The Carabaya Mountains in the Peruvian Andes contain the largest tropical glacial system, the Quelccaya. As temperatures rise, this region will become increasingly susceptible to landscape changes and vegetation loss. The Carabaya Mountains are home to over 506 vascular plant species. A recent research article documents the immense biodiversity of flora within this region and urges for conservation of tropical mountain systems. Many species are endemic to this mountain range, meaning they’re only found here.
Some research photos of the diverse flora are shown below.
Quelccaya is the largest tropical ice cap in the world. It is located in the Central Andes of Peru and has a summit elevation of about 5,680 meters. A recent study suggests that the ice cap might soon cease to exist. Researchers used climate data to examine the impacts of the different forcings to determine how imminent its future disappearance is, and to what extent human activity affects the timing.
About 99 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers are located in the Andes, with around 70 percent found in Peru. Glaciers in the tropical Andes are critical to the regional environment. Through runoff, they provide a much-needed water supply during the dry season. A future disappearance of Quelccaya Ice Cap (QIC) could mean significant changes to the ecosystem, impacts on tourism, and consequences to the culture and traditions of the local populations.
Scientists used daily air temperature and snow height data to build projections of retreat at the QIC. Air temperature over the Peruvian Andes has increased over the last six decades, leading to greater retreat. Rising air surface temperatures are one of the major contributors to this retreat, although variations in precipitation and snowfall contribute as well. Meanwhile, El Nino and the South American Summer Monsoon can also impact QIC conditions, but on an interannual timescale.
The researchers also examined the different Representative Concentration Pathway scenarios (RCPs) that play a huge role in the future of tropical glaciers. RCPs are used in scientific modeling to provide temporal projections on greenhouse gas concentrations. These concentrations contribute to warming and have a great effect on glaciers. The rate of warming is typically amplified with elevation in many mountain regions due to elevation dependent feedbacks, which are explained further in the study.
Results of the research show that through anthropogenic and natural forcings, QIC loses mass at its front and base. This means that by around 2050, the ice cap could completely disappear. Even with a great reduction in greenhouse gas concentrations, results indicate that an eventual disappearance can be expected closer to the end of the century. The researchers further explained that these findings are consistent with observations of other glaciers in the tropics. We can look at glaciers in Bolivia, Colombia, and Venezuela, as they have also experienced accelerated retreat over the last decades.
Andrew Malone, a Visiting Assistant Professor at The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), told GlacierHub more about the shrinking of QIC and its impacts. “The largest impact would be on loss of water resources for communities both locally and downstream. In the short-term accelerated melting actually increases water resources. But as ice melts, that ‘stored’ water shrinks and shrinks, and at some point the glacier reservoir becomes so small that the total run-off contribution starts to decrease with time,” he said.
Malone went on to explain that as glaciers melt, lakes form in their place. These lakes are dammed by glacial moraines, which are formed by buildup of falling dirt and rocks from melting glaciers. Moraines are not structurally sound. As ice falls off glaciers and into the new lakes, large waves can form and flood the downstream landscape. Malone said that this has happened to the lake in Qori Kalis valley, and as a result livestock were lost with the flooding. Similar events can be expected to happen at QIC as well.
While there is much research and understanding of the glacial and environmental impacts of climate change, the human impacts should also be considered. GlacierHub spoke with anthropologist Gustavo Valdivia, who is currently doing research on the Andes. His research looks at the impacts of QIC glacier melt on the nearby community of Phinaya. This community relies on herding alpaca, selling alpaca wool for their livelihood; thus, they are very dependent on runoff waters to irrigate the pastures for their flocks. At present the Phinaya community benefits from the greater runoff, Valdivia said, but this abundance is not likely to last long. The livestock might also be at risk from flooding, as seen in Qori Kalis.
Valdivia added that there is a key difference between understanding and experiencing climate. Researchers understand the science behind glacial retreat and warming, but it’s the people who experience these changes. He highlighted the importance of building genuine communication with scientific information. As glaciers continue to melt, it’s vital to build connections to the people and communities who are affected, examining ways in which we can adapt to the changes in our climate and environment. Though each community faces climate change in a specific way, they are also part of a global process of change.
The Quelccaya Ice Cap, located in the Peruvian Andes, is the world’s largest tropical glaciated area. In an effort to conceptualize the scale of the glacier’s retreat, Meredith Leich, M.F.A. in film, video, media, and new animation at SAIC, and Andrew Malone,Ph.D. in glaciology and climatology at the University of Chicago, collaborated on a project in 2016 called “Scaling Quelccaya.” The project combines 30 years of satellite imagery of the Peruvian ice cap, 3-D animation, and gaming software to create a virtual representation of the glacier’s retreat using the city of Chicago as a “metering stick,” allowing viewers to develop a more elaborate sense of Quelccaya’s scale.
The 3-D animation enables viewers to visualize the Peruvian ice cap and virtually “fly” through the Andes by converting satellite data into a Digital Elevation Model, then using a gaming software called Unity to transform it into a 3-D model. “Scaling Quelccaya” was initiated by Leich, who acknowledged having only an incomplete idea about the impact of climate change at the start of the project. Malone’s research of the Quelccaya ice cap was then transformed into the 3-D animation in order to allow the audience to visualize the melting effects on the ice cap, a more effective tool than graphs or charts alone. Malone used satellite data from the Landsat program, a series of satellites that has provided the longest temporal record of data of Earth’s surface, including the Quelccaya Ice Cap, to provide an accurate representation of the amount of ice loss over this period.
This project allowed Leich and Malone to visually portray the consequences of climate change in ways that viewers could understand intuitively, contrasting the disappearance of the glaciers to a hypothetical disappearance of the Chicago area. In an interview with GlacierHub, Meredith Leich explains the inspiration behind the project’s comparison of Quelccaya with Chicago: “Instead of solely describing numerically how much Qori Kallis (one of Quelccaya’s glacial outlets) had retreated, we could show visually that the glacier had retreated the distance between the Willis Tower and the Tribune Tower in Chicago – a distance that an urban resident would understand viscerally, with embodied memories of walking the city streets.” The name of the project plays on the word scale, since it shows the scale of glacier retreat and allows viewers to scale the summit of a virtual glacier.
To get a better understanding of Quelccaya’s volume of snow, Leich and Malone began generating DEMs – Digital Elevation Models – from the satellite data obtained from Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM). The DEM calculated the height of every point on the glacier’s surface. The software then selected a shade of black, gray or white to represent each height. The uppermost height was registered as white, the lowest height as black, and every height in between mathematically assigned a corresponding shade of gray. Next, they generated a 3-D model with a gaming software called Unity by importing height maps as “terrains.” The terrain function read a combination of the DEM to create the virtual 3-D model based on the topography of the land. Finally, they used Maya, an animation and modeling program, to apply texture to the surface of the terrain, add light, and be able to move around the glacier to see it from all angles.
Once the model was finished, Leich and Malone removed the equivalent of ice in Quelccaya and placed it on a model of Chicago as snow, with different variations of snow such as fluffy snow, firm snow, ice, and others. New York City (specifically Manhattan) is often chosen as a prime example of the effects of climate change because of its popularity. Rather than compare Quelccaya to New York City, the project focused on Chicago because of its lack of representation, and because the research and creation of “Scaling Quelccaya” took place in Chicago.
When asked about any challenges that they faced in recreating the glaciers through the 3-D technology, Andrew Malone told GlacierHub that “passing information between different softwares was a big challenge.” “We found early that files had to be in particular formats and that each software had its idiosyncrasies. One of our first (technologically) successful 3-D visualizations looked as though someone had taken a buzzsaw to every mountain top,” he said. “When I outputted the digital elevation models (DEMs) to an image in the correct format for Meredith, the QGIS default was truncating the highest and lowest elevations.” Once the models were complete, it allowed for their audience to connect to the glacial scenes and bring two distant entities, Chicago and Quelccaya, into the same space.
The project included a feature that enabled viewers to grasp how much of Quelccaya’s snow would cover Chicago. The city itself was under about 600 feet of snow, extending over almost all of the metropolitan area. According to Leich, the inspiration behind this feature was that this kind of visualization would make the science behind climate change more accessible and visually apparent. “Many stories about climate change also involve a doomsday narrative, and we wanted to convey something more subtle and informative than stoking fears,” she said.
Meredith A. Kelly, a glacial geomorphologist at Dartmouth College, noted in an interview with the New York Times, that “the melting now under way appears to be at least as fast, if not faster, than anything in the geological record since the end of the last ice age.” If the ice cap melts away and disappears, it would leave millions of people in surrounding downstream communities, who rely on this water source for drinking and electricity, with a smaller and less reliable water supply.
In an interview with GlacierHub, Gustavo Valdivia, a Ph.D. student in anthropology at John Hopkins University, explained how some in Peru have been adapting: “People who live in Phinaya, the closest community to Quelccaya, are mostly herders of alpacas and llamas. In the last years, they have been building local irrigation systems, changing their herds’ composition – to include more resistant animals – and also changing their herding techniques.” If the Phinaya community does not have a water supply for their animals, ultimately, their livelihoods will suffer, he added. Projects such as “Scaling Quelccaya” attempt to demonstrate the effects of climate change to the lay public by bringing effects such as these closer to home.
In South America, the tropical glaciers of the Andes have been shrinking at an alarming rate, leaving the local communities at risk of losing an important water source. In Bolivia, for example, an Andean glacier known as the Chacaltaya Glacier disappeared completely in 2009, cutting off a valuable water resource to the nearby city of La Paz during the dry season.
In total, the Andes Mountains are home to nearly 99 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers, with 71 percent located in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca and 20 percent in Bolivia, according to UNEP. Other tropical glaciers are found in the equatorial mountain ranges of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. Over the past 30 years, scientists estimate that the glaciers of the tropical Andes have shrunk by 30 to 50 percent. This rate of decline predicts that within 10 to 15 years many of the smaller tropical glaciers will have completely disappeared.
Take a look at GlacierHub’s collection of images of the rapidly retreating Andean glaciers.
A recent article in the Journal of Biogeography provides the first systematic review of birds and mammals which include glaciers (and perennial snow patches) as part of their regular habitats. The author, Jørgen Rosvold of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, documents the great importance of these cold frozen environments for a number of warm-blooded active species, which are known as chionophiles ( snow-loving organisms). In total, glaciers and perennial snow patches are frequented by 19 bird species and 16 mammalian species—or 17, if humans are included. It is not surprising that other vertebrate groups, such as reptiles and amphibians, are absent from glaciers, since they are cold-blooded and could not survive long exposure to such low temperatures.
The most common order of birds in these habitats is the passerines, or songbirds. However, other groups are represented. The golden eagle is a member of the falcon order, and the common raven, like crows, jays and their relatives, is a corvid. Several species of ptarmigan represent the gallinaceous birds, a group which includes chickens, turkeys, partridges, pheasants, quail and grouse.
The avian behavior most often recorded on glaciers is obtaining food—insects and worms in the case of smaller birds, other birds and mammals for the golden eagle. One bird species, the white-winged diuca finch, constructs its nest on the surface of glaciers in the Andes; it has been systematically studied on Quelccaya Glacier in Peru.
The mammals are more diverse, both in terms of taxonomy and behavior. Most common are the ungulates such as bison, musk ox, elk, reindeer, mountain goat, ibex, chamois and bighorn sheep, who come for relief from the heat; as large animals covered with fur and hair, they have difficulty cooling off during hot periods, and either lie directly on the ice, or rest in the cold air that drains off glaciers. A much smaller mammal, the pica (a lagomorph, or relative of rabbits and hares), also uses glaciers for this purpose. They have also been observed to drink water on glacier surfaces. Elk calves and bighorn lambs play on the open surfaces of glaciers and snow patches. The carnivores—bears, snow leopards and wolverines—travel across glaciers and snow patches, perhaps to avoid leaving a scent. Wolverines have also been seen caching their prey on glaciers; the author suggests that this behavior may provide lactating females with critical components of their diet during the period when they are nursing their cubs.
This article rests largely on the direct observations of field biologists. In the future, this valuable, though time-consuming, research method may be complemented by the use of radio collars to track animal movements. However, the opportunities for such research are become scarcer, as glaciers world-wide are shrinking. These organisms which rely on ice, snow and cold temperatures will find their ranges reduced, and some may be threatened with extinction. In the meantime, Rosvold’s website, Frozen Fauna, provides a variety of information about the mammals and birds which inhabit, or at least regularly visit, glaciers, as well as about the archaeology of the hunters and herders who have also inhabited these zones for many centuries.
Gustavo Valdivia, an anthropology PhD student at Johns Hopkins University, as well as a former contributor to GlacierHub, went on an expedition to Quelccaya Glacier in the Peruvian Andes this summer, led by the prominent glaciologist Lonnie Thompson. In a recent email to GlacierHub, he wrote, “In these photos, I try to document the way that a major scientific team interacts with a very specific place–the melting ice of Quelccaya, which is a component of the complex Andean mountain environment–in order to produce knowledge about a global phenomenon–climate. The fact that Quelccaya is retreating so rapidly gives urgency to their research and to my photos.”
Gustavo joined the expedition as part of his dissertation research, in which he plans to investigate how the Andes mountains are represented in the field of climate science and the degree of understanding about climate and climate change in local Andean communities. You can read more about his work here.
Many thanks to Gustavo for sharing some of his expedition photos with us: [slideshow_deploy id=’6016′]
Salvage Science: Climate Change and Paleo-glaciology in an Andean Glacier
Explaining the expedition more fully, Gustavo writes:
In the summer of 2015 I joined Lonnie Thompson and his team from the Byrd Polar Research Center of The Ohio State University, in their expedition to the Quelccaya, the largest tropical glacier in the world, located in the Peruvian Andes. My interest to join this expedition as an anthropologist was quite simple: to produce an ethnographically grounded account of the process through which ice obtained from this glacier is processed, documented and made available for the ends of scientific climate research. To this end, I wanted to explore the methods of observation and reflection, sensing technologies, epistemological assumptions, and field practices of this very influential climate research team. Once in Quelccaya, however, I started to understand better that this team’s practices of investigation and experimentation, required much more than just their passive submission to the rigorous dictates of the so-called “scientific method”. On the contrary, the forms of scientific knowledge production that were shaped in the interaction with the melting ice of this glacier, and the complexities of the Andean environment; had to do with both scientific cultivated dispositions but also with sensory intuitions, passion and imagination.
Gustavo wrote a previous article for GlacierHub in 2014 in which he documented a summer trip to Quelccaya. During this expedition, he and an experimental musician recorded the sounds of the glacier’s ice as it melted, which you can listen to here.
Humans may have begun to pollute the atmosphere earlier than we thought. So says recent research conducted at the Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru, where scientists drilled into the ice to pull out cores, which they could read like ancient texts.
Those cores show widespread traces of copper and lead starting in about A.D. 1540, which corresponds to the end of the Inca empire and a period of mining and metallurgy when the areas that are now Peru and Bolivia became part of the Spanish Empire. The findings, published by Paolo Gabrielli and colleagues in February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest for the first time that the Anthropocene, the geological epoch defined by massive and widespread human impacts on the planet, began about 240 years before the industrial age arrived on the scene with its steam engines and its coal plants.
Scientists have long used glacier ice cores to learn about the Earth’s climates and air pollution and reconstruct pollution histories. In Greenland, for example, they have traced metals found in ice cores back to ancient Greek and Roman mining operations. The pattern of climate changes and air quality are recorded in the ice itself as glaciers grow, accumulating layer after layer of ice, year after year. For example, winter layers are often thicker and lighter in color, while summer layers are often thinner and darker because of less snowfall and more dust in summer. Scientists can read these layers much in the same way they read tree rings to calculate historical environmental conditions, including snowfall and atmospheric composition.
Once the scientists have removed the ice cores from a glacier, they can analyze the trace elements in the ice itself. They also study the air bubbles trapped in those cores at the time of their formation to learn about the chemical components of the atmosphere. According to Paolo Gabrielli, an Earth scientist at Ohio State University, anything in the air at the time the glacier layer was formed, such as soot particles, dust and a wide variety of chemicals, will be trapped in the ice layers as well. Gabrielli says there are no glaciers on Earth in which traces of anthropogenic air pollution cannot be detected.
Gabrielli and his team found that lead levels in the Quelccaya ice core doubled between 1450 and 1900, while the amount of chemical element antimony (Sb) in the ice was 3.5 times greater than before. They also compared data from a peat bog in Tierra del Fuego, Chile, and from sedimentary lake records from regions including Potosí and other mines throughout Bolivia and Peru to determine the path the pollution took, and found that most of the pollution was carried to the Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru by the wind.
In the 16th century, the Spanish colonial authorities forced the indigenous populations in South America to extract ore and refine silver from the mountaintop mines of Potosi. They introduced mercury amalgamation, a new technology, to expand silver production, which lead to dramatic increases in the amounts of trace metals released into the atmosphere.
“This evidence supports the idea that human impact on the environment was widespread even before the industrial revolution,” Gabrielli said in a statement on Ohio State University’s website.
While the industrial economies in 20th century produced more pollution than any other time in human history, colonial mining should be considered the beginning of the Anthropocene, according to these new findings.
In June 2014 the two of us—an anthropologist and an experimental musician, both from Peru– visited Quelccaya, a large glacier high in the Andes. We wanted to record the sounds of its ice as it melted. This trip formed part of our ongoing collaborative project. We are interested establishing new approaches to questions of climate change. The field recordings that we have included in this post present a sonic narration of our encounter with this glacier. They were made with a variety of low- and hi-fi digital and analog recording devices.
Once in Phinaya, we continued to the southwest section of the glacier, where a large, unnamed lake has recently formed. In 2004, this lake burst its banks, creating a flood that affected several families of indigenous herders, along with their animals. We recorded the sounds of a small and the largest tributary streams that flows into this lake. They both offer overlapping sonic forms as they wind their way through gaps between rocks and frozen soil, reverberating with the glacier and rock walls.
We continued on to a small upper stream, where drops of water fell from an icicle and splashed onto a rock. And then we paused to make a sonic image recording right next to one of the biggest faces of the glacier, seeking to capture the way that it absorbs the sounds of a small stream running next to it.
We plan to return to this astonishing soundscape that emerges as climate change drives glacier retreat. Next time, however, we want to bring more equipment and involve people from Phinaya interested in making their own recordings of the glacier. We also look forward to developing ties with other people who are exploring such soundscapes around the world, in the hope that the voice of the glaciers will stimulate an alternative sensorial approach to climate change; namely, one which is not dominated by visuality.
This guest post was written by Gustavo Valdivia and Tomás Tello. If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or @glacierhub on Twitter.