Glacier Art: “Project Trumpmore” to Carve President’s Face on Melting Iceberg
From the official website of Project Trumpmore: “Global warming is a huge, abstract concept… We think that in its intangibility, global warming lacks a concrete symbol. One that would prove it exists, or not. That’s what we are setting out to do: a scientific art project… We hope that the more conversation takes place around our monument and global warming, the better possibilities politicians have to make concrete fact-based decisions.”
Read more about the project and ways to contribute here.
Bhutanese Yak Herders’ Perceptions of Glacier Retreat
From BioOne: “A questionnaire survey was conducted to understand how a mountain ecosystem in northern Bhutan is perceived by local yak herders to be changing under climate warming… The questionnaire sought information on herders’ awareness and perceptions of weather patterns, climate changes, and their impact on vegetation, herding practices, and livelihoods… The study concluded that yak herders’ perceptions provide critical signs of warming and their vulnerability to changing climatic conditions in the alpine environment.”
Find out more about their perspectives on how a warming climate would impact their lives here.
The Mountain Institute, Peru, Wins Major Environmental Award
From the 2018 St Andrews Prize formal announcement: The Mountain Institute, Peru, “which integrates 2,000 years of indigenous knowledge of water management in the Andes with contemporary science and technology to create hybrid solutions that improve water security, support livelihoods, strengthen communities and increase ecosystem-wide resilience in mountain communities has won the St Andrews Prize for the Environment 2018.”
Check out more about this prestigious environmental award and the Mountain Institute, Peru, here.
This op-ed originally appeared on WashingtonPost.com and was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.
When the poisoned river ran red with heavy metals, people from nearby communities didn’t believe at first that climate change was to blame. In this small village nestled in the Cordillera Blanca, a majestic mountain range that contains several of the highest peaks in South America, the glaciers melted and metal-rich rocks were exposed to the air for the first time in thousands of years.
The glacial meltwater washing over the exposed rocks carried metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and iron into area waterways, turning rivers like the Rio Negro a rust red. This contaminated both soil and water and posed a significant health risk. Over time, people, wildlife and livestock who drank the water became sick, and crop productivity plummeted.
As headlines of global climate change become more alarming, it’s easy to forget that climate change is also an intensely local problem. Startling statistics announcing that the snowcaps of the Andes or Alps will disappear before the end of this century conceal the fact that hundreds of smaller glaciers in these mountain ranges have already melted away, leaving a trail of devastation and threatening thousands of families’ way of life.
In Peru, the government conducted a national inventory in 2013 and found that between 1970 and 2003, the 19 Peruvian mountain ranges with glaciers lost around 40 percent of their total ice surface. Some very large glacier ranges have already lost a third of their perennial ice, and some smaller glaciers no longer exist at all.
Silently, climate change has started to leave a trail of disasters in these mountains, and that has consequences for major lowland cities that rely, knowingly or not, on mountain ecosystems for food and water, agriculture and livelihoods. In a place like Peru, climate change adaptation begins in the mountains. And alpine communities are scrambling to find ways of adjusting to a new reality.
In the remote mountain villages around the Rio Negro, that adaptation effort took a curious and innovative form. To restore the poisoned river water and contaminated landscape around it, villagers collaborated with scientists from the Mountain Institute and with academic specialists. With training, they built a water purification system that collects the acidic river water in small ponds. Then, using local traditional knowledge, they planted native plant species that could absorb metals from the water.
Involving the communities on the front lines of climate change in this way is vital to finding concrete solutions to local problems; the open dialogue and collegial relationship with the scientists empowered the local community, sparking a palpable sense of pride in both local traditions and scientific solutions to complex climate problems.
And it wasn’t the only time traditional knowledge helped restore a landscape degraded by climate change.
In the Nor Yauyos-Cochas Reserve of central Peru, Guadalupe Beraun, a wise and respected grandmother from the small village of Canchayllo, was showing me around the parched pastures where her sheep and cattle used to graze. The mountain peaks towered darkly above us. A small glacier called Wacra used to glisten there, a blinding white against the dark mountain and blue sky beyond. But year after year, it receded, finally disappearing completely around 1990.
Once the glacier was lost, the wetlands started drying up, and sheep and cattle had to be moved down the mountain to pastures that still had a few ponds. Wild vicuna, a relative of llamas, also had to migrate elsewhere. I asked Guadalupe what these drastic, local changes have meant to her. She paused and said, “It’s changed my whole way of life. When I walk here now, I long to see vicuna in the grasslands, like before. I used to sing to them to show my happiness and gratitude to this place.”
