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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