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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Advances in Developing Peru’s National Policy for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems

Peru’s National Institute for Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (INAIGEM) is taking steps forward in developing the country’s National Policy for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, one of its principal mandates. INAIGEM recently published an article in its institutional journal titled, “Specific Guidelines for Formulation of the Proposal for the National Policy of Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems of Peru,” which serves as the first publicly available content that could be included in the final policy. The goal of the document is to support INAIGEM and the Ministry of Environment with an initial framework for subsequent policy development. Meanwhile, it also aims to set a foundation for an inclusive policy-making process that is representative of the people and landscapes within its purview.

As a Fulbright Public Policy Fellow and then consultant for CARE Peru, I produced this document in collaboration with INAIGEM’s leadership and diverse external stakeholders. To generate its content, I interviewed a variety of experts across government agencies, NGOs, and academia, did a case study of local community perspectives via surveys in the field, and then translated their responses into its policy lines. Meanwhile, via a database I built, I analyzed existing normative environmental structures in Peru on international, national, and subnational scales to determine how a new policy for glaciers and mountain ecosystems would integrate with, complement, or fulfill said structures.

From left to righ is Engr. Jesús Gomez, director of the Department for Research on Glaciers, Engr. Ricardo Villanueva, former director of the Department for Information and Knowledge Management, Executive President Dr. Gisella Orjeda, and Engr. David Ocaña, former director of the Department for Research on Mountain Ecosystems. (Source: INAIGEM)

Although there are a number of normative environmental mechanisms that incorporate some aspect of glaciers or mountain ecosystems across Peruvian governance, there is no specific apparatus for such topics despite their critical importance to human well-being and economic production. Being that there are many sectors and populations that depend on glaciers and mountain ecosystems in a variety of ways, disjointed management of these landscapes has been a major problem. Thus, with the creation of INAIGEM in December 2014, the government determined the policy will be a necessary tool to ensure the sustainable management of glaciers and mountain ecosystems for populations that live within or benefit from them.

Laguna Parón, shot from a glacial moraine in the Parón Valley, with Nevado Pirámide de Garcilaso (5,885 meters) in the background. (Source: Peter Oesterling)

INAIGEM’s leadership recognized that developing the policy and its subsequent implementation must be a collaborative effort for it to achieve positive socio-environmental outcomes in the Andes. According to former executive president, Engr. Benjamín Morales, “A national policy must be made with national participation … I believe that being a policy, the most important part is the country. The country must intervene. The whole Ministry [of Environment] and the other ministries should be involved in this policy.”[ Engr. Morales’s sentiment was based on avoiding a lack of buy-in across institutions, which is characteristic of Peruvian bureaucracy.

A team that summited Nevado Huascarán on a research expedition along with INAIGEM leadership. (Source: INAIGEM)

Meanwhile, INAIGEM’s heads of research activities echoed Engr. Morales’s point. Former Director of Information and Knowledge Management Engr. Ricardo Villanueva emphasized, “It is not only about doing isolated activities, but to develop an integrated and coordinated strategy of action for different institutions with interests in glaciers and mountain ecosystems.” As an example of the need for greater institutional coordination and integration, Engr. David Ocaña, the former head of research on mountain ecosystems said, “I think a policy is necessary because there are many gray areas between institutions. For example, [there are] gray areas between ANA and INAIGEM or with the Ministry Agriculture. The policy is going to be a tool that may not so much eliminate these gray areas but it will be clearer for each actor what their role and function is within what is glaciers and mountain ecosystems.”[

Nevado Chacraraju (6,108 meters) and Laguna 69, shot from the summit of Nevado Pisco (5,752 m). (Source: Peter Oesterling)

The need for clarity and coordination across institutions is a reflection of how multifaceted a Peruvian policy for glaciers and mountain ecosystems must be. There is a regional trend in developing such normative frameworks; for example, with Argentina having its law for protecting glaciers while Chile is developing a policy for mountains. However, Peru’s aim for the policy is unique in the region in terms of mountain-centered normative frameworks. For instance, it must be every bit about forests as glaciers to reflect the dramatic and diverse montane landscapes where glaciated peaks and tropical cloud forests can neighbor each other. Furthermore, the policy must address the country’s notorious tendency for major natural disasters in the Andes as well as an uncertain future in the face of climate change. INAIGEM’s area for intervention is anywhere 1,500 meters in altitude and above, therefore there are numerous issues that the policy will need to incorporate across varying environmental, social, and economic dimensions.

Thus, this initial document aims to be as holistic and comprehensive as possible in covering such dimensions and comes in the form of a potential national policy. Its framework has policy lines that address necessary outcomes across Peru’s diverse mountain landscapes, with four specific policy axes:

  1. Management and Conservation of Glaciers and Andean Water Resources
  2. Recovery and Sustainability of Mountain Ecosystems
  3. Adaptive Capacity Against Climatic, Geological, and Glaciological Risks
  4. Institutionality, Knowledge, and Socio-Environmental Andean Culture
Core sample collection on a glacier. (Source: INAIGEM)

Within each axis, there are general objectives that link to more specific policy lines. The policy lines were constructed in a coordinated and integrated fashion, with the intention of being transversal within the framework as well as with the existing normative environmental mechanisms of the country. The next steps for developing the policy will be to secure appropriate funding then carry out public consultations to engage various interested stakeholders throughout the country to assure that the end result is representative of their needs and generates applicable solutions to many complex problems. Such consultations should ensure that the policy is human-centered, with a specific focus of strengthening the rights and resilience of marginalized Andean populations. Dr. Jorge Recharte, the director of the Andes Program for the Mountain Institute highlighted that, “Peru is a cradle … of several civilizations centered on issues [within the] mountains … The concept of mountains has … a deep historical value in Peru … Peru needs to generate a mountain policy [that] … has to do with values of the country and has to do with … the identity of the nation.”

Once a final policy proposal is complete, it needs approval from the Ministry of Environment and then the Council of Ministers of the Presidency. Hopefully with their backing, the policy can help generate the necessary political will to acknowledge and address the many problems that pertain to glaciers and mountain ecosystems in Peru. Engr. Villanueva emphasized this as he warned, “If the politicians who make decisions are not aware of the importance of glaciers and mountain ecosystems … investments that are required to be made at the level of these territories will be very limited.”