Where Guadalupe lives, people have relied on glacial meltwater to supply their alpine wetlands and grasslands, known as the puna, for as long as anyone can remember. The puna ecosystem extends from around 13,000 feet to 16,000 feet, a belt of pastures above the tree line and below the glaciers. Traditional ways of making a living at this high altitude rely on a healthy ecosystem. Villagers raise sheep, cattle and alpaca and also sheer wild vicuna for their valuable wool. Local farmers grow native potatoes and lesser-known tubers such as oca, olluco and mashua as well as corn, quinoa, broad beans, squash, fodder crops and much more. Their food and water security has always depended on glacial meltwater.
As glaciers receded, dozens of villagers like Guadalupe left their highland pastures years ago and began to over-exploit grasslands at lower elevations. But those pastures, too, were only going to last a few years. Locals were well aware that the puna would continue to degrade, livestock would suffer, and the ecosystem itself would eventually collapse. A more permanent solution — a sustainable adaptation to climate change — had to be found.
Together with scientists from the Mountain Institute and the National Agrarian University in Lima, villagers from Canchayllo and nearby Miraflores planned a “back-to-the-future” solution. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, they chose to honor their ancestors’ impressive engineering by restoring ancient, local infrastructure that was used to regulate water in the puna.
The water management systems developed in ancient Peru involved a set of technologies designed to slow or retain water in high alpine territories. The purpose was to keep water available for use as long as possible in the dry season. These ancient systems included dams and reservoirs of different sizes, irrigation canals and large silt traps that kept soil from being eroded in years of intense rain. They also encouraged wetlands to develop. The excess soil in these silt traps could be “harvested” and used in terraces in warm valleys below the puna.
Pre-Inca civilizations in the Andes maintained highland pastures with water technologies that slowed the movement of water through grasses and soils and provided a buffer against flooding and drought. Local wildlife flourished. A steady supply of water supported lush pastures and livestock, who in turn provided manure, used as fertilizer for corn, tubers, hard grains and the hundreds of potato varieties that are native to mountain valleys in the Andes.
Over the centuries, most of this infrastructure was abandoned. Today, older villagers only remember some of the locations and uses. The social and demographic collapse of indigenous cultures after the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1532 helps explain why these ancient socio-technological systems decayed. In more recent times, glacier retreat, changes in precipitation, loss of local labor and shifts away from traditional herding and farming practices have all contributed to the abandonment of this infrastructure and the degradation of the puna ecosystem.
But that’s starting to change. Villagers and scientists worked together to restore some of the ancient canals, and the wetlands began coming back to life. Cattle and sheep graze once again in revitalized highland pastures. The approach once again produced a strong sense of pride that traditional knowledge was being used to enable the community to become more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
The disappearing glaciers of the tropical Andes are our preview of what climate change has in store for mountain communities as well as the millions of people in lowland areas whose livelihoods depend on high-elevation ecosystems. We must prepare in our own regions by following the lead of these mountain people and learning from them as agents of change. We should pay close attention; mountains near the equator are our canary in the coal mine. They are the Earth’s thermometer — an early indicator of a planetary fever.
I am hopeful and inspired by the mountain communities that live at the foot of receding glaciers. Their creativity, tenacity and resilience come from their deep trust in nature and their kinship with the mountains that surround them. They can teach all of us how to start adapting to a future without glaciers.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Eighteen people, representing seven small mountain countries, gathered on 8 December at the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris to discuss glacier retreat and its consequences. They reviewed the issues that they considered most serious and considered the possibility of forming an international organization of glacier countries.
This meeting included representatives from Tajikistan, Bhutan, Peru, Bolivia, Switzerland, Austria and Norway; among them were country negotiators at the COP21, leaders in national agencies and NGOs, and officials within bilateral aid organizations, as well as academics and one UN official. It was organized by Ben Orlove, the managing editor of GlacierHub, a professor at Columbia University and a member of the working group of the Mountain Societies Research Institute at the University of Central Asia. He attended COP21 as an official observer of the Nepal-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
The meeting was facilitated by Miguel Saravia of CONDESAN, the Consortium for the Sustainable Development of the Andean Ecoregion, who facilitated the access at the COP site to Peru’s office suite. This facility, available to the Peruvian delegation and their guests, provided a haven of quiet and privacy, conducive to discussion and reflection, within the bustle of the COP. It drew on the suggestions of the representatives of the glacier countries, expressed in prior conversations and meetings with Orlove in the months leading up to the COP; in the days before the 8 December meeting, delegates from Kyrgyzstan and Nepal, whose schedules impeded participation in that meeting, offered a number of ideas that were included in the discussion there.
The impetus of the meeting came from examples set by other organizations that bring together countries sharing common climate change impacts. These include the Alliance of Small Island States, the Arctic Council, and the Coalition of Rainforest Nations. Another such group, the Delta Coalition, which was announced at the COP on 2 December, links 12 countries to make deltas more visible in global policy discussions, establish partnerships, and undertake concrete actions in order to increase resilience in these regions.
Though the sense of the meeting was that further discussion and study was needed before a Council of Small Glacier States or some similar organization could be established, the group achieved a number of positive steps: examining possible activities for such an organization, conducting a ranking exercise of concerns, reviewing cases that could offer suggestions for the organizations, and establishing concrete action steps to take before the next meeting of the group.
At the outset of the meeting, the participants agreed on the great breadth of possible activities for an organization of glacier countries. Eric Nanchen of the Swiss-based Foundation for the Sustainable Development of Mountain Regions spoke of “knowledge creation, knowledge sharing and capacity-building,” to which Rasmus Bertelsen of Norway’s University of the Arctic added “policy-shaping networks.” The social actors within the countries similarly ranged broadly across government, universities, local communities, civil society institutions, and businesses.
The participants also recognized a variety of structural forms. Emphasizing the value of drawing on existing efforts, Andrew Taber of the Mountain Institute (TMI) argued for inclusion within larger mountain organizations, such as the Mountain Forum or the Mountain Partnership, within which TMI has a leadership role. Others, such as Benjamín Morales Arnao of Peru’s National Institute for Research in Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, underscored the distinctiveness of glaciers, with their close association with climate change; Firuz Saidov and Anvar Khomidov of the Tajikistan Committee for Environment Protection indicated the specific issues of water resource management and hazards faced by glacier countries at the headwaters of international watersheds. Summarizing this discussion, Thinley Namgyel, Chief Environment Officer of the Climate Change Division of Bhutan’s National Environment Commission, emphasized that any new group would “not want to duplicate” existing efforts.
As a first step to provide focus, Orlove led the group in a ranking exercise. The participants reviewed an initial set of glacier-related issues and added other issues to the list. Each one then allocated five points across these issues, giving no issue more than two points. Three issues—hydropower planning and water resources, disaster risk reduction and early warning systems, training and human resource development—all rose to the top. The other issues—reduction of black carbon, tourism planning, biodiversity and ecosystem management, and outmigration from mountain areas—received much smaller numbers of points. The rankings from the Asian and Latin American delegates were quite close to those of the European delegates.
With these issues in mind, participants offered examples of prior activities. Jorge Recharte, the Andes Program Director of TMI, discussed an exchange program which linked Peru, Nepal and Tajikistan: researchers, government officials and community members formed committees to plan for early warning systems and risk reduction for glacier lake outburst flood hazards. He pointed to the great potential of incorporating local knowledge into research and adaptation, though he also reminded the group of the challenges of assuring ongoing funding—a point that others recognized. Muzaffar Shodmonov of the Tajikistan State Agency for Hydrometeorology spoke of coordination of glacial monitoring across a number of countries. Bertelsen suggested that the group consider as an example the University of the Arctic, based in Norway’s Tromsø University. This university links a number of other universities in countries within the Arctic Council, and has served effectively to develop and apply knowledge. He suggested that the emerging plans of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) to develop a Himalayan University Consortium might be a similar center; Orlove suggested that it could be linked to the University of Central Asia. Matthias Jurek, an Austrian involved with the United Nations Environmental Programme, also mentioned a number of programs that draw together research and adaptation efforts in different glacier countries, including UNESCO’s International Hydrological Program. Like Bertelsen, Jurek suggested points of overlap between glacier projects and polar endeavors—linking glaciers to the global cryosphere as well as to mountains. This connection had also been raised by Pam Pearson of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, who spoke with several participants moments before the meeting but who was unable to attend due to prior commitments.
As the meeting progressed, the discussion shifted to concrete action steps. Namgyel’s emphasis on the need for additional work underscored this direction. Jurek proposed a mapping exercise to develop a full list of glacier-related institutions in small mountain countries involved in research, adaptation programs, training and communication. Orlove suggested close attention to the human and social dimensions of glacier retreat, as well as the physical and hydrological aspects. Orlove also proposed developing a grid that would examine the different combinations of activities, structural forms and issues, as a way to locate “low-hanging fruit” that could serve as initial efforts to link countries. The Central Asia-Himalaya link suggested the possibility that such efforts could be drawn on selected regions, rather than the full range of glacier countries around the world.
As the end of the hour allotted for the meeting approached, the participants discussed possible venues for the next meeting of the group. Several people mentioned the World Mountain Forum in Uganda in October 2016 and COP22 in Morocco in November 2016, which is likely to have a thematic focus on water issues, though the possibility of a separate standalone conference was also raised. The participants agreed to remain in contact. This conference indicated that small mountain countries can do more together than they can do alone. The broad awareness of the potential for such coordinated action should provide the stimulus for future actions.