Spiritual Significance of Glacier Melt in Mountain Cultures

Glacier retreat, as an easily observable consequence of climate change, also embodies spiritual significance to local communities.  In some cases, local perceptions of glacier melt differ from that of the scientific community.

In a new paper, Elizabeth Allison of the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, looks at three instances of glacial decline in sacred mountain landscapes—in the Peruvian Andes, the Nepalese Himalayas, and the Meili Snow Mountains of Yunnan, China — and observes how different cosmologies provide different accounts of the rapidly melting ice. She found that the ways in which communities perceive glacier melt also affects the way these communities interact with their traditions and with glaciers themselves. Her work suggests the value of broadening the discussions of climate change in modern urban societies as well, by showing the depth of human engagement with the natural world–and, more broadly, by showing that people everywhere seek meaning from nature.

Huayhuash Trek in Peru, courtesy of AllOverThePlanet/Flickr
Huayhuash Trek in Peru, courtesy of AllOverThePlanet/Flickr

The Peruvian Andes

In the Peruvian Andes, the local residents, the Quechua, believe that the declining glacier is associated with the departure of the mountain god. In their worldview, the mountain gods bestow vitality on plants and animals and are thus  worshipped as a manifestation of Mother Earth.

The local residents have long observed the recession of the mountain glaciers. They believe that their mountain gods have always had white ponchos, but some of their ponchos have brown stripes now. It is a mystery to the Quechua what they have done to irritate the mountain god who is limiting water flow.

Concern for the declining glaciers has led to changes in local rituals and customs. Strict regulations have been in effect to prevent anyone from removing ice, and only small bottles of meltwater are allowed to be collected. Guards are also positioned at the edge of the glacier. Pilgrims who used to light candles while seeking answers for their concerns along the edge of the glaciers have started to use smaller candles to preserve the glacier.

Furthermore, local prophecy predicted future calamity when the world will end after the glacier is gone. Local people believe when the glacier disappears, wind will blow everything away and a new epoch will thus begin.

Nagarkot , in the Nepalese Himalayas, courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbera/Flickr
Nagarkot , in the Nepalese Himalayas, courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbera/Flickr

The Nepalese Himalayas

In the Himalayas, it is believed that gods reside on mountaintops to distance themselves from the filth of human life. Sherpas, like the Quechua, sometimes link the decline of mountain glaciers to gods or deities.

Some of them see it as a moral reprimand by the gods due to the departure from traditional lifestyle to new lifestyles that generate pollution. Some Sherpas invoke both scientific and religious interpretations to explain melting glaciers, including changing weather variability, weakening belief in gods and spirits, etc.

In Tibetan Buddhist societies of Nepal, Ladakh, and Bhutan, activities that upset the boundaries between social groups or substances, including cooking or eating garlic and onions, burning meat, experiencing strong emotions, breaking vows, can be the source of physical or spiritual pollution.

Local residents are trying to prevent the pollution of mountain peaks in fear of releasing the fury of mountain gods.

Meili Xue Shan or Mainri Snow Mountains, courtesy of Kevin Poh/Flickr
Meili Xue Shan or Mainri Snow Mountains, courtesy of Kevin Poh/Flickr

Meili Snow Mountain Range

The Mingyong Glacier below Mount Khawa Karpo in the Meili Snow Mountain Range in Northwest Yunnan, China, is one of the most rapidly receding glaciers in the world. From 2002 to 2004, the Mingyong Glacier retreated around 110 meters, and a total of 2.3 kilometers from 1870 to 2004, according to local stories.

A local Buddhist monk suggested that the glacier retreat resulted from insufficient devotion on the part of Buddhists, because outside visitors failed to demonstrate highly reverent behavior around the holy mountain. Others blame the use of electricity and increasing material greed.


Allison believes that the local interpretations that blame lack of reverence for glacier decline reflect larger social, political, and scientific trends that have provided anthropogenic conditions for glacier recession.

Glacial decline, as Allison suggested, is not only a physical and observable process caused by climate change, but also has bearing on how local people understand themselves and interpret the environment they rely upon. Different values stem from different experiences of the landscapes, which reflect the implications of climate change.