Read More on GlacierHub:

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New Research Center Advances Glacier Agenda In Peru 

On August 7th, in light of the rapid retreat of glaciers in the Andes, two Peruvian national organizations subscribed to an inter-institutional cooperation agreement to implement a glacier research center in the Peruvian city of Cusco. The agreement between the National Research Institute for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (INAIGEM by its acronym in Spanish), the leading glacier research institution in the country, and Cusco’s San Antonio Abad National University (UNSAAC in Spanish) aims to strengthen the scientific agenda for glaciology-applied research in the southern Andean region of the country.

INAIGEM’s Macro Regional Office of the South will be located in Kayra Estate, a meteorological agricultural experiment station founded in 1956 and managed since then by UNSACC. This office will coordinate research projects all over the southern region of Peru. Thus, INAIGEM will provide technical assistance to regional governments to develop appropriate policies in biodiversity, water resources, food security and glaciers, within the context of climate change.

Andenes in the local community of Vilcabamba in Cusco (Source: Musuq Allpa/Flickr).

Benjamin Morales, executive director of INAIGEM, stated during an interview for UNSAAC that for students from the university, the glacier research center will be a learning space where they will be able to investigate with expert researchers. Students from different faculties including geology, geography, biology and other social and environmental sciences will be able to participate in the research projects that the INAIGEM will develop in Cusco in the following months.

During an interview with Glacierhub, Morales highlighted the community approach to conducting research, as the institute is coordinating with regional and local governments, the private sector, and universities in each city of the Southern Andes. As the Peruvian online information portal Inforegion indicates, scientists are currently monitoring two important mountains near Cusco: Mount Ausangate, the fifth-highest mountain in Peru, and Chicón, relevant for its water supply to the Cusco region. Scientists are also monitoring neighboring areas between Cusco and Puno, part of the southern region of Peru on the border of Bolivia. INAIGEM will start a study at the Coropuna glacier in the region of Arequipa, for example. Coropuna, one of the highest mountains in Peru, is facing rapid glacier retreat due to climate change.

Mark Carey, a professor at the University of Oregon, told Glacierhub in an interview that partnerships between different types of institutions can effectively enhance glacier-related work in the Andes and beyond by combining the study of ice and society. They are an effective means of drawing together the natural and social sciences, as well as researchers and local communities, in an equal partnership of exchange and interaction.

Due to the direct relationship between glaciers and society, the partnerships with local communities in the southern Andes allow researchers to understand how glacier retreat is affecting cultural values, agricultural practices and the economy. Moreover, in several regions, local populations understand the changes that are produced by the natural Andean climate variability and have implemented their ancestral knowledge to adapt to those changes. An example of this is the local community of Vilcabamba, located in Cusco, has implemented an agricultural system similar to a terrace that was used by the Incas to increase the amount of cultivatable land available to farmers due to the reduction of water supply from Salkantay glacier, located on the twelfth highest mountain in the country.

The map shows the Cordillera Blanca in the north and the Cusco region in the South (Source: Google Maps).

It is important to have continuing research on glaciers in the Andes to contribute to the understanding of the future natural changes. In a country that traditionally encouraged the centralization of resources and areas of study in the capital city of Lima, institutes like INAIGEM are now supporting a decentralization process. Unlike most Peruvian national institutions, for example, INAIGEM is headquartered in Huaraz, a mountain city located at the base of the Cordillera Blanca. Furthermore, it has as an objective to promote and strengthen the environmental agenda and technological development in the Peruvian Andes, an area sometimes forgotten by Peruvians.

As Carey told Glacierhub, while the Cordillera Blanca is the most glacierized range in Peru (and in fact the most glacierized range in all of the world’s tropical regions), glaciers in the south of the country have been understudied in the last decades. In Carey’s opinion, the Macro Regional Research Office of the South will widen the glacier research that Peruvians have been conducting in the Cordillera Blanca for more than half a century. In developing countries such as Peru, the effects of glacier retreat greatly impact neighboring areas. For example, when glacier runoff from Cusco-area glaciers declines, it changes the hydroelectric output from the facilities of the Machu Picchu Hydroelectric Station.

Thus, Luis Vicuña, a researcher at the University of Zurich, explained in an interview with Glacierhub that there is a direct relationship between glaciers and society. “A wider understanding of the future of glaciers in our society implies research that involves different types of expertise in order to contribute to the understanding of the natural and physical changes, and also the cultural, political, economic and social changes that will determine the relationship between glaciers and society.”

Multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration can effectively enhance glacier-related work in the Andes and beyond. The cooperation agreement between INAIGEM and UNSAAC plans to facilitate the articulation of environmental scientific research with policy-making processes that regional governments need to  support local communities in adapting to climate change.

Palcacocha Icefalls Demonstrate Hazard Vulnerabilities in Peru

Recent Calving Events at Lake Palcacocha

Glacier front subject to calving, Lake Palcacocha (source: Jeff Kargel).

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.

Pucaranra Glacier, Lake Palcacocha, and syphons at the moraine (source: INDECI).

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.

Syphons in operation, releasing water, before recent icefalls (source: Facebook/Vision Informativa Huaraz).

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.”

Workers inspecting syphons at Palcacocha (source: INDECI).

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.”

Weather data at Palcacocha, May 2017 (source: INAIGEM).

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.”

Workers repairing damaged syphons, Lake Palcacocha (source: Facebook/Municipalidad Distrital de Independencia).

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.

Roundup: Avalanches, Droughts, and a Sherpa protest

Roundup: Avalanches, Droughts, and Sherpas

 

Calving Event in Peruvian Lake Damages Infrastructure Designed to Reduce Flood Risk

From El Comercio: “Small ice avalanches have damaged the system of syphons in Lake Palcacocha, Ancash, Peru. Marco Zapata, the head of the Glacier Research Unit at INAIGEM, stated that on May 31, around 8 p.m., a calving event occurred at the glacier front on Mount Pucaranra, releasing ice into the lake. This event generated waves 3 meters in height, which caused 10 of the syphons to shift and which destroyed three gauges and a water level sensor.”

