Climate Change Increases Flood Risk in Peru

The rising danger of glacial lake flooding in a warmer climate has important implications for humans and animal populations in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. A recent study in CATENA by Adam Emmer et al. examined a large swath of nearly 900 high altitude Peruvian lakes in the mountainous Cordillera Blanca region, studying their susceptibility to outburst floods in light of modern climate change.

14233151_10101576009132456_9004130122014023139_n
A variety of glacial lake sizes in the Cordillera Blanca (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

An outburst flood occurs when the dam containing glacial meltwater, usually comprised of either glacial ice or a terminal moraine (glacial debris lying at the edge of the glacier), fails. Glaciologist Mauri Pelto commented in the American Geophysical newsletter that the moraine dams are “just comprised of gravel, sand and clay dumped by the glacier” and “high water levels caused by upstream floods, avalanches or landslides can cause failure,” leading to major damage of the landscape. The team’s research elucidated that the incidence of glacial lake outburst flooding (GLOF) is increasing and the general distribution of alpine lakes is shifting upward in the region as temperatures warm. 

Knowing a lake’s size, configuration and type allows local water management in the Cordillera Blanca to be improved, according to Emmer et al. By mapping lakes with the classification of either moraine-dammed or bedrock-dammed, the team’s analysis can help local hydrological experts improve water management techniques for the changing distribution of alpine water. It also contributes to the scientific community’s overall understanding of ongoing environmental change.

14192648_10101575998009746_4798298416114193933_n
A large, high elevation glacial lake lying before the high Andes (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

By studying the Cordillera Blanca region’s alpine lakes through a combination of remote sensing (high resolution aerial imagery and measurements) and field observations, Emmer’s team categorized 882 lakes by their size and altitude, ultimately referencing their findings with historical data to observe water redistribution over the last 60 years. Emmer et al. established that glacial lakes had expanded in size and number at higher elevations and disappeared at lower elevations since the 1951 study by Juan Concha in the same region. This finding confirms that environmental change and glacier retreat are strongly correlated in the high alpine.

Results from the analyses showed that from 1948 to 2013, lakes that remained in already deglaciated areas tended to be resilient and generally maintained water levels throughout the 65-year examination. Moraine-dammed lakes in particular resisted disappearing despite glacial retreat, suggesting that bodies of water dammed by materials other than ice were more adaptable to recently warmer temperatures. 

The team also noticed that despite the recent resiliency of moraine dammed lakes, glacial lake outburst flooding was caused predominantly by these dams in the early portion of the Cordillera Blanca’s glacial retreat, in the 1940s and 1950s. Flooding in more recent years has occurred in bedrock-dammed lakes. Although glacial lakes were recorded to have shifted from 4250-4600m in the late 1940s to predominantly above 4600m today, no statistically significant trend was established relating outburst flooding to any particular elevation.

14222290_10101576003598546_7024093891207679051_n
A research team gathered at the waters edge (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

In order to reduce the risk of flood damage in local communities, Emmer et al. suggested continuous monitoring of young, developing proglacial lakes, using extensive flood modeling and outburst susceptibility assessments to account for future changes in the glacier. Understanding that the melting of glaciers is accelerating in a warming world, the need for more intensive local efforts in response to the threat of flooding is apparent.  

The Peruvian government has responded to high lake levels in the mountains of the Cordillera Blanca by “building tunnels and concrete pipes through the [weakest] moraines to allow lake drainage to safe levels,” according to Pelto. The government then rebuilds the moraines over the drainage system to strengthen it. By incorporating the monitoring techniques suggested by Adam Emmer, the government has the opportunity to manage and stay ahead of the flood risk as temperatures continue to rise. 

Glacial lake outburst flooding is hardly unique to the Peruvian landscape. This December, the Kathmandu Post illuminated the growing danger of GLOFs as the Nepalese Dhaulagiri Glacier recedes, creating a hazardous environment in the Mt. Nilgiri region. Researchers at the Chinese Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment also established a strong link in Tibet between rising temperatures and glacial melting, contributing to more frequent and larger glacial lakes than in the past 50 years. With the growing number of alpine lakes and increased temperatures, ice dams are highly fragile and prone to failure.

14212761_10101575998538686_2789770845358907200_n
A variety of landscapes exist at different elevations in the Peruvian Andes (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

Emmer et al.’s study offers an interesting evolutionary perspective on the state of the Cordillera Blanca. The study’s publication illustrates that even the planet’s most dramatic, seemingly unchangeable environments are plastic under the force of global climate change. The redistribution of alpine glacial lakes across the world’s mountainous regions indicates that the risk of outburst flooding should not be taken lightly. The team’s suggestions for future monitoring, to either mitigate the flooding hazard in populated regions or coordinate adaptation efforts, further illustrates the gravity of the situation. Although the risk of outburst flooding has only been studied in specific locations, the changing state of glacial lakes is already quantifiable and may be an effective proxy for monitoring the future extent of global warming.

Roundup: Tragedy in Antarctica, Antimony and Glacier Risks

Roundup: Tragedy, Antimony and Risk

 

Prominent Climate Scientist Dies in Antarctica

New York Times: “Gordon Hamilton, a prominent climate scientist who studied glaciers and their impact on sea levels in a warming climate, died in Antarctica when the snowmobile he was riding plunged into a 100-foot-deep crevasse. He was an associate research professor in the glaciology group at the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. He was camping with his research team on what is known as the Shear Zone, where two ice shelves meet in an expanse three miles wide and 125 miles long. Parts of the Shear Zone can be up to 650 feet thick and ‘intensely crevassed.’ Dr. Hamilton’s research, aided by a pair of robots equipped with ground-penetrating radar instruments, focused on the impact of a warming climate on sea levels. He was working with an operations team to identify crevasses.”

Learn more about the tragedy here.

screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-9-46-40-pm
Professor Gordon Hamilton (Source: University of Maine).

