Venezuela is Losing its Last Glacier

Humboldt Glacier, 14 December 2011 (Source: The Photographer/ Creative Commons).

Venezuela used to have five glaciers. Today, only one remains. The last glacier in Venezuela, the Humboldt glacier, is about to disappear. “Reduced to an area of ten football pitches, a tenth of its size 30 years ago, it will be gone within a decade or two,” reports The Economist. Once Venezuela loses the Humbolt, it will become the first country in modern history to have lost all of its glaciers.

The glacier is expected to completely vanish in ten to twenty years, and scientists have expressed the importance of studying the glacier in its last stages. However, the political and economic crisis in Venezuela makes it difficult to study the glacier. In the past, studies have shown how rapid glacier retreat affects the water cycle in glacier-dependent basins, which changes water regulation and availability. Thus, the disappearance of the Humboldt glacier will impact local communities as run-off stability and water supply for agriculture change.

Walter Vergara, a forest and climate specialist focused on the Global Restoration Initiative in Latin America, told GlacierHub, “This is a tragedy that should be highlighted as one more consequence of irresponsible behavior in energy-intense economies.”

Humboldt Glacier, 9 January 2013 (Source: Hendrick Sanchez/Creative Commons).

Carsten Braun, faculty director at Westfield State University in western Massachusetts, has conducted glaciological fieldwork on Humboldt Glacier in 2009, 2011 and 2015. Braun explained to GlacierHub that even several years ago the fieldwork was limited. It consisted mainly of a GPS survey of the ice margin, plus some basic qualitative observations. Due to the crisis in Venezuela, the Humboldt glacier is currently only being studied via remote sensing/satellites. Braun suggests that “a standard glacier mass and energy balance study would be feasible on the glacier and provide some important basic data about the glacier and its interactions with the environment.’’

While some variables, such as ice coverage and the reflection of solar radiation, could be studied via satellites, others are better determined if scientists can measure them in the field. The latter concerns snow and ice depth, temperature gradients in the glacier, and precipitation.

“In this particular case, the glacier will be (most likely) gone in the near future, and all that will be left will be its geomorphological impact/evidence on the landscape, as well as paintings, photographs, and people’s memories,” Braun said. “Adding some quantitative scientific ‘memories’ would be an important complementary memory.”

Humboldt Glacier, 14 December 2011. (Source: Wilfredorrh/Flickr).

Ángel G. Muñoz, a postdoctoral research scientist at both the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), at Columbia University, and Princeton University added that many factors impede scientific research in Venezuela. The economic situation in universities, research centers, and in the country as a whole, including the crime and the brain drain, are just a few of the factors making it impossible for local scientists to advance in many fields. Having first-hand knowledge of these difficulties as a result of his research activities at the Center for Scientific Modeling of Zulia University in Venezuela, Muñoz told GlacierHub that these barriers extend to fields as critical as environmental and ecosystem studies, which both directly and indirectly impact Venezuelan society.

The precise rate of glacial shrinkage is due to the interaction of climate change and natural variability, and it is only through well-conducted and interdisciplinary research that we will know if there’s any chance that the glaciers can come back in the future, or if we are losing them forever. However, it remains important to study glacial changes for societal and scientific benefits, Muñoz notes. Their disappearance reduces the availability of drinking water; changes in atmospheric patterns that control rain and temperatures; and a chain reaction of impacts to the surrounding ecosystems that could affect food availability for humans and other species.

Humboldt Glacier, 29 May 2014 (Source: Hendrick Sanchez/Creative Commons).

Looking beyond the crisis in Venezuela, there are people in the government that understand the issues of climate impacts. “Venezuela’s Minister for Environment, Ramón Velásquez-Araguayán, is a smart and capable climate scientist who is very sensitive to climate change issues and environmental conservation,” Muñoz added.

Venezuela is likely to be the first country to lose all of its glaciers, but unfortunately it will not be the last country. According to NASA, scientists have calculated that many tropical glaciers will be gone within a century, and in some cases decades or years. The Pyrenees, in Spain, lost almost 90 percent of its glacier ice over the past century (a quarter disappeared between 2002 and 2008), and the rest is expected to vanish within the next decades. Indonesia, the only country in tropical Asia with glaciers, will likely lose its glaciers by the end of the decade.