Find out more about Lake Palcacocha and ice avalanches here.

Locals treating the material that was shifted due to the ice avalanches (Source: INDECI).

 

Asian Glaciers Fight Against Drought

From Nature: “The high mountains of Asia… have the highest concentration of glaciers globally, and 800 million people depend in part on meltwater from them. Water stress makes this region vulnerable economically and socially to drought, but glaciers are a uniquely drought-resilient source of water. Glaciers provide summer meltwater to rivers and aquifers that is sufficient for the basic needs of 136 million people… Predicted glacier loss would add considerably to drought-related water stress. Such additional water stress increases the risk of social instability, conflict and sudden, uncontrolled population migrations triggered by water scarcity, which is already associated with the large and rapidly growing populations and hydro-economies of these basins.”

Find out more about Asia’s drought-resilient glaciers here.

Central Asia’s glaciers may lose half their ice by mid-century (Source: Twiga269/Flickr).

 

Sherpas Demand Summit Certificates at Protest

From The Himalayan Times: “Hundreds of sherpa climbers who met at Mt Everest base camp [in May] asked the government to immediately issue their summit certificates… Sherpa climbers who made it to the top of several peaks, including Mt Everest, have not been getting their summit certificates since last year after the government refused to approve their ascents citing a clause of the Mountaineering Expedition Regulation that bars them from obtaining such certificates… For most of the foreign climbers, summiting a mountain without sherpas’ help is almost impossible in Nepal… The new amendment to the regulation will recognize high-altitude workers as a part of the expedition to get certificates.”

Find out more about the Sherpa protest and resolution here.

Members of the Sherpa community have recently protested to demand summit permits (Source: Pavel Matejicek/Flickr).

 

 

Glacier Countries Help the Paris Agreement Enter into Force

Small Glacier Countries Take a Big Step

Paris Agreement Tracker, October 6, 2016 (source: WRI)
Paris Agreement Tracker, October 6, 2016 (source: WRI)

On October 5, several small mountain countries with glaciers—Austria, Bolivia, and Nepal—undertook an important step in advancing global action on climate change. They helped the Paris Agreement reach the threshold to enter into force and become legally binding. This Agreement, the outcome of the UNFCCC COP21 last November, is widely recognized as the most important international accord to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

For the Agreement to enter into force, two conditions had to be met. The Agreement had to be ratified by at least 55 Parties to the UNFCCC, and these Parties—nearly all of them nations—had to account in total for at least 55% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Both of these steps were completed on October 5 through the ratification by 10 nations, including the three mentioned above, and one additional party, the European Union. This step closely follows the ratification by another small glacier country, New Zealand, on October 4. According to the terms of the Agreement, its entry into force will take place 30 days after the two conditions were met. That will occur on November 4, at COP22 in Marrakech. Morocco.

Minister and parliamentarians discussing climate change in Kathmandu (source: Batu Krishna Uprety/Twitter)
Minister and parliamentarians discussing climate change in Kathmandu (source: Batu Krishna Uprety/Twitter)

Though each country had taken many factors into consideration as it weighed the possibility of ratification, it is striking that some mentioned glaciers specifically. Nepal’s official statement comments, “Nepal highlights that the Paris Agreement is a living instrument meant for serious implementation, in tandem with 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and hopes that its sincere implementation would help us adapt and mitigate the recurring problems such as landslides, floods, melting of glaciers, erratic and extreme weather patterns, and loss of biodiversity directly affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.”

The somber tone of this statement suggests a broad awareness of the threat of climate change in that country, where the ratification was the product of a unanimous vote in Nepal’s Parliament. Such moments of unity are rare in a country marked by fractious politics.

New Zealand deposits instrument of ratification at UN (source: Paula Bennett/Twitter)
New Zealand deposits instrument of ratification at UN (source: Paula Bennett/Twitter)

There was also strong agreement in New Zealand, where parliamentary votes are often highly contested. This point was noted by the country’s Minister for Climate Change, Paula Bennett—a person of mixed indigenous Maori and European heritage—in her statement to the press. “I’d like to thank the select committee and my parliamentary colleagues for the cross-party support of New Zealand’s involvement in this significant agreement.” She emphasized the importance of the event. “New Zealand has helped make history today by ratifying the Paris Agreement. … Although New Zealand contributes only a small proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions, our contribution counts.”

 

Earlier Actions on the Paris Agreement

These recent actions follow on the steps taken by other countries, which ratified the Agreement earlier and brought it closer to the 55/55 threshold. Of particular importance were the small island states, who were among the first to ratify when it opened on April 22. China and the United States both agreed to ratify on September 5, when the two heads of state, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, met in Hangzhou.

Signing of Peru's instrument of ratification, Lima (source:MINAM)
Signing of Peru’s instrument of ratification, Lima (source:MINAM)

Peru, another glacier country, was also an early ratifier. It undertook this step on July 22, the first Latin American country to do so, in a major event attended by the President, Ollanta Humala, and the ministers of foreign relations, of the environment and of culture. The official statement by the Ministry of Foreign Relations linked the Paris Agreement to COP20, held in Peru in 2014, where the Lima Call for Climate Action was signed.

Benjamin Morales, the director of Peru’s National Research Institute for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (INAIGEM), explicitly linked his country’s attention to glaciers and its early ratification. In an email interview, he stated, “Peru is one of the countries that is most vulnerable to climate change. With the creation of INAIGEM [in 2015], it showed its commitment to carry out concrete actions to combat climate change.” The ratification of the Agreement was another such action, he added.

Jorge Recharte, the director of the Andean Program at the Mountain Institute, also underscored this link. In an interview, he stated

Peru ratified the Paris agreement on July 22, 2016. This step culminated an incremental process of climate awareness in the nation that, in no small part, was driven by the rapid recession of glaciers in Peru’s 19 ranges. Peru’s mountain agenda was promoted by civil society and government agencies since the International Year of Mountains in 2002. COP20 in Lima Peru, culminated a period of over ten years in which Peru was an active stakeholder promoting global action to deal with climate change. During this process one of the main difficulties to promote the Mountain Agenda more forcefully was the lack of harmony in strategies and control of the process between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the technical agencies in the country, initially with the National Council for the Environment (CONAM). With the creation of the Ministry of Environment (MINAM) in 2008, the mountain agenda was eventually moved to MINAM’s Directorate of Biodiversity. Thu, while Peru has on the one hand taken action internally to respond to climate change impacts on mountains, on the other hand its role engaging other mountain countries to negotiate support and promote more visibility of mountain peoples in the global arena has unfortunately faded. With the signing of the Paris Agreement, cooperation among mountain countries is more relevant than ever in order to jointly promote the incorporation of mountain needs in climate and development mechanisms (e.g. the Green Climate Fund (GCF) or the UN Millenium Development Goals).

Iceland's Minister of Foreign Affairs deposits instrument of ratification (source: Lilja Alfredsfottir/Twitter)
Iceland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs deposits instrument of ratification (source: Lilja Alfredsfottir/Twitter)

Other small glacier countries were important early ratifiers, including Norway on June 20 and Iceland on September 21. These two countries may have taken this step earlier since they are not members of the European Union and could act in advance of other European countries. Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Lilja Alfreðsdóttir described the ratification as an act of solidarity. “By ratifying the Paris Agreement, Iceland has joined hands with a number of countries in paving the way for this immensely important global agreement to enter into force as soon as possible, ” she said. “Iceland stands shoulder to shoulder with many of the world’s most ambitious states when it comes to addressing climate change.”

Several small glacier countries—Chile, Switzerland, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Bhutan–are among the group of countries which have not yet signed the Agreement.

Ryskeldi Satke, a journalist in Kyrgyzstan, wrote to GlacierHub, “It is difficult to say when Kyrgyzstan will ratify the Paris Agreement. The Kyrgyz government took a step forward by signing it and the ratification should follow as expected.” He noted “the Tian Shan, Kyrgyzstan’s main mountain range, have been dramatically losing glacier mass in the last 50 years. This process is not likely to stop.  Climate change is going to be one of the challenging tasks for the country to deal with in the decades ahead. Certainly, Paris Agreement is a positive step for the Central Asian nation because Kyrgyzstan is not capable to manage climate change impact on its own.”

Matthias Jurek, a Programme Management Officer of UN Environment working on mountain ecosystems, offered his views of the actions of the small glacier countries as a set. He warned against overinterpreting the lack of ratification by a few of them. In an interview with GlacierHub, he wrote, “I would be very cautious in making assumptions…about the background why certain (mountainous) countries have not yet deposited their instrument of ratification. The procedures of ratification processes… can be very time-consuming. I would not question the political will of these countries.”

Jurek concluded “the mountain countries that have already deposited their instrument of ratification [serve] a good and positive signal to inspire others to do the same.”

It is striking to see how small island countries were among the first to ratify the Agreement, and how small glacier countries were among the ones to bring it into force. The melting of glaciers in the latter contributes to the sea level rise that impacts the former. In both cases, small vulnerable countries played large roles in addressing problems which they face–and which the whole world faces as well.

Glacier Research in Peru Links Students with Communities

A faculty member and students from a provincial university in Peru recently presented the results of a class project on glacier research at an international conference. Their study of glacier retreat and environmental risks draws on the familiarity of the faculty and students with local environments and cultures. It sets an important example by showing how this familiarity makes such work possible in what might be seen as an unfavorable setting: a small university in a developing country.

Vizcachani Glacier and Lake Japucocha (source: Google Earth)
Vizcachani Glacier and Lake Japucocha (source: Google Earth)

Renny Aguilar Diaz, the faculty member, teaches environmental engineering at the National University of Juliaca, located in the Puno region in southern Peru. He also works with SENAMHI, the Peruvian National Meteorological and Hydrological Service.

Speaking with GlacierHub last month, and following up with an email interview, Diaz explained that the project focused on  Mount Vizcachani, a peak 6044 meters above sea level in the Cordillera Apolobamba, located on the border between Peru and Bolivia.  He expressed his appreciation for SENAMHI, which provided data and logistical support to the project. He noted as well that the university, founded in 2007, is smaller and less well funded than older universities in Peru.

Map of field site, showing glaciers and lakes (source: R.Diaz)
Map of field site, showing glaciers,  lakes and local community (source: R.Diaz)

The students used two different methods to study the peak, its glaciers and the associated lakes and streams. They examined LANDSAT satellite images from 1985 to 2016 to identify recently formed glacier lakes. This project gave students experience in using the Normalized Difference Snow Index (NDSI) to analyze these images and detect changes in glacier cover and new lakes. The research also included field trips to the glaciers to provide ground-truthing of the satellite images and to assess water quality.

The field work involved significant challenges: a five-hour drive on unpaved roads in poor condition, and then another five hours of hiking to the glacier. The hiking provided an opportunity for the students to converse with the members of the local community of Pampamachay, whose livelihoods rest on the cultivation of cold-tolerant potato varieties and on the herding of sheep and alpacas.

Research camp below Vizcachani Glacier (source: R. Diaz)
Research camp below Vizcachani Glacier (source: R. Diaz)

Several of the students, who are from the Puno region, speak Quechua, the primary language of the community.  The local residents explained their concerns, particularly about the expansion of artisanal gold mining in the higher sections of the Cordillera, which could lead to water pollution. To assess water quality, the students analyzed the water samples which they collected in the lakes, and found that it was mildly acid, with an average pH of 6.5.

The students later shared this information with the communities, who expressed a fear about possible impacts on pasture and on alpaca herds. Fortunately, this level does not seem threatening, though there is a possibility of increased acidification from the weathering of rocks that are newly exposed by glacier retreat. Diaz wrote to GlacierHub, “the meeting with the community unfolded in a friendly manner.” He mentioned a positive note of the contacts with the community members: the sighting of eight Andean condors.  This species is the largest flying bird in the world, of importance throughout Peru. It appears in the country’s first coat of arms and in indigenous rituals.