 

Antimony Found in the Tibetan Glacial Snow

Journal of Asian Earth Sciences: “Antimony (Sb) is a ubiquitous element in the environment that is potentially toxic at very low concentrations. In this study, surface snow/ice and snowpit samples were collected from four glaciers in the southeastern Tibetan Plateau in June 2015… The average Sb concentration in the study area was comparable to that recorded in a Mt. Everest ice core and higher than that in Arctic and Antarctic snow/ice but much lower than that in Tien Shan and Alps ice cores… Backward trajectories revealed that the air mass arriving at the southeastern Tibetan Plateau mostly originated from the Bay of Bengal and the South Asia in June. Thus, pollutants from the South Asia could play an important role in Sb deposition in the studied region. The released Sb from glacier meltwater in the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding areas might pose a risk to the livelihoods and well-being of those in downstream regions.”

Read more about the research here.

Location map showing the sampling glaciers in the southeastern Tibetan Plateau. The red dots represent the location of the four investigated glaciers, and the size represents the average concentrations of Sb in the separate glacier.
Location map showing glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau (Source: Elsevier Ltd).

 

Managing Glacier Related Risks Disaster in Peru

The Climate Change Adaption Strategies: A recently edited book, “The Climate Change Adaptation Strategies – An Upstream – Downstream Perspective,” edited by Nadine Salzmann et al., has several chapters on glaciers. The chapter “Managing Glacier Related Risks Disaster in the Chucchún Catchment, Cordillera Blanca, Peru” discusses some of these glacier related risks: “Glacial lakes hazards have been a constant factor in the population of the Cordillera Blanca due their potential to generate glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) caused by climate change. In response, the Glaciares Project has been carried out to implement three strategies to reduce risks in the Chucchún catchment through: (1) Knowledge generation, (2) building technical and institutional capacities, and (3) the institutionalization of risk management. As a result, both the authorities and the population have improved their resilience to respond to the occurrence of GLOF.”

Explore more related chapters here.

Evolution of the Lake 513 from 1962 to 2002 due to glacial retreat. Diagrams performed over aerial photographs from the National Aerial Photography Service Peru (left) and Google Earth (right) (Source: Randy Muñoz)
Evolution of the Lake 513 from 1962 to 2002 due to glacial retreat (Source: The Climate Change Adaptation Strategies).

New Study Offers Window into Glacial Lake Outburst Floods

A recent geological study has shed some light on the cause of a major, yet elusive destructive natural hazard triggered by failed natural dams holding back glacial lakes. The findings show how previously unrecognized factors like thinning glacier ice and moisture levels in the ground surrounding a lake can determine the size and frequency of Glacier Lake Outburst Floods, or GLOFs.

Palcacocha Lake in 2008, showing its enclosing moraine; the 1941 breach is visible in the lower right (Source: Colette Simonds/The Glacial Lake Handbook).

The risks of these glacial floods are generally considered increasingly acute across the world, as warming atmospheric temperatures prompt ice and snow on mountain ranges to retreat and to swell glacial lakes.

Landslides in moraines as triggers of glacial lake outburst floods: example from Palcacocha Lake (Cordillera Blanca, Peru), published in  Landslides in July 2016, centers its study on Lake Palcacocha in the Cordillera Blanca mountain region of central Peru.  Since Palcacocha is one of almost 600 lakes in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range dammed by glacial moraines, the population of the region lives under serious threat of GLOFs.

The Landslides article is a step in understanding a previously understudied geological phenomenon.  As little as five years ago scientists acknowledged the lack of research on the subject.

“We don’t really have the scientific evidence of these slopes breaking off and moraine stability… but personal observations are suggesting there are a lot of those…” said Ph.D. environmental historian Mark Carey in a 2011 video where he describes GOLFs.

 

Glacial Lake Outburst Flood risks do not always emanate from mountain glacier meltwater that flows downstream. As this study shows,  in some instances, trillions of gallons of water can be trapped by a moraine, a formation of mixed rock, which forms a natural dam.  A weakening over time, or a sudden event, such as a landslide, could then result in the moraine dam’s collapse.

The massive amount of water is suddenly then released, and a wall of debris-filled liquid speeds down the mountainside with a destructive force capable of leveling entire city blocks.

GLOFs have presented an ongoing risk to people and their homes dating back to 1703, especially in the Cordillera Blanca region, according to United States Geological Survey records.  In December of 1941, a breach in the glacial moraine restraining Palcacocha Lake led to the destruction of a significant portion of the city of Huaraz and killed approximately 5,000 people.

Looking north over Huaraz towards the highest region of the Cordillera Blanca (Source: Uwebart/CC).

Scientists and government agencies, like the Control Commission of Cordillera Blanca Lakes created by the Peruvian government following the 1941 GLOF, have recognized the need to better understand and control GLOFs.  The study found that as global temperatures rise and glaciers retreat, greater amounts of glacier melt water will continue to fill up mountain lakes, chucks of ice will fall off glaciers, and  wetter moraines will become  more prone to landslides.

The team of mostly Czech geologists and hydrologists (J. Klimeš; J. Novotný; I. Novotná; V. Vilímek; A. Emmer; M. Kusák; F. Hartvich) along with Spanish, Peruvian and Swiss scientists (B. Jordán de Urries; A. Cochachin Rapre; H. Frey and T. Strozzi) investigated the ability of a glacial moraine’s slope to stay intact, called shear strength, and modeled the potential of landslides and falling ice to cause GLOFs.

After extensive field investigations, calculations and research into historical events, the study found several causal factors that can determine the severity of a GLOF.  These include size and angle of entry of a landslide,  shape and depth of the glacial lake, glacier thickness and human preventative engineering such as canals and supporting dams.  Frequency and size of a landslide is determined by the stability of surface material, a characteristic called shear strength, which can be influenced by something as subtle as the crystalline shape of the predominant mineral in the rock.

The terminal and lateral moraines that contain Palcacocha Lake, showing the 1941 breach that released a GLOF that devastated the city of Huaraz (Source: John Harlin/The Glacial Lake Handbook).

The scientists determined that waves caused by moraine landslides and falling ice would most likely lead to over-toppings of the natural dam.  An example would be the 2003 Palcacocha Lake GLOF, which was caused by falling ice.  No one died in this flood, but sediment from the floodwaters blocked the Huaraz’s main water treatment facility, leaving 60 percent of the population without drinking water for six days.  Additionally, small events like the one in 2003 weaken the natural and manmade dams, which without monitoring could eventually give out and result in a more catastrophic occurrence.

Most recent measurements estimate Palcacocha Lake holds 4.5 trillion gallons of glacier meltwater, which is enough to fill approximately 6,800 olympic size pools.  The potential of a catastrophic flood following the collapse of the moraine dam is a serious threat to the growing city that lies beneath it.
“Climate-driven environmental changes may critically affect stabilities of slopes above glacial lakes, possibly triggering large moraine landslides,” write the authors in the article.  They call for continued monitoring of glacial lakes.

First global analysis of the societal impacts of glacier floods

Two British researchers recently published the first global inventory and damage assessment of the societal consequences incurred by glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). They revealed that glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) have been declining in frequency since the mid-1990s, with the majority released by ice dam failures.

Glacial hazard specialists Jonathan Carrivick and Fiona Tweed spent 18 months scouring the records of over 1,348 GLOFs, determining that such floods have definitely claimed over 12,400 lives since the medieval period. Their work stems from a need to strengthen data on glacier lakes.

Glacier lake outburst at AP-Olsen Ice Cap, Greenland (Source: Gernot Weyss)
Glacier lake outburst at AP-Olsen Ice Cap, Greenland (Source: Gernot Weyss)

“There was very very little quantitative data out there on the importance of glacier lakes, from a societal point of view,” Carrivick said in an interview with GlacierHub. He explained that this recent paper was a natural progression from his earlier research, which focused on modelling hydrological, geological and geomorphological processes.

Based purely on frequency, Carrivick and Tweed found that north-west North America (mainly Alaska), the European Alps (mainly Switzerland), and Iceland are the “most susceptible regions” to GLOFs. However, the impacts of these events have have often been minimal, as they occur in sparsely populated, remote regions, and in places where resilience is high.

The greatest damage has been inflicted upon Nepal and Switzerland — respectively accounting for 22 percent and 17 percent of the global total damage reported. When Carrivick applied the normalized ‘Damage Index,’ which considered GDPs of the affected country (used as a crude proxy for ability to mitigate, manage and recover), he found that Iceland, Bhutan and Nepal have suffered the “greatest national-level economic consequences of glacier flood impacts.”

Historically, Asian and South American GLOFs have been the deadliest, taking the lives of 6,300 and 5,745 individuals since 1560 respectively. However, these figures are dominated by only two catastrophes, which accounted for 88 percent of the 12,445 fatalities confirmed by Carrivick and Tweed. The first, in December 1941, saw over 5,000 Peruvians perish in Huaraz, when a landslide cascaded into the glacial Lake Palcacocha. The second event, swept away more than 6,000 Indians from across Uttarakhand in June 2013, as torrential rains triggered outburst floods and landslides.

The city of Huaraz, devastated by the 1941 GLOF (Source: The Mountain Institute)
The city of Huaraz, devastated by the 1941 GLOF (Source: The Mountain Institute)

The study’s authors adopted a method for normalizing damage assessments new to GLOF hazard analysis, striving to fairly compare the cataclysmic impacts of outburst flooding on communities around the world.

They found that there has actually been a decline in number of floods since the 1990s, which was surprising to the researchers, given that a 2013 study which they had conducted found that the number and size of glacial lakes has increased, as the world’s ice masses have wasted. Carrivick stated that he was “very interested in the fact that, apparently, so few glaciers have lakes that have burst [0.7% of the total], on a global scale.” He added, “it beggars belief that there isn’t a higher percentage of those lakes that have burst at some point.”

In their paper, the pair suggest that the “apparent decline” could be attributed to improved successful stabilisation efforts, natural resilience, greater awareness and preparedness in threatened communities, or declined number of GLOFs from ice-dammed lakes.

An additional factor may be that some glacial floods are missing from the English-language record. Carrivick revealed, “We have a contact in China who says that there’s a lot of unpublished floods…that individual has not been able to send us the data yet.” Government restrictions on the flow of potentially sensitive information has contributed to this partial release of data.

Carrivick also noted that new data is continually being published, in many cases in foreign languages. He referenced a recent issue of the Geological Journal, which released “a whole heap of extra data,” translated from Russian.

Academics have been actively studying GLOFs since at least 1939. But it was not until 1996 that the first relatively comprehensive, global-scale inventory was compiled and published by Joseph Walder and John Costa, who recognized the “flood hazards posed by glacier-dammed lakes.” Carrivick and Tweed found the failure of this type of dam was the leading cause of GLOFs, accounting for 70 percent of events around the world.

Mark Carey studies Palcacocha Lake, Peru (Source: SSRC)
Mark Carey studying Palcacocha Lake, Peru, site of a major GLOF event (Source: SSRC)

Earlier this year, GlacierHub wrote about an alternate database, which has been compiled under the oversight of the International Programme on Landslides glofs-database.org. The project has been led by Adam Emmer, a PhD working with Vít Vilímek at Charles University in Prague. Three years ago, Emmer, Vilímek, and their team sought to compile a comprehensive global database, identifying over 500 events since the mid-1800s.

The work of Emmer and Vilímek’s team, like Walder, Costa and many others, predominantly focused on physical processes, such as the mechanisms which set off GLOFs, flood routes and distance, volume, as well as the quantity of debris carried by the floodwaters. Documentation of the socioeconomic impacts has remained been relatively less developed in glacial hazards research.

Noting this shortcoming, Carrivick and Tweed decided their study should focus specifically on the societal consequences of GLOFs. They included the number of deaths, injuries, evacuees, displaced, structural damage, financial loss, and called for the inclusion of less tangible social impacts in future studies, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They also acknowledged potentially positive effects of floods, such as increased power generation at hydropower facilities.

They developed a ‘Damage Index,’ which allowed them to conduct standardised assessments of the impacts each GLOF had on downstream communities. This was by no means easy or straightforward. As Carrivick noted, “A footbridge going down in Bhutan has a very different impact to a footbridge going down in Alaska. One is absolutely vital to the functioning of society, and the other one probably receives ten tourists in a year.” They sought a methodology for normalising the heterogeneous impacts of GLOFs around the world, ultimately choosing the ‘Natural Disaster Impact Assessment’ (NDIA), developed by Olga Petrucci of the Italian National Research Council.

Regional and global GLOF figures, according to Carrivick & Tweed, 2016)
Regional and global GLOF figures, according to Carrivick & Tweed, 2016

The authors decided that the damage investigation should be conducted by Carrivick alone, who assigned a “relative score” to each event, as they sought to “provide a quantitative comparison.” Carrivick spent six months trawling through the records of 332 GLOFs (24 percent of the total) for which the societal impacts were known.

Carrivick emphasised that he and Tweed were “indebted” to the teams that have established the various comparable databases, which provided them with a “running start.” However, in reviewing their data they found that “whilst several natural hazards databases purport long-term records, they are in reality biased towards more recent events.” 

The researchers note the reality that GLOF-related research and mitigation activity at potentially hazardous sites is costly. Lack of funds has plagued efforts around the world. Both proactive (i.e. glacial lake research, continuous monitoring, mitigation works), and retroactive (i.e. repairs, reparations) initiatives are often low on national to-do lists, especially where resources are limited.

Stranded pilgrims cross a river swollen by GLOF waters in Uttarakhand, India (Source: AP)
Stranded pilgrims cross a river swollen by GLOF waters in Uttarakhand, India (Source: AP)

Carrivick and Tweed are hoping that their latest paper will establish an important foundation, upon which affected nations and colleagues can build. “It’s not wagging the finger at all, and saying ‘You can’t cope’ or ‘You can’t manage,’ but it’s identifying where we might strategically invest scientific work, and invest international collaborative efforts,” said Carrivick.

Preparing Peruvian Communities for Glacier-based Adaptation

Projects Fair, Santa Teresa
Projects Fair in Santa Teresa (Photo: CARE Peru)

As climate change quickens the pace at which Andean glaciers are melting, Peruvian communities located downstream from glaciers are becoming increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters.

The Peruvian national and subnational governments, the Swiss Development Cooperation, the University of Zurich, and the international humanitarian group CARE Peru have executed a collaborative multidisciplinary project to help two affected communities respond to glacier retreat and the increased risk of disaster. The first phase of the project ran from November 2011 through 2015. The project’s second phase, which is expected to run from 2015 to 2018, continues its work of risk reduction and climate change adaptation, while expanding its scope to hydropower production research.

Peru is home to one of world’s largest concentrations of tropical glaciers, most of which are located in the Cordillera Blanca in the Ancash region, along a section of the Andes in north central Peru. The Cordillera Blanca contains more than 500 square kilometers of glacier cover, accounting for roughly 25 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers.

High mountain ecosystems such as the Cordillera Blanca are no stranger to major geophysical events, such as ice and rock avalanches, debris flows, and glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). Glacier lake outburst floods are considered to have the most far-reaching impacts of any other glacial hazard.

Laguna 513
Laguna 513, a glacial lake in Ancash. (Photo: CARE Peru)

In the last few decades, Peru has already experienced several major natural disasters due to glacier melt and subsequent flooding. In 1970, a major earthquake in Ancash activated a glacial lake outburst flood and subsequent debris flow that destroyed the town of Yungay, killing around 20,000 people. More recently, in April of 2010, glacial lake Laguna 513 in the Ancash region triggered a flood outburst that created significant property damage in the downstream town of Carhuaz, which is home to roughly five thousand people.

In order to mitigate the risk of future natural disasters, this collaborative project worked from 2011 to 2015 to enhance the adaptation capacities of two communities located downstream of glaciers: Santa Teresa, in Cuzco, and Carhuaz, in Ancash. The project aimed to better prepare and equip these two communities to deal with the threat of glacial lake outburst floods by creating specialized integrated risk reduction strategies.

In Santa Teresa, a micro-watershed area of the Sacsara River, the project installed an comprehensive monitoring system, which provides the town with early flood warnings via radio communication tools, provided localized risk analysis, and supported the creation of community and municipal development plans, as well as the integration of emergency plans into 17 local schools.

The Early Warning System in Carhuaz, Ancash.
The Early Warning System in Carhuaz, Ancash (Photo: CARE Peru).

In Carhuaz, project collaborators helped the municipality establish a water resources management committee in order to increase the capacity of local and interagency decision-makers to collaborate in managing risk. The project also installed an early-warning system for glacier outburst floods, as well as planned evacuation routes and disaster responses. The project implemented curriculum plans containing climate change adaptation and risk management into 30 schools in Ancash. The project’s various scientific and technical experts also conducted flood scenario models, which they shared with local decision-makers to help identify areas of potential risk.

Children in local schools learn about glaciers and climate change
Children in local schools learn about glaciers and climate change in their community (Photo: CARE Peru).

To date, the project has trained more than 90 public officials, agency staff, and university professors on climate change, adaptation, and risk management measures. CARE Peru estimates that the project has directly benefited over six thousand people in these Carhuaz and Santa Teresa, and has indirectly benefited many more.

The project particularly emphasized gender and power dynamics that contribute to vulnerability. The project trained local leaders on gender equality issues and women’s empowerment and encouraged balanced gender participation in the adaptation planning for both communities. 

Integrated Water Resources Management.
Integrated Water Resources Management in practice (Photo: CARE Peru).

University of Zurich glaciologist and project contributor Christian Huggel remarked that the project is “the first of its kind in Latin America, especially in its social aspect of training leaders and strong local inclusion.” He described the project as a “pilot in particularly extreme conditions”: Contributors encountered many technical problems throughout its first phase of implementation, including energy supply access and a lightning strike on technical equipment, he explained, rendering it a “learning process” for all involved.

The project’s second phase expands the project’s scope to the exploration of opportunities for public-private partnerships to create hydropower production in the community.

“This aspect of the project is founded on the belief that the private sector should be more involved in local communities’ climate change adaptation, especially with concerns of funding,” Huggel said. This plan could help these innovative projects become economically sustainable, assisting them in moving beyond their first phase of reliance on international aid— a step that is increasingly attracting attention with groups that work on adaptation issues.

 

Addressing Mountains in a Peruvian Village

pinchollo hualca hualca 2
Farmers from Pinchollo village clean a water reservoir for the glacial melt water from Hualca Hualca mountain. Source: A. Stensrud

From 2010 to 2012, Astrid Stensrud, currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oslo, researched climate change in the Colca Canyon of southern Peru, as part of the project “From Ice to Stone” from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. With climate change, water insecurity has caused new uncertainties for farmers in this part of Peru. For her article “Climate Change, Water Practices and Relational Worlds in the Andes,” Stensrud researched water practices to provide an anthropological perspective on how local people adapt to climate change. The research is based on ethnographic material generated during eight months of fieldwork in various villages of Peru, located at different altitudes in the Colca-Majes-Camaná watershed. Examining climate change from a social science perspective can complement natural science perspectives, because it allows for an analysis of the integrated relationship between infrastructure, technology, material objects, and culture. Taking this connected web into account, water serves as a link to join every part, including not only natural factors but also social and cultural ones. Stensrud’s research shows that these aspects are connected, offering locally-based solutions to address the current water crisis caused by climate change.

Stensrud spoke with Glacier Hub by email.

pinchollo hualca hualca 3-2
Farmers from Pinchollo village, Peru. Source: A. Stensrud

GlacierHub: As an anthropologist, why did you decide to focus on the intersection of culture, water security, and climate change— and what does looking at culture add to the climate change conversation?

Astrid Stensrud: Climate research has been largely dominated by the natural sciences, but social anthropologists ask different questions and have the advantage of doing long-term, in-depth fieldwork among people affected by climate change and declining water supplies. Anthropology can contribute by drawing attention to cultural values and everyday politics that shape climate-related knowledge and responses to environmental change. Understanding climate change is not only about melting ice and changing precipitation patterns. In order to understand how climate change affects lives, it is necessary to look at stories and narratives, imaginations of the past and anticipations of the future, and knowledge, values and worldviews that inform people’s actions and engagements with the environment.

GH: Why did you choose the Colca Valley in Peru as the site for your research?

AS: I was invited to join a research project called “From Ice to Stone” at the University of Copenhagen for two years in 2010-2012, and it was led by anthropologist Karsten Paerregaard who has been doing ethnographic research in Colca Valley since the 1980s. Since this is an arid area, water access and irrigation have always been crucial issues in Colca, and these concerns are now exacerbated because of climate change. In my current position as a postdoctoral researcher in the research project “Overheating: the three crises of globalization” at the University of Oslo, it was a natural choice to return to the Colca-Majes watershed in order to continue the research on perceptions and responses to climate change and neoliberal economic policies.

pinchollo hualca hualca 4
The celebration after finishing the work on the reservoir. Source: A. Stensrud

GS: In the course of your research, what was your biggest surprise?

AS: I was surprised to find that issues of water and climate change were so visible and present in conversations among people. I was expecting to patiently dig for information, but when I arrived to Chivay in March 2011, water was discussed in private and public arenas on an everyday basis, and climate change was a term that was used extensively. Later on, I realized that this was not necessarily a good thing, for example when the threat of climate change is used to make poor farmers pay for licenses for water use rights. Climate change was also used as an excuse by a mining company in their response to farmers’ complaints about disappearing water sources nearby a mining site; they claimed that the mine was not to be blamed, because the culprit was global warming.

pinchollo hualca hualca 5-2
The return trip to the village. Source: A. Stensrud

GS: You use the word “cosmopolitics” in your study. What does it mean, and how does that word help explain water issues in the Colca Valley?

AS: Here I am inspired by the anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena, who has used the term “indigenous cosmopolitics” – or a “pluriversal politics” – to describe a politics that would allow for disagreements on the definition of nature itself, and accept nature as multiplicity. It contributes to my argument that different water practices enact multiple versions of water, for example relational water and modern water, and that a stronger ethnographic focus on material practices can contribute to a more nuanced understanding of climate change effects and water politics. In Colca Valley, it might for example say something about why relating to mountain-beings is not “indigenous religion,” but part of communities’ responses to water scarcity.

pinchollo hualca hualca 1
A canal leads the glacial meltwater from the Hualca Hualca mountain to the reservoir. Source: A. Stensrud

GH: Colca Valley is deep. Are the glaciers visible from the villages? Does the fact that people do (or don’t) see them regularly influence the way that they think about them?

AS: Yes, the Colca River runs through the deep Colca Canyon. However, the villages are not located at the riverbank, but further up in the mountainsides, and they have very clear views of the mountaintops that used to be covered by glaciers – permanent snow and ice – but which now are black. When it has snowed and the mountains are white, people comment upon their beauty. The visibility of the mountaintops makes the absence of the glaciers very dramatic.

GH: At GlacierHub, we focus on glaciers. But perhaps we think about them more than the people who live near them. Did glaciers come up spontaneously in conversation, or only if you asked about them?

AS: When explaining the topic of my research for people, or when asking questions about weather and water, the first thing that many people mentioned was the lack of snow on the mountaintops and the permanent ice that had disappeared, causing dry pastures and other problems. So I did not have to ask specifically for the glaciers for people to tell me about them. Their visibility and their importance for water provision (at least in some of the villages) made their disappearance into a matter of concern for farmers.

Climate Refugees from the Peruvian Andes

Indigenous herder and sheep near Huaytapallana source: UNU)
Indigenous herder and sheep near Huaytapallana (source: UNU)

Two recent studies offer complementary accounts of the ways that glacier retreat and other impacts of climate change have displaced indigenous people from their communities in the Peruvian Andes. One describes the people who have left as refugees, the other as migrants. Both emphasize the seriousness and apparent irreversibility of this large population movement

Teófilo Altamirano’s book, Environmental Refugees: Climate Change and Involuntary Migration, draws on methods and concepts from anthropology to explore displacement from a glacier region in central Peru. It links glacier retreat in the Peruvian Andes with other impacts of climate change, particularly the increasing variability of precipitation. Altamirano, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, focuses on Huaytapallana, a glaciated mountain about 5500 meters in elevation, located roughly 20 kilometers to the northeast of Huancayo, a large city in the central highlands of Peru. In the local Quechua language, the mountain’s name means “the place where wildflowers (huayta) are gathered (pallay)”—a reference to the meadows that are fed by glacier meltwater. Its glaciers have lost 55% of their area since the mid-1980s, according to a study published recently in Global and Planetary Change.

Plowing in valley below Huaytapallana source: UNU)
Plowing in valley below Huaytapallana (source: UNU)

This region has experienced swings between periods of heavy rain and periods of drought, both of which reduce the yields of traditional agriculture, whether rainfed or based on irrigation. Altamirano links what he terms “water stress” to food insecurity, which is one of the strongest drivers of migration. He recognizes other drivers as well, particularly changes in the employment structure in Peru and increasing demand for labor in the United States, and pollution from mines. Nonetheless, he emphasizes the decline of local agriculture and food security as a major cause of outmigration. He notes that young adults are the most likely to leave; this age-specific migration depletes the local population of individuals most capable of agricultural labor, and adds to the vulnerability to droughts and to food deficits. Faced with these difficult circumstances, many households encourage the young adults to travel to areas where they can earn wages and send remittances home that can compensate for the decline in local agriculture, creating a vicious cycle of dependence on migration.

Andean new year festival at Huaytapallana source: T. Altamirano)
Andean new year festival at Huaytapallana (source: T. Altamirano)

Altamirano’s book includes a cultural account of the community’s connection to the glacier. The local residents recognize the mountains as powerful beings, and honor them in rituals held every year. The most important festivals take place on 21 June, close to the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, and on 25 July, linked both to the Catholic saint Santiago and to traditional Andean thunder deities. These events, both  lasting several days, consist of pilgrimages from local villages to places close to the glaciers, where the participants bring offerings—candles, fruits, and drinks—to the spirits. They perform traditional dances and consume ritual meals.

In the first phases of outmigration, the migrants could contribute to the festivals, sending money home to provide for dancers, food and drink, and returning to participate in the rituals that demonstrated their respect to the mountain spirits. But the lengthy periods of migration can weaken these ties, and the visible retreat of the glaciers also can threaten the rituals which link between the communities and the mountains.

Woman embroidering in village near Huaytapallana source: UNU)
Woman embroidering in village near Huaytapallana (source: UNU)

Altamirano uses the term “climate refugees” to refer to the people who have left this region permanently, driven by environmental factors that undercut traditional livelihoods and by the decline of the culture and rituals that had linked earlier generations to the mountain landscape. He draws parallels with other high mountain regions as well, particularly the Himalayas, where environmental and cultural processes have contributed to an outmigration that has severely weakened local communities.

A second study of the same region, “Where the Rain Falls: Climate Change, Food and Livelihood Security, and Migration,” draws on quantitative methodologies from geography and sociology to examine the same process, outmigration, from the same region. In this report, sponsored by CARE and the United National University, Koko Warner, an economist at United Nations University, and her coauthors include the Huaytapallana region in a set of eight case studies from Latin America, Asia and Africa. Like Altamirano’s study, this report indicates glacier retreat and increasing irregularity of rainfall as the principal impacts of climate change, though they mention other effects as well—a general decline in precipitation, and an increase in frost events. They also point to the weakening of traditional agriculture as a cause of outmigration, and indicate that young adults are the ones most likely to leave. They focus entirely on livelihoods strategies, emphasizing environmental factors.

Migrant remittances help support commerce in the region source: UNU)
Migrant remittances help support commerce in the region (source: UNU)

Drawing on 150 household surveys and 23 workshops in three communities in different ecological zones in the region, this second study indicates that migration varies by elevation. The residents of the lower communities in the valleys, where cultivation of maize and potatoes are the principal activities, engage either in short-term migration to the city of Huancayo for work in commerce,  construction, and other economic activities, or in seasonal migration to lowland areas to the east to harvest coffee. Those from the higher communities in the uplands rely on livestock raising; they tend to migrate to the United States, where they work as shepherds, often on multi-year contracts which remove them from their communities for longer periods.

These two studies complement each other. Altamirano’s book discusses the cultural and religious links between the residents of mountain communities and the landscapes that they have long inhabited, while Warner and her coauthors provide quantitative data that emphasizes environmental factors. Taken together, they indicate the ways that glacier retreat and other impacts of climate change are undermining long-established indigenous communities in a high mountain region and displacing people from them. They offer a major contribution to the current debates on climate refugees, and demonstrate the importance of glacier retreat within those debates.