Roundup: Venezuela, Peru, and the Storglaciären

The Death of a Venezuela Glacier

The Economist: “Venezuela is a tropical country, with rainforest in the south and east, and baking savannah stretching towards its northern Caribbean coast. The Sierra Nevada de Mérida mountain range in the north-west offers relief from the heat. In 1991 five glaciers occupied nooks near their peaks. Now, just one remains, lodged into a cwm west of Pico Humboldt. Reduced to an area of ten football pitches, a tenth of its size 30 years ago, it will be gone within a decade or two. Venezuela will then be the first country in the satellite age to have lost all its glaciers.”

Read more about Venezuela’s Humboldt Glacier here.

The Humboldt Glacier in Venezuela (Source: The Photographer/Creative Commons).

Small-Scale Farmers’ Vulnerability in the Peruvian Andes

From Iberoamericana: “Previous studies have shown that climatic changes in the Peruvian Andes pose a threat to lowland communities, mainly through changes in hydrology. This study uses a case study approach and a mixed qualitative-quantitative method to examine the vulnerability of small-scale farmers in the Quillcay River basin to variations in precipitation and enhanced glacier retreat. The findings of the study show partly contradicting results. On one hand, interpretation of semi-structured interviews suggests a strong relation between climate proxies and increased vulnerability of the smallholders. On the other hand, in the quantitative analysis enhanced glacier retreat seemed to have augmented vulnerability solely to some extent whereas precipitation did not show significant impact.”

Learn more about climate change in the Peruvian Andes here.

Small-scale farmers in the Peruvian Andes sowing maize and beans (Source: Goldengreenbird/Creative Commons).

 

A Glacier-Permafrost Relationship in Sweden

From Quaternary Research: “Here, we present empirical ground penetrating radar (GPR) and electroresistivity tomography data (ERT) to verify the cold-temperate transition surface-permafrost base (CTS-PB) axis theoretical model. The data were collected from Storglaciären, in Tarfala, Northern Sweden, and its forefield. The GPR results show a material relation between the glacial ice and the sediments incorporated in the glacier, and a geophysical relation between the ‘cold ice’ and the ‘temperate ice’ layers…The results show how these surfaces form a specific continuous environmental axis; thus, both glacial and periglacial areas can be treated uniformly as a specific continuum in the geophysical sense.”

Read more about the study at Storglaciären here.

The Storglaciären or “The Great Glacier” in Sweden (Source: SAGT/Flickr).

Photo Friday: The Melting Andean Glaciers

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.

 

The Chacaltaya glacier in Bolivia disappeared completely in 2009. 350.org climate activists visited the area in 2009 to raise awareness (Source: 350.org/Flickr).
After the Chacaltaya Glacier in Bolivia disappeared completely in 2009, 350.org climate activists visited the area to raise awareness about climate change (Source: 350.org/Flickr).

 

 

Laguna Glacier in Bolivia's Cordillera Real mountain range (Source: Alma Apatrida/Flckr).
Laguna Glacier in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real mountain range (Source: Alma Apatrida/Flckr).

 

 

The Antisana glaciers which are experiencing retreat, according to UNEP (Source: Sid Ansari/Flickr).
The Antisana glaciers in Ecuador are experiencing rapid retreat (Source: Sid Ansari/Flickr).

 

 

The Llaca Glacier of Peru (Source: dmitriylit/Creative Commons).
The Llaca Glacier of Peru (Source: dmitriylit/Creative Commons).

 

 

Looking up the Pacific coast of South America at the snow-covered Andes Mountains, which contains the world's largest glaciated area of the tropics (Source: Stuart Rankin/Flickr).
Looking up the Pacific coast of South America at the snow-covered Andes Mountains, the world’s largest glaciated area of the tropics (Source: Stuart Rankin/Flickr).

 

 

Quelccaya Glacier located in the Cordillera Blancas (Source: Edubucher/Creative Commons)
Quelccaya Glacier located in Peru, where glaciers have retreated by over 20 percent since 1978, according to scienceline.org (Source: Edubucher/Creative Commons).

 

 

Nevado Coropuna, Peru from the NASA International Space Station, 10/06/10 (Source: NASA/Flickr).
Nevado Coropuna, Peru, from the NASA International Space Station, 10/06/10 (Source: NASA/Flickr).

 

 

View of Nevado del Huila in Colombia. Four of Colombia's six glaciers are found on volcanos, (Source: Joz3.69/Flickr).
View of Nevado del Huila in Colombia. Only six glaciers remain in Colombia and four are found on volcanos (Source: Joz3.69/Flickr).