Australia is experiencing the worst fire season in modern times. Millions of hectares of forest and thousands of homes have burned and more than 20 people have perished. The environmental impacts are yet to be tabulated, but experts say one billion animals may have died on the continent, which already has the highest extinction rate in the world.
While no glaciers remain on Australia, the impacts of the fires on glaciers more than 1,000 miles away are already being felt. This week’s Video of the Week, showing the impact of Australia’s bushfires on New Zealand’s Tasman Glacier, is one of the most viral glacier videos ever. The footage was viewed 653,000 times on Twitter alone at the time of publication––just one week after it was shared.
Andy Hoare, who has been a guide on the Tasman Glacier for the past three years and who shot the footage on New Year’s Day 2020, said the group have never seen anything like it. “I didn’t expect the smoke to get as bad as it did,” Hoare told GlacierHub. “It felt quite depressing standing there, especially because you can already the massive retreat that our glaciers have already experienced. I think it felt quite symbolic of what’s happening to our environment around the world.”
The 21-second clip shows tourists milling about on the ice. Hoare’s mother, Twitter user @MissRoho, shared the video with the caption “This the view from the top of the Tasman Glacier NZ today––whole South island experiencing bushfire clouds. We can actually smell the burning here in Christchurch. Thinking of you guys.”
The long term impacts of the sooty fallout darkening the surface of New Zealand’s glaciers remains to be seen. But if the Amazon forest fires are any analog, New Zealand’s glaciers can be expected to melt significantly faster. Fires in the Amazon in 2010 caused a 4.5 percent increase in water runoff from Zongo Glacier in Bolivia alone.
Melt rate is critical because where there are glaciers there are people––and biodiversity––reliant upon the slow release of water from glacial reservoirs. Nearly two billion people depend on runoff from Himalayan glaciers in southeast Asia and some towns in Peru receive as much as 85 percent of their drinking water from glaciers during times of drought. Too much melt too fast without replenishment is bad for people, biodiversity, and glaciers.
Hoare did not expect the video to take off the way it did. “I’m glad the footage could at least in a small way make people aware of how the fires affected our glaciers and also maybe think about the connection between the fires, emissions, coal mining, and how it effects the planet.”
Malia Obama, the eldest daughter of former President Barack Obama, recently visited the glaciers of Peru and Bolivia during a gap year before entering Harvard as an undergraduate this fall. Her guides were unaware they were traveling with the president’s daughter during the 83-day journey, although they were told that an important American dignitary was accompanying them. Malia traveled with the Colorado-based educational travel company Where There Be Dragons, along with 16 other young people, through the Andes and Amazon program.
Photos from the trip were later shared across social media. One image shows Malia in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real mountain range, which is part of the Andes. The mountain range, made mostly of granite, lies southeast of Lake Titicaca and east of La Paz, acting as a barrier between the Altiplano Plateau and the Amazon Rain Forest. The region is dense with glaciers because air from the nearby Amazon lowlands is very moist and contributes to glacier formation. The Cordillera Real also includes the iconic mountain Huayna Potosí, which is only fifteen miles north of La Paz and can be seen from the neighboring city, El Alto. It is the most visited mountain in Bolivia and is popular among climbers. Malia promised to return to Bolivia one day to climb Huayna Potosí.
The Zongo Glacier located on Huayna Potosí is larger than most glaciers in the Cordillera Real but is rapidly melting. In 2013, it had an area of 1.876 km² with a catchment (where snow and ice are added and removed) of 3.3 km². The glacier has shrunk significantly from 1994 to 2014, losing 7 meters of thickness and retreating by 220 meters from a nearby lake, according to an analysis done through Google Earth images.
Glaciers remain an important water resource for people in the region. The people of Bolivia are already feeling the impacts of climate change. Last November, Bolivia declared a state of emergency due to the worst drought in 25 years. Two glaciers on the mountain Tuni Condoriri that provide water for the cities of El Alto and La Paz have receded by about 40% from 1983 to 2006, at a rate of .24 km² a year. They typically provide an estimated 10% to 15% of the water for El Alto and La Paz, according to updated figures provided by Dirk Hoffmann, coordinator of the Bolivian Mountain Institute and an expert on climate change. The water is also necessary for the health of agriculture, ecosystems and hydroelectric plants in the region.
“The trip has given Malia a first-hand view of Bolivian glaciers,” Hoffmann reported to GlacierHub. “I just hope someone told her how the glaciers are getting smaller and smaller each year. What has taken thousands of years to grow – the Andean glaciers – is being lost in a lifetime.”
As a security measure, satellites tracked the group’s movement and 10 marines stayed within 50 meters. Eduardo Quispe,who works as a mountain guide at the company Bolivian Mountain Guides and described Malia’s trip to GlacierHub, said that the group took a five-day tour of the Eastern Cordillera Oriental, starting from Laguna Kothia, a glacier lake, and ending at the base of Huayna Potosi. The group reached heights between 4,850 meters to 5,100 meters. One Marine fell ill from altitude sickness and had to be carted back by mule. During the tour, Malia fished for trout in a lagoon, ate traditional South American foods like chuño (which consists of freeze dried potatoes) and drank coca tea.
Malia, who speaks fluent Spanish, stayed in an inexpensive room based in the agricultural town of Tiquipaya in central Bolivia. Of the president’s eldest daughter, Quispe said, “Malia was characterized by her simplicