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.

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Andean Farmer Demands Climate Justice in Germany

In the Cordillera Blanca Mountains of the Peruvian Andes, glacier retreat caused by climate change has led to an increased risk of flooding for residents living below. Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a farmer and mountain guide who faces the imminent threat of losing his house in a massive flood, argues that large polluters are to blame. This led him to file a lawsuit against the German energy giant RWE demanding the firm take responsibility for its CO2 emissions and help reduce the risk of flooding.

The lawsuit could set an important precedent – if Luciano Lliuya wins, anyone affected by climate change impacts could potentially sue for damages or compensation beyond the borders of their own country. This may provide a more fruitful strategy in light of stalling political efforts at the United Nations level to combat climate change and promote adaptation. In December 2016, the lawsuit was dismissed by the Essen Regional Court in Germany and is currently pending appeal.

Saúl Luciano Lliuya at the Essen Regional Court in Germany, November 2016 (Source: Germanwatch/Photo courtesy Noah Walker-Crawford).
Saúl Luciano Lliuya at the Essen Regional Court in Germany, November 2016 (Source: Germanwatch/Photo courtesy Noah Walker-Crawford).

Climate Change in the Cordillera Blanca

Growing up below the snow-capped mountains of the Cordillera Blanca, Lliuya has borne witness to a changing Andean climate over the past decades. Now aged 36, his work as a mountain guide brings him to high altitudes where he has observed the glaciers progressively receding year after year. This led the glacial lake Palcacocha to rise exponentially in volume – from 0.5 million m3 in 1974 to 3.9 million m3 in 2003 and 17.4 million m3 in 2016. A dislodged piece of glacial ice falling into the lake could lead to a massive outburst flood that would destroy large parts of the city of Huaraz below, according to a recent scientific study.

Huaraz is no stranger to disaster. In 1941, Lake Palcacocha produced an outburst flood that killed thousands and devastated the city. In subsequent decades, the Peruvian authorities drained Palcacocha and other glacial lakes, constructing dams to prevent future disasters. Residents of Huaraz rebuilt the city. Today, existing dams and drainage systems are no longer sufficient at Palcacocha as glacial retreat has increased dramatically and authorities struggle to fund security measures after neoliberal cuts to public finance since the 1990s.

In the short term, glacial retreat in the Cordillera Blanca causes the threat of too much water flooding populated valleys. But if glaciers disappear in the long term, the region will lose its primary source of water. Both scenarios can have devastating consequences. In addition, residents face an increasingly unpredictable climate that disrupts agricultural cycles.

Lliuya argues that Peruvians have contributed little to these problems. “The big companies are mainly responsible for climate change through their emissions. They need to take responsibility and help us face the problems they caused,” Lliuya told GlacierHub. He wanted to take matters into his own hands. When a colleague put him in touch with members of the German environmental NGO Germanwatch, he found partners who were willing to help him take action. Introducing him to the German environmental lawyer Roda Verheyen, the NGO offered to support a legal claim for climate justice against a major polluter. In November 2015, he traveled to Germany and filed a lawsuit against RWE, the largest single CO2 emitter in Europe.

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Lake Palcacocha, December 2014 (Source: Germanwatch/Photo courtesy Noah Walker-Crawford)

The lawsuit

“This is a precedent. RWE AG releases significant emissions, principally through its coal-fired power plants, which makes global temperatures rise, causes glaciers to melt and leads to an acute threat to my client’s property,” Verheyen argued. “We request that the court declare RWE liable to remove this impairment.”

The lawsuit relies on article 1004 of the German Civil Code to argue that RWE is partially responsible for the impairment that Luciano Lliuya faces to his property through climate risk. Drawing on the Carbon Majors study which quantified industrial greenhouse gas emissions and linked them to individual companies, the lawsuit states that RWE contributed 0.47% to historical emissions and should provide its share to reduce flood risk in Huaraz. The Peruvian authorities are planning a multi-million dollar project to drain Lake Palcacocha and build a new dam. Lliuya demands that RWE pay 0.47% of this amount, or around $20,000. The amount is miniscule for a large company but could set a massive precedent.

RWE rejects the claim, arguing that climate change should be discussed at a political level rather than in the courts. In its legal response, the company claims that climate change is so complex that individual companies cannot be linked to specific impacts. In addition, the company denies that Huaraz faces an imminent risk of flooding. RWE did not reply to GlacierHub’s request for comment.

In December 2016, the Essen Regional Court dismissed Lliuya’s lawsuit on formal grounds, stating that his claims lacked legal foundation and coherence. In their verdict, the judges argued that RWE may have partially caused the risk of flooding in Huaraz in scientific terms, but this does not translate into causality in legal terms.

Roda Verheyen and Saúl Luciano Lliuya (Source: Germanwatch/Photo courtesy Noah Walker-Crawford).
Roda Verheyen and Saúl Luciano Lliuya (Source: Germanwatch/Photo courtesy Noah Walker-Crawford).

“The pollutants, which are emitted by the defendant, are merely a fraction of innumerable other pollutants, which a multitude of major and minor emitters are emitting and have emitted. Every living person is, to some extent, an emitter,” reads the finding.

Following the judges’ argumentation, individual polluters cannot be held responsible for climate change because emissions are so widely dispersed. While RWE welcomed the verdict, Lliuya is defiant and vowed to continue. His lawyer is currently preparing an appeal.

The lawsuit is the first of its kind to come this far, but it could set the stage for future climate justice initiatives. In glaciated mountain ranges around the world, people face increased threats of flooding. Even if Lliuya’s lawsuit fails upon appeal, it forms part of a larger trajectory of legal initiatives that demand immediate action while political solutions remain stymied. In the United States, Our Children’s Trust supports lawsuits by children and teenagers against local and federal authorities demanding more sustainable policies. In the Netherlands, the Urgenda citizen’s initiative successfully sued the Dutch government demanding more ambitious climate targets in a suit that is currently pending appeal.

In the long term, Lliuya hopes lawsuits against large polluters will create political pressure to find sustainable solutions to the impacts of climate change. These solutions should account for the historical responsibility of companies such as RWE. Only few people have the means to take legal action; a sustainable strategy must benefit all. As long as policy makers fail to make polluters pay, Lliuya will continue his legal battle against RWE.

“The biggest contributors to climate change must finally take responsibility,” he said. “I want justice.”

 

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Photo Friday: The Cordillera Blanca of Peru

I traveled recently to the Cordillera Blanca, the mountain range in Peru with the largest concentration of glaciers in the world’s tropics. The Peruvian National Institute for Research in Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, INAIGEM, invited me to participate in a forum, and helped me visit several rural communities.

I’ve written other posts about the forum, a visit to a lake with a high risk level for outburst floods, and a trip to a research area in a national park.

I include here other images–of people and towns, as well as of mountain landscapes–that didn’t quite fit into the topics of the other posts. I hope that these convey some aspects of daily life in this beautiful region as it undergoes dramatic change. I hope as well that the images convey the deep connections of people to the region.

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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.

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