Lake Japucocha (source: R. Diaz)
Lake Japucocha (source: R. Diaz)

Diaz, along with another faculty member from the National University of Juliaca, Ricardo Chambi and three students, presented a poster at the International Forum on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, held in Huaraz, Peru in August. The poster, titled “Glacier Lakes as Indicators of Glacier Retreat in Vizcachani, Cordillera Apolobamba” indicated that the glacier cover in the Cordillera Apolobamba has decreased by 57% between 1985 and 2016. There had been only one lake at the start of this period, Japucocha, but by the end there were five, two of them covering 10 hectares in area. These other lakes are so new that they do not yet have names, but only have been given numbers.

Newly-formed Lake 13, a source of GLOF risk (source: R. Diaz)
Newly-formed Lake 16, a source of GLOF risk (source: R. Diaz)

The researchers reported that there is a significant risk of glacier lake outburst floods. They commented on the instability of the moraines behind which the lakes have formed, and showed an image of one of the new lakes, into which a glacier had recently released ice through a calving event. They comment that the community of Pampamachay lies in the path of these possible flood events, another finding of potential importance to the community.

A number of participants in the forum listened to the explanations which Diaz and the students gave of the poster. Benjamin Morales, the director of INAIGEM, the institution which sponsored the forum, asked several questions after their explanation.  One of the student authors, Franklin Hancco, explained to GlacierHub that this forum was the first conference that he attended outside his home region of Puno. He indicated that it was an exciting opportunity for him to meet researchers from other parts of Peru and Latin America, as well as from Europe and North America.

INAIGEM director Benjamin Morales discussing the poster with faculty and students (source: R. Diaz)
INAIGEM director Benjamin Morales discussing the poster with faculty and students (source: R. Diaz)

The poster demonstrates the potential for training students in scientific research methods, even in small provincial universities that lack the support of wealthier institutions located in the capital city of Lima. Such methods can serve to document processes of glacier change. The poster shows as well the value of linkages between glacier researchers and mountain communities, and the importance of language and culture in establishing these linkages.

Readers who wish to learn more about this project can contact Diaz directly at rennydaniel@gmail.com, Chambi at ricardochambiapaza@gmail.com and Hancco at frankniflin@gmail.com.

 

 

 

The Andes Challenge: Extreme Sports, Tourism and Science in Peru

run on glacier
Running on Vallunaraju Glacier in Andes Challenge (source: Benkelo Morales)

Four extreme athletes gathered before dawn on August 28 at a glacier in Peru to start a 170 kilometer race. Setting off from the foot of Mount Vallunaraju in the Cordillera Blanca range, they ran up to its summit at 5625 meters and down to the Llaca valley. They then alternated cycling and running, passing through the regional capital of Huaraz and over a second mountain range, the Cordillera Negra, before completing a descent of over 3500 meters through the coastal desert to the port of Huarmey on the Pacific Ocean. They finished the route in under 16 hours.

“It was really very moving. I received them at the port, along with regional mayors and other political authorities,” Benjamin Morales, the director of the Peruvian National Research Institute for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (INAIGEM) wrote to GlacierHub.

Athletes biking in the Cordillera Negra section of the Andes Challenge (source:AccesoPeru) https://67.media.tumblr.com/259acd28d0b65f6856b4b28193090f0c/tumblr_ocrnimX6gh1v1zkw0o1_1280.jpg
Athletes biking in the Cordillera Negra section of the Andes Challenge (source: AccesoPeru)

Described as one of the most challenging ultramarathons of the world, the Andes Challenge promotes  opportunities for  athletics and also tourism in Peru, showcasing the great ecological diversity of the Ancash region. The race passes through snowpeaks, forests, grasslands, farmland and desert— areas where INAIGEM conducts research on endemic plant species, glacier processes, and environmental issues such as water management and disaster risk reduction. The route provides a window into the region’s cultural diversity as well, since it includes indigenous and mestizo settlements of the highlands and coast. And the event organizers encourage participation, not only by top athletes in the one-day ultramarathon, but by others who move at slower paces, completing the route in two or more days, or simply hiking different sections of it. An additional goal of the event is to promote sustainable development of the region.

This event builds on earlier efforts dating back over 10 years. The head of Huascaran National Park, in which Vallunaraju is located, encouraged a Peruvian runner to complete a similar route in 2010. In the following year, over a dozen runners, including one woman, also ran the course. It then fell into abeyance until Benkelo Morales, an athlete, hotel owner and event organizer from Huaraz, decided to revive it. The full name which he bestowed on it, “Andes Challenge: The Route of Mountain Ecosystems and Climate Change,” signals his concern to build awareness of environmental issues. He drew support from the national park, INAIGEM, the regional office of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism, several municipal governments, an environmental NGO, the Peruvian mountain guides association, and two mining firms. A much larger version of the Andes Challenge will be held on June 29, 2017.

GlacierHub recently interviewed Benkelo Morales about the event.

Three athletes running in the Andes Challenge (source: Facebook) https://scontent-iad3-1.xx.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/14141539_1136067803116364_630030388729401205_n.jpg?oh=399a1b5fdfafc8321cc8014c62e0f2b2&oe=58378FEB
Three athletes running in the Andes Challenge (source: Facebook)

GlacierHub: What were the most important successes of the Andes Challenge this year?

Benkelo Morales: The Andes Challenge was born as an athletic initiative in 2004, with the idea of linking the snowpeaks of the Cordillera Blanca with the sea in less than a day, combining climbing, cycling and running. We tried it out a few times but never had much of an impact on the population of the region. This year, INAIGEM came up with an interesting idea – sport and science could work together. They suggested that the route of the race could be an area for tourism and for research on ecosystems. This way, tourists could visit the region, seeing an area where athletes race and scientists conduct research. Put simply, the most important success is that we achieved promoting science through sport and tourism.

 

Steep downhill section of the Andes Challenge in the Cordillera Blanca (source:Benkelo Morales)
Steep downhill section of the Andes Challenge in the Cordillera Blanca (source: Benkelo Morales)

GH: What support has been most important in the preparation for the Andes Challenge and in its operation?

BM: All activities require a budget. Since this was the first offering of the race, we did not have registration fees or private sponsorships. Because of this, the logistical support of INAIGEM was invaluable for us. INAIGEM helped us with vehicles and staff, so that we were able to gain Support from municipal governments along the route and from mining companies. In this way, we were able to launch the project. And we wish to thank the athletes who took part as well, the Ecuadorian Nicolas Miranda de Ecuador, Jenn Hrinkevich from the US, and three Peruvians, Emerson Trujillo from Huaraz, Hernan Henostroza and Richard Hidalgo.

 

GH: What was the biggest surprise of the event?

BM: There were many surprises, including the way the community members along the route came out to applaud the runners. But the most important surprise was that the Minister of the Environment showed herself to be so interested in the project. It is very difficult to make contact with ministers in Peru, but thanks to INAIGEM and the international forum which they organized, we had the opportunity to present the project to many groups, from major government figures to universities, students and the media.

 

Biking in the Cordillera Negra sction of the Andes Challenge (source:Benkelo Morales)
Athletes biking in the Cordillera Negra section of the Andes Challenge (source: Benkelo Morales)

GH: What was the greatest joy of the Andes Challenge?

BM: Extreme races have their risks. It was an enormous joy to see the athletes run into the ocean after 16 hours of uninterrupted effort, without any accidents at all. And also, seeing so many people along the route and at the finish on the beach were great incentives to keep on going, despite the fatigue.

 

Athletes biking in the coastal desert portion of Andes Challenge (source: Facebook) https://scontent-iad3-1.xx.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/14141539_1136067803116364_630030388729401205_n.jpg?oh=399a1b5fdfafc8321cc8014c62e0f2b2&oe=58378FEB
Athletes biking in the coastal desert section of Andes Challenge (source: Facebook)

GH: What do you anticipate for the Andes Challenge in the future?

BM: Well, I think the main thing is to position the entire route as a tourist corridor where people of all types and interests can take some time to cover the route. It’s such a diverse route that it could please all kinds of tourists. On the level of sport, we hope that it will become one of the most challenging in the world. We would like to see the world’s top runners and cyclists coming to take part. They could become “sports ambassadors” to promote awareness of climate change and adaptation.

 

arriving coast
Athletes reaching the Pacific Ocean at the end of the Andes Challenge (source: Benkelo Morales)

GH: What importance does the Andes Challenge have for the communities along the route and near it?

BM: To have an extreme race like this requires going through isolated areas that are difficult to get to, the same places where ecological research is often carried out. So these communities are the ones that are least favored by the government. So we can state that the Andes Challenge can bring different types of benefits to these communities, from tourism and economic activity, to training in environmental issues and in athletics, to education and employment. Stated simply, the Andes Challenge will put these communities on the map.

Science and Politics in a Mountain Grassland in Peru

A recent visit to a research site in a high-elevation grassland in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru demonstrated the importance of these rapidly changing ecosystems.  It showed as well the challenges of carrying out studies in this area, and the opportunities for collaborations between different organizations.

The Science of Grasslands

Marlene Rosario and Yulfo Azaña in Llaca Valley (source: Ben Orlove)
Yulfo Azaña and Marlene Rosario in Llaca Valley (source: Ben Orlove)

On August 17 I drove from the city of Huaraz to Laguna Llaca with Marlene Rosario, an environmental engineer at the Peruvian National Research Institute for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (known by its Spanish acronym, INAIGEM), and Yulfo Azaña, an agronomy student at the Santiago Antúnez de Mayolo National University.  Judith Dresher, another visiting American, also joined us. This visit came several days after an international forum on glaciers and mountain ecosystems, organized by INAIGEM.

Several talks at the forum focused on these grasslands. Enrique Flores, the rector of the National Agrarian University, reported on the deterioration of the quality across the entire Andean region of the country . He indicated that these grasslands have contributed to human livelihoods for millennia, providing grazing for llamas and alpacas since pre-Columbian times and for cattle and sheep as well in the centuries after the Spanish Conquest. They improve regional water resources by promoting the infiltration of surface water into ground water and by removing heavy metals, which can occur naturally or result from mining. Grasslands also support biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

Wetlands in Copa Grande, Peru, with woodlands and grasslands on slope (source: Ben Orlove)
Wetlands in Copa Grande, Peru, with woodlands and grasslands on slope (source: Ben Orlove)

Molly Polk, the associate director of Sustainability Studies at the University of Texas, Austin, presented results of analysis of satellite images, which demonstrate the reduction in area of wetlands—a key component of grassland biomes—across the Cordillera Blanca in recent decades, and noted this decline in areas that receive glacial meltwater, as well as other areas.

Flores and Polk indicated that grasslands are affected both by climate change and overgrazing. As Rosario explained to me, INAIGEM had begun research to sort out the relative importance of these two factors—a matter of practical importance as well as scientific interest, since they can be addressed by different means.

Planning the Research Project

Entering the upper Llaca valley (source: Ben Orlove
Entering the upper Llaca valley (source: Ben Orlove)

As we drove up, Rosario,  the sub-director for Climate Change Risks in Mountain Ecosystems at INAIGEM, explained the origins of the project. INAIGEM scientists had decided to conduct grazing exclusion experiments. This method, well-established in grassland ecology, consists of fencing plots so that animals can no longer graze in them, and then assessing the vegetation at regular intervals.

INAIGEM staff reviewed maps and traveled through the grasslands to select possible sites. They recognized that they would need to coordinate with several organizations to receive permission. The first was Huascaran National Park. This protected area, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains large high-elevation grassland areas. The park staff was supportive of the project, both because of their interest in learning more about the grasslands and because it could promote tourism. They discussed installing explanatory panels near the research sites so that hikers and climbers could learn more about the park’s ecosystems.