Roundup: South American Glacial Research Efforts

Glacial and Social Model of Chilean Irrigation

“The model showed how external influences (globalization, climate, mountains) and complex adaptive systems (water conflicts, institutions and markets) influenced the evolution of irrigation development (the extension and emergence of novel properties) towards constructive (planned irrigation development) and destructive (climate change) futures… The model showed how external influences (globalization, climate, mountains) and complex adaptive systems (water conflicts, institutions and markets) influenced the evolution of irrigation development (the extension and emergence of novel properties) towards constructive (planned irrigation development) and destructive (climate change) futures.”

Glacier-fed watersheds such as this, fed by the Dickson Glacier in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile provide water for irrigation. Credit: John Spooner/Flickr.
Glacier-fed watersheds such as this one, which is fed by the Dickson Glacier in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile, provide water for irrigation. Credit: John Spooner/Flickr.

Read more about the story here.

 

Managing Water Resources in Peru’s Glacial Catchments

“Water resources in high mountains play a fundamental role for societies and ecosystems both locally and downstream…Our integrative review of water resource change and comparative discharge analysis of two gauging stations in the Santa and Vilcanota River catchments show that the future provision of water resources is a concern to regional societies and must be factored more carefully into water management policies.”

The Vilcanota River in Peru. Credit: Vlad Karpinskiy/Flickr.
The Vilcanota River in Peru, which is featured in the study. Credit: Vlad Karpinskiy/Flickr.

Read more about the story here.

 

French Lead International Collaboration in Andes

“The IRD [French Institut de Recherche pour le Développement] funded the international GREAT ICE (Glacier and Water Resources in the Tropical Andes: Indicators of Changes in the Environment) program in 2011 to strengthen glaciological studies in the tropical Andes; promote collaborative projects between Andean institutions in glaciology, climatology, and hydrology; and develop education and student training programs with local universities.”

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, one of the research sites of the GREAT ICE program. Credit: Stuart Rankin/Flickr.

Read more about the story here.

Peru Faces Tensions Over Water

Pastoruri, Peru. Image by Taco Witte/Flickr
Pastoruri, Peru. Image by Taco Witte/Flickr

Peru will face a “new normal” as greater agricultural and energy demands, population growth and climate change chip away at what is left of its glaciers, according to a recent article in the Yale Journal of International Affairs. Glacial retreat could ultimately lead to conflict in the country, the author found.

“Peru offers an early view of the challenges mountainous regions worldwide may face in coming decades,” wrote Peter Oesterling, the author. “The country—if successful—may also provide the world a model for effective policies to mitigate threats to environmental and human security.”

For people in Peru, glaciers are the essence of their existence. Most people live on the west coast, an arid region, and rely on glacier meltwater for day to day use, crops, hydroelectric power and mining. But since the early 1980’s, Peru’s glaciers have shrunk by more than 22 percent. Further loss could lead to increased risk of flooding and water scarcity as well. Already, seven out of nine watersheds in the Cordillera Blanca are already past “peak water,” meaning that the glaciers have passed the upper limit of melt water they can release.

At the same time, water demand in Peru is on the rise as water security dwindles. The population is projected to grow by 35 million by 2020, which will put pressure on the country’s existing land and water resources. Millions of households rely on the  Cañon del Pato hydropower plant on the Rio Santa, but as water availability declines, the plant could lose 40 percent of its power generating capability.

The country’s mining industry also consumes a great deal of water. Eleven percent of Peru’s land is being mined for minerals. In addition to using water for mineral extraction, mining releases contaminated water back into the watershed.

View to Tocllaraju Summit, 6036m. Photo by Twiga269/Flickr
View to Tocllaraju Summit, 6036m. Photo by Twiga269/Flickr

“Peru’s trends in water use and supply are incompatible,” wrote Oesterling. “Glacially-fed rivers are already at emergency levels—insufficient for the country’s agricultural and hydroelectric demands during the dry season.”

The result has been socio-environmental tensions in the country, which have roots in the country’s history. Peru’s government historically cut indigenous communities off their land and limited their access to water resources for the sake of economic development. Still now local populations are dis-empowered and unable to take part in any decision making processes on their land even though they are the first to suffer from water contaminated by mining. Oesterling discusses a protest in which angry villagers blocked a major highways for several days, even though they were physically attacked by police, in order to bring attention to the concerns over pollution from mines.

To prevent future conflict, the country will need better regulatory processes that shifts the responsibility of environmental impact assessments away from private companies and into the hands of government bodies, said Oesterling. Existing regulatory government bodies could also benefit from being strengthened.

“With a sound response that addresses clean water access, environmental protection, and public participation in resource allocation decision-making, Peru can mitigate the effects of glacial recession and acclimate to new environmental realities,” he concluded. “Yet—much like Peru’s water supply—the time for effective action against glacial recession is dwindling—and quickly.”

Understanding Glaciers through Indigenous Cultures

Climate change is viewed as an economic, political, and physical problem. But a study in WIREs Climate Change by Elizabeth A. Allison (found here) shows that there is a mental aspect to climate change that is being ignored by the major communities invested in the issue: the spiritual and religious importance of glaciers to mountain cultures.

Glaciers are bound to the culture of humans who have lived in harmony with them for centuries, the study found. According to Allison, evaluations made by bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underestimate the true cost of climate change by overlooking the emotional, spiritual, and psychological connections that people assign to changing conditions.

Understanding climate change without the implications it has on culture silences the voices and perceptions of minority communities, Allison found. These are the people who are the most affected by climate change. To diminish the cultural loss of these communities is an injustice not only to the communities involved directly but also to our shared cultural understanding of climate change, she wrote. As part of her research, Allison looked at communities in order to better understand their connection to the glaciers they live alongside.

On the west coast of North America such indigenous cultures as Alaska’s Tlingit people and First Nations people of the Yukon understood glaciers as snake-like beings. These creatures were thought to have particular preferences and requirements. According to an indigenous observer in 1904, “in one place Alsek River runs under a glacier. People can pass beneath in their canoes, but, if anyone speaks while they are under it, the glacier comes down on them. They say that in those times the glacier was like an animal, and could hear what was said to it.”

Dancers at the Qoyllur Rit'i festival
Dancers at the Qoyllur Rit’i festival. Courtesy of AgainErick wikipedia/commons

In the Peruvian Andes, the Quechua who live near the declining glacier on Mt. Ausangate believe that the disappearance of the glacier is associated with the mountain god’s departure. It used to be that during the annual Qoyllur Rit’i festival (meaning Snow Star), honoring an appearance of the Christ child, nearly 70,000 people traversed the Sinakara glacier. Ritual leaders would communicate with the glacial god and cut out large blocks of glacial ice thought to have magical healing properties.

Concern for the receding glacier prompted changes in local custom. In 2000 local leaders set regulations along with installing guards, disallowing ice to be removed from the glacier. Even pilgrims lighting candles at the edge of the glacier in prayer have begun to use smaller candles in an effort to preserve the glacier. Once having relied on the glacier to protect and heal them, this community now sees to the well-being of a god that to them, appears dying.

Bolivian Glacier. Courtesy of Jonathan Lewis wikipedia/commons
Bolivian Glacier. Courtesy of Jonathan Lewis wikipedia/commons

In Bolivia, the people depend on glaciated mountains to provide water for agriculture and day-to-day survival. They see them as life-giving deities, on whom they depend, calling them Achachilas. Within a few decades 80% of Bolivia’s life-sustaining glaciers are expected to be gone. A Bolivian charitable foundation called Fundación Solón, has stated that the loss of glaciers would be a loss for Bolivians surpassing that of the Twin Towers in the 9/11 attacks.

In Tibetan Buddhist communities in the Himalayas, people have begun avoiding cooking or eating certain odorous foods (such as garlic and onions), burning meat, experiencing strong emotions, breaking vows, or physically fighting for fear of unleashing the wrath of mountain deities. On April 18, 2014 when 16 Sherpas climbing Mount Everest were killed by a falling block of ice, locals believed it to be the result of an angered mountain deity feeling disrespect due to the accumulated trash, fighting, helicopters, and the attitude of foreigners.

Mingyong Glacier
Mingyong Glacieris one of the most rapidly receding glaciers in the world. Courtesy of Chen Zhao/Flicker.

Mingyong Glacier is one of the most rapidly receding glaciers in the world. Located below Mount Khawa Karpo in the Meili Snow Mountain Range in northwest Yunnan at the Tibet border, it is among the most sacred mountains to Tibetan Buddhists. Local cultures do not allow foreign scientists to step out onto the ice of the Mingyong Glacier, out of concern for observed loss of glacial mass, instead allowing scientists to measure glacial recession only through repeat photography. A number of different reasons have been offered up by the locals for the glacial decline: lack of proper prayer on behalf of the local citizens, disrespectful tourists, and the incline of global material greed. Even though the scientific findings indicate an increasingly doomed outlook for the glacier, the locals believe it’s impossible for the glacier to die because their existence is intertwined with that of the glacier.

Aspects of climate change include more than an economical or physical understanding, but an understanding of the cultural importance of the effects of a changing climate such as glacier loss. Allison’s research found that people are more likely to accept and incorporate discussions of environmental and scientific issues, when issues match their own preconceptions. She suggested that scientists could be more effective in educating the public about climate change if they included local conceptualizations of glaciers in their reports, rather than relying purely on scientific data and technical language.

Roundup: Border claims, melting, and a new superhero

Mont Blanc: fresh row over territory as France blocks glacier access

 

Mayor of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Eric Fournier
Mayor of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Eric Fournier, courtesy of Getty Images

“A fresh row over borders has erupted between France and Italy on Mont Blanc – or Monte Bianco – after the mayor of Chamonix blocked access to a precarious glacier that the Italians claim is in their territory. Eric Fournier took the decision to close a gate – installed by the Italians – that gave access to Giant glacier, situated at an altitude of 3500m. They claim the route is unsafe.”

To read more, click here.

 

Glacier Girl is reinventing the eco-friendly aesthetic for the tumblr generation

Glacier Girl
Glacier Girl, courtesy of Connie McDonald and Elizabeth Farrell

“London teen Elizabeth Farrell is changing the way we look at environmental activism…. The 19-year-old invented the superhero pseudonym Glacier Girl and her project, Remember The Glaciers, as a way to speak to her peers about the dangers of global warming. What began as a high school art assignment has become a calling for Elizabeth, who was awarded a Gap Year Scholarship by Britain’s Royal Geographical Society last year to focus on the project full-time.”

To learn more about Glacier Girl, click here.

 

Peruvian glacier shows significant meltdown from climate change

Incachiriasca glacier
Incachiriasca glacier, courtesy of Wikipedia

“The Incachiriasca glacier, located on the Vilcabamba mountain range in the Peruvian region of Cuzco, has retreated some 62 meters (203 feet) over the past eight years due to the effects of climate change, the head of the Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary, Jose Nieto, told EFE.”

 

Read more about Peru’s glacial melting here.

 

 

Photo Friday: The Snow Star Festival

In the Peruvian Andes, tens of thousands of pilgrims climb to the Sinakara valley to participate in an annual, multiple day celebration – Qoyllur Rit’i, or the Snow Star Festival. Held under a waning moon, the festivities are surrounded by the looming glaciers of Mount Qullqip’unqu. The Catholic festival celebrates not only Jesus, but also the mountain gods that indigenous  South Americans worshipped before the adoption of Christianity.

Photographer Timothy Allen had the rare opportunity to document the annual festival, which was originally featured on BBC here.

[slideshow_deploy id=’5910′]

Thanks to Timothy Allen for giving us the permission to use his photos. He can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Instagram.

 

GlacierHub posted a previous article about the Snow Star Festival that examines the effects of glacial melt on the festival’s traditions, as well as the origins of the festival. Check it out!