, “While scientists usually act as spokespeople for ‘data,’ some materials may speak for themselves.” Melting glaciers, including the ones in the high Andes, are examples of materials that speak for themselves, acting as compelling visualizations of the concept of climate change.

A recent article in Regional Environmental Change by Mattias Borg Rasmussen explores the nexus of climate change, retreating glaciers, and conservation landscapes in the context of Pastoruri Glacier in Peru’s Huascarán National Park. As one of the most threatened tropical glaciers in the high Andes, Pastoruri has generated significant media coverage for its rapid retreat, which has involved the glacier losing over half of its size over a period of twenty years, according to reports from The Guardian and Reuters. As Pastoruri Glacier has been reduced to two quickly vanishing patches of ice, tourism in Huascarán National Park has also dwindled from over 100,000 visitors a year in its heyday of the 1990s to only 34,000 reported in 2012.

In response to both the deterioration of the physical landscape and paying visitors, park administrators developed a tourist and educational facility in 2013 known as the Route of Climate Change. The initiative, which includes a “Climate Change Trail,” highlights the dangers of climate change in an effort to boost declining tourist numbers. By presenting the glacier as an endangered species of the growing market of last-chance tourism, the park showcases Pastoruri’s decline as a public spectacle to generate conservation outcomes in other parts of the park. However, like similar conservation initiatives, the project in Huascarán National Park was launched without intensive community engagement.

To explore this issue, Rasmussen collected 48 interviews in Peru during ethnographic fieldwork that began in 2014. These interviews add an anthropological framework to his research in order to understand the unique, often tense relationship between the local communities and protected areas. One community Rasmussen visited extensively during his fieldwork was Catac, located just inside the park boundaries. Rasmussen shared with GlacierHub how his article “contributes to enhancing our understanding of these rather unstable arrangements of consent and contestation in conservation encounters.” In the article, he highlights three issues as complicating conservation efforts in the national park: livestock, infrastructure, and tourism revenues. Because park officials considered the refurbishing project to be purely infrastructural, it did not require community engagement.

Environmental historian Mark Carey told GlacierHub that Rasmussen’s article shows “the economic aspects of glacier loss, when tourists stop visiting a place once the ice is gone or where locals and park administrators subsequently develop incentives for tourists to come back and see the marked impacts of glacier retreat.” He added that “glacier retreat generates challenging policy problems that confound conservation objectives and force changes in tourist experiences and local livelihoods that depend on that tourism.”

Regarding the role of conservation in the Anthropocene, Rasmussen said, “I think conservation is good to think about when we want to try to understand the ways in which climate change acts both as a force which changes the physical appearance of landscapes and as an idea which challenges our understanding of the future.”

Image of Pastoruri Glacier with tourists (Source: Guillaume Weill/Flickr).

The concept of protected area management, and conservation initiatives in general, is heavily imbued with power dynamics and colonialism. Rasmussen states in the article, “Because they are the outcomes of Westernized visions of the relationship between nature and culture, protected areas are important sites for understanding how notions of the Anthropocene come to reshape ideas about the future of glaciated landscapes.”

The historical production of protected areas came from the constructed sharp distinction between human and nature as well as civilization and wilderness, also a product of Western conception that often forgets or ignores voices of the local.

In the Anthropocene, protected areas, particularly those with glaciers, can no longer represent a fixed time and space created by scientists for conservation purposes. Glaciers, like Pastoruri, disrupt the social imagination of an unchanging locale untainted by human intervention. In this modern era signaling progression, climate change presents a destructive alternative, filled with irreversible changes and a future of uncertainty.

The initiative in Huascarán National Park represents a new global consciousness that is forming around the role that humans will play in shaping the future of the planet and around the importance that protected areas will take on in new arrangements in a new era. “Rasmussen demonstrates how glacier loss is more than just about ice, or even water.  Managing a dynamic glacierized landscape rapidly changing under climate change — and ensuring water supplies for irrigation and livestock pastures in downstream communities — all involve politics, social relations, economics and livelihoods, and cultural values,” Carey told GlacierHub. “We must turn our attention beyond the ice, in other words, to study and understand the challenges that communities, conservationists, policy makers, and tourists all face.”

Conservation is still linked to modern social imaginations, but the creation of the Climate Change Route on the Pastoruri Glacier in Peru’s Huascarán National Park implies a shift in the social imagination that reconsiders the presentation and construction of protected areas. With glaciers visually symbolizing the interconnectedness of humans and the rest of the environment, this step forward may better include the often neglected voices of the local communities in shaping their lives.

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Local Communities Support Reforestation in the Peruvian Andes

Human activities have drastically reduced the natural habitats of Polylepis, a rare genus of tree species that dominates the high-altitude forests of the Andes and can grow from an elevation of 3,000 meters close to the glacier line, at approximately 5,000 meters above sea level. A recent analysis by Beatriz Fuentealba and Steven Sevillano of reforestation efforts of Polylepis in Ancash, Peru, has highlighted the importance of local communities for the successful implementation of these activities.

Polylepsis forests, or queñuales, can grow from an elevation of 3000 meters close to the glacier line, at approximately 5000 meters above sea level (Source: Contours of a Country/Flickr).

The analysis, published in the book Beyond Restoration Ecology: Social Perspectives in Latin America and the Caribbean, focused on the project “Conservation Corridor of Polylepsis in the South of Los Conchucos” that was implemented by the non-governmental organization, the Mountain Institute. The project was developed in 2004 for a period of five years to preserve, restore and recover the Polylepsis forests or queñuales, as they are known in the Peruvian Andes— of the southern area of Conchucos in the Ancash region. This new study makes the results of the project available to a wide readership.

The Ancash region, located in the northern part of Peru, is known for the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, which runs through the region and preserves the largest reserve of tropical glaciers in the world. Polylepsis forests located in this area have received protection from the national government since 1975 when Huascaran National Park was created. The protection of the national park was strengthened in 1977 when UNESCO recognized it as a biosphere reserve.

Queñuales are a type of Andean forest ecosystem. Manuel Peralvo, a researcher at the regional NGO CONDESAN, told GlacierHub in an interview that these ecosystems generate multiple benefits that are key for the well-being of Andean communities including hydrological regulation, reduction of risks of natural hazards and long-term maintenance of Andean biodiversity.

As Beatriz Fuentealba told GlacierHub, Polylepsis forests in the Cordillera Blanca help store soil water and maintain a moist environment throughout the year. She explained that queñuales are important for water regulation because the roots of these species support the infiltration of water into the soil. The abundant leaf litter that the queñuales produce allows for more water storage and improves soil nutrients. These forests also support the protection of puquios, or water springs, situated near local communities.

Moreover, Fuentealba pointed out that queñuales also generate a distinct microclimate. As a result, they become a biodiversity refuge. “Inside queñuales there is less solar radiation, more moisture and extreme temperatures are attenuated,” she explained. This microclimate allows for the development of particular mosses and other plants that do not grow in other areas. Several bird species also depend on the natural resources located in these forests.

Queñuales are a type of Andean forest ecosystem that provide several benefits for local communities (Source: Fabrica de Ideas/ Facebook).

Steven Sevillano told GlacierHub that queñuales are recognized as islands of biodiversity. In addition, he pointed out that in a climate change scenario they will be key for high-Andean biodiversity conservation. For this reason, the disappearance of queñuales would not only indicate the loss of a rare species but also the loss of habitat for several other species that use these forests as a refuge.

Unfortunately, the queñual populations have sharply declined due to logging for firewood, clearing for pasture for ranching and other activities. In 1978, before the Mountain Institute implemented the project, several reforestation efforts had been developed. One of these initiatives was initiated by Pompeyo Guillen, a park ranger in Huascaran National Park, who promoted the planting of queñuales with the support of the population living in the surrounding areas. National government programs contributed to this initiative with food in exchange for the labor provided. In the last 20 years, private mining companies established in the region have further supported these activities by paying a wage to people who take part in reforestation work.  

The project “Conservation Corridor of Polylepsis in the South of Los Conchucos” sought to reach conservation agreements with local communities. Thus, it established ways for the project to support an increase in economic development of the local communities working on reforestation efforts. These conditions included cattle breeding, tourism promotion, and the improvement of local education. In exchange, the communities would propagate, reforest and preserve queñuales.

In 1978, before the Mountain Institute implemented the project, several reforestation efforts had been developed (Source: Fabrica de Ideas/Facebook).

“Participating in reforestation activities is not easy, it requires effort, time and attention in order to increase the success of the reforestation,” Sevillano told GlacierHub.

Despite these difficulties, such efforts allow participants to become engaged with conservation projects and to recognize the importance of these forests. They take care of them and appreciate them more because they also start to value their own efforts, he added.

Fuentealba indicated that the challenge of working with communities is understanding the reasons that each local community has for participation in reforestation initiatives, which leads them to participate in these activities. Furthermore, the approach of particular reforestation projects to include local populations differs.

Considering these experiences, the study suggests that a strategy to ensure the sustainability of reforestation projects of queñuales involves increasing the awareness of the benefits provided by queñuales, as well as connecting local communities with their natural resources.

When working in restoration efforts, it is not only relevant to understand the degradation level of the forests. It is also important to connect with local populations and comprehend how they will be impacted, their relationship with these ecosystems, and their values. Such participatory projects can reduce negative community impacts on forests while supporting positive ones.

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Water Access and Glacial Recession in Peru

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biophysical Processes

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

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

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

Social Processes

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

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

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

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

Future Outlook

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

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Wildfires in Peru Could Increase Glacial Melt

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

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

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

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

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

Huascaran Park Glaciers (Source: Sergejf/Flickr).

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

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

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

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

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Using Drones to Study Glaciers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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