Sign at entrance to Huascaran National Park from pasture user's group, requesting protection of the environment and respect for culture (source: Ben Orlove)
Sign from pasture-user group at entrance to Huascaran National Park  (source: Ben Orlove)

The second group consisted of the herders who graze their cattle in the region. When the national park was established in 1975, the long-established customary rights of numerous peasant communities to lands within the park were severely curtailed. These communities of Quechua-speaking farmers and herders could no longer build houses or collect wood in the park, and they were forbidden from cultivating fields in the small sections of the park below the upper limit of cultivation around 4000 meters. This loss of rights came just a few years after a major agrarian reform program had granted official recognition to these communities, and was deeply resented within them.

The park allowed some grazing to continue. It set up committees of pasture-users (comités de usuarios de pastos naturales), in this way granting grazing rights to individuals. Other community members were excluded, even though in earlier times they would have been able to gain access to grasslands if they acquired livestock. Moreover, each pasture-user was allowed to pass the rights on to only one heir, rather than to all their offspring as was the practice before the park was established. The concerns of the pasture-users is shown by a sign erected by their group at the park entrance, calling for protection of the environment and respect for local culture as well as compliance with directives from park rangers.

Stone wall built by herders to control movement of livestock (source: Ben Orlove)
Stone wall built by herders to control movement of livestock (source: Ben Orlove)

INAIGEM staff met with the management committees (juntas directivas) of two groups of pasture-users,  Quillcayhuanca and Llaca, both of them in the drainages closest to Huaraz. They proposed using solar-powered electric fences to establish 2 to 4 exclusion plots of 5 hectares each, indicating that this would provide valuable information about pasture quality and might lead to an increase in tourism revenue. The group in Llaca—all members of the community of Cachipampa, with fields and houses lower down—showed greater interest, and agreed to allow INAIGEM staff to set up the plots.

Location of study plot, with approximate boundaries shown in black (source: Ben Orlove)
Location of study plot, with approximate boundaries shown in black (source: Ben Orlove)

This agreement did not end the tensions. When INAIGEM staff came to delimit the plots, the herders challenged their selection. INAIGEM preferred areas with more established vegetation, but the herders wanted them to study the sections of most deteriorated pasture. The herders claimed that INAIGEM’s actions would lead them to lose their grazing rights. They also expressed concerned that the electric fences would kill the cattle. After tense discussions, the two groups compromised on one initial plot, a bit under 5 hectares, that included woodlands and wetlands as well as grasslands.

The final challenge to INAIGEM came, not from the people, but from the animals. Azaña explained how the cattle of this high area were fierce and wild (bravos), unlike the tamer animals of the lower agricultural regions. When an engineer came with the stakes, he was charged by a bull. Fearing that he would be gored, he ran into the middle of a marshy area where the ground was too soft for the bull to enter. He remained there until others rescued him.

Visiting the Research Site

Rosario, showing the fence and ladder (source: Ben Orlove)
Marlene Rosario, showing the fence and ladder (source: Ben Orlove)

After this long account, Rosario, Azaña, Dresher and I reached the lake at the foot of the glacier. Rosario pointed out the walls that the herders had built to separate different areas of pasture. We walked down the river valley past some wetlands, and reached the plot. She showed us the electric fence, with four wires at even intervals strung between sturdy posts.

She indicated as well a ladder that passed over it into the plot. It had been added at the insistence of the community of Cachipampa, which had built an intake for a canal on the river within the plot.  The community members use the water to irrigate fields well below the park.

Azaña demonstrating the method of assessing plant vigor (source: Ben Orlove)
Azaña demonstrating the method of assessing plant vigor (source: Ben Orlove)

Azaña demonstrated to us the vegetation assessment procedure. He had established 3 transects—lines which ran the length of the plot, each at a different elevation. He visits the site  every  3 months, collecting data  on the plant species which are present  at a number of determined spots on each transect, as well as the vigor of the dominant species and the percentage of bare soil at each spot.

Edge of exclusion plot, showing taller vegetation on the left, inside the plot (source: Ben Orlove)
Edge of exclusion plot, showing taller vegetation on the left, inside the plot (source: Ben Orlove)

Even after less than a year, the initial results were clear: the plants were taller and thicker inside the plot than outside. Rosario described a meeting that she had with the management committee of the herders; they agreed that the pasture showed recovery when the grazing had stopped. She was hopeful that this finding would lead to discussions of changes in grazing patterns. The national park staff was also eager to reduce herding, though they and INAIGEM both recognize the strong attachment of the herders to these areas and their distrust of government agencies.

Considering the Next Steps

Upper Llaca valley, showing glacier (source: Ben Orlove)
Upper Llaca valley, showing glacier (source: Ben Orlove)

On the way back to Huaraz, Rosario, Azaña and I discussed ways to promote further engagement of the herders in the research and the management. We talked about involving the herders directly in the assessment of pasture quality. Rosario said, “We don’t just study trees and water. We pay attention to the social component.”  She and Azaña were interested to hear that an indigenous pastoralist—a Saami from Norway—was a co-author of a chapter in the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC, and considered the possibility of having Quechua co-authors of reports and papers on their research. We discussed including text in Quechua, as well as Spanish and English, on the explanatory panels about the project. Dresher suggested reintroducing llamas and alpacas into the area, with the tourist restaurants in Huaraz as a possible market for the meat.

“We are Andean,” Rosario said, as we drew closer to Huaraz. “We are familiar with these places.” Indeed she and Azaña are both from the Ancash region, where Huaraz and the national park are located. They both speak Quechua as well as Spanish. These common identities and connections to the landscape may prove important as the ties between researchers and herders unfold.

Officials, Experts, Local People Visit a High-risk Glacier Lake

Lake Palcacocha, showing the face of the debris-covered glacier that reaches the lake (source: Ben Orlove)
Lake Palcacocha, showing the face of the debris-covered glacier that reaches the lake (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

Moraine below Lake Palcacocha, showing the breach created by the outburst flood of 1941 (source: Ben Orlove)
Moraine below Lake Palcacocha, showing the breach created by the outburst flood of 1941 (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

Plastic pipes siphoning water from Lake Palcacocha. Note the floats which keep the intake suspended above the lake bottom (source: Ben Orlove)
Plastic pipes siphoning water from Lake Palcacocha. Note the floats which keep the intake suspended above the lake bottom (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

Eloy Alzamora Morales, mayor of the district of Independencia, speaking at Palcacocha (source: Ben Orlove)
Eloy Alzamora Morales, mayor of the district of Independencia, speaking at Palcacocha (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

Selwyn Valverde of Huascaran National Park, speaking at Palcacocha (source: Ben Orlove)
Selwyn Valverde of Huascaran National Park, speaking at Palcacocha (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

Pipes releasing water from Lake Palcococha into the outlet stream during the dry season (source: Ben Orlove)
Pipes releasing water from Lake Palcacocha into the outlet stream during the dry season (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

lunch for visitors to Lake Palcococha, served by the caretakers of the dam. Gualberto Machaca at extreme left (source: Ben Orlove)
lunch for visitors to Lake Palcococha, served by the caretakers of the dam. Gualberto Machaca at extreme left (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

Peru Conference Calls for More Work on Climate Change, Disaster Risk

A major international forum this month in Peru has resulted in calls for strengthening research capabilities and for programs in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. It also had demonstrated the need for greater public participation and the development of new financial mechanisms to support these activities. It showed the importance of flexible governance systems that can draw on emerging research and on growing citizen engagement with environmental issues.

The scientific forum’s focus on climate change in the mountains took on particular meaning, as it was held in Huaraz, a  a small Peruvian city located at the foot of the Cordillera Blanca, a major glacier-covered range. The forum, held Aug. 10-12, specifically centered on climate change impacts in mountains, with particular emphasis on glacier retreat, water sustainability and biodiversity.

A new Peruvian organization, the National Institute of Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, known by its Spanish acronym INAIGEM, organized the forum, with support from a number of other organizations.

The forum’s more than 1,400 participants came largely from Peru, but also included a substantial number of scientists, policy experts and agency staff from 18 other countries.  They met in Huaraz, attending plenary lectures in the morning and breaking into smaller groups in the afternoon for topical sessions and discussion groups, which considered specific recommendations for action. These recommendations led to two final documents. The forum produced a set of eight conclusions and a final declaration, both presented to the participants, a number of public officials and the media by Benjamin Morales, the president of INAIGEM.

A participant at the climate change conference assembles materials for a break-out meeting
A participant at the climate change conference assembles materials for a break-out meeting. (Photo courtesy of Ben Orlove).

Researchers from the natural and social sciences reported  on water availability and natural hazards in the Cordillera Blanca and other mountain ranges. Jeff Kargel of the University of Arizona reported on the connections between earthquakes and glacier lake outburst floods in the Himalayas and the Andes. Bryan Mark of the Ohio State University discussed research methodologies to measure “peak water”—the point at which the contribution of glacier meltwater causes a river’s flow to reach its highest levels, after which the glaciers, smaller in size, contribute less water to the streams.

 

Audience and participants gather at the international climate change conference in Peru, which ran Aug. 10-12
Audience and participants gather at the international climate change conference in Peru, which ran Aug. 10-12. (Photo courtesy of Walter Hupiu).

 

 

Several talks traced links between ecosystems and water resources. They showed the importance of wetlands in promoting the recharge of groundwater and in maintaining water quality. The latter role is particularly important, because as glaciers retreat, new areas of rock become exposed to the atmosphere. As these rocks weather, minerals leach into streams. Since these wetlands are important grazing areas for peasant communities, they raise challenging issues of coordination between communities and agencies charged with environmental management.   

Many speakers focused specifically on this management, stressing the importance of the coordination of scientists and other experts, policy-makers, and wider society. Carlos Fernandez, of UNESCO, stressed the importance of water governance systems that integrated social, economic and environmental sectors, rather than relying on market-driven approaches.

Others examined financial mechanisms, such as the payment for ecosystem services and the expansion of user fees for water and other resources. GlacierHub’s editor Ben Orlove spoke of the cultural importance of glaciers, and of the role of glaciers as symbols of social identity.

The forum was sponsored by over two dozen institutions, including Peruvian agencies (Ministry of the Environment, the National Service for Protected Natural Areas, the National Civil Defense Institute, and the National Water Authority), NGOs  (CARE, The Mountain Institute, CONDESAN) and the international aid programs from Switzerland, US and Canada, as well as several mining firms in Peru.

The critical role of mountain societies was signaled by a speech from Juan German Espíritu, the president of the peasant community of Catac, located in the Cordillera Blanca. Speaking first in the local indigenous language, Quechua, and then in Spanish, he emphasized the importance of full  participation, environmental justice, and a vision of human well-being that is broader than measures of economic development.

He and Morales then signed an agreement that gave INAIGEM the right to conduct research within the territory of Catac. This agreement is a departure from earlier practices in Peru, in which communities would often be bypassed.

The president of a local community in the Cordillera Blanca and the president of INAIGEM sign an agreement to allow research in the area of Catac, Peru.
The president of a local community in the Cordillera Blanca and the president of INAIGEM sign an agreement to allow research in the area of Catac, Peru. (Photo courtesy of Walter Hupiu).

The comments of German Espíritu were echoed in a speech by María Foronda, a congressional delegate from the region where Ancash is located. Drawing on her personal and professional experiences, she argued for the incorporation of indigenous knowledge in environmental management and for the Quechua concept of allin kawsay, emphasizing sustainability and community over unchecked economic growth.   The importance of the forum was emphasized by the presence of the Minister of the Environment, Elsa Galarza, who gave the closing speech of the forum. She affirmed her commitment to sustainable development and to addressing the basic needs of the full citizenry of Peru. Both of these points are major issues in Peru, where mining companies often clash with rural communities and environmental groups over issues of water and air pollution.

Galarza also spoke of the importance of scientific research in shaping environmental policy. Her speech, along with coverage of the forum in national newspapers, shows the growing recognition for INAIGEM, founded only last year as a branch of the Ministry of Environment.  This attention, along with the support for the forum evident in its broad sponsorship, suggests that INAIGEM may take an increasingly prominent role in addressing glacier retreat and other climate change impacts in Peru and in other mountain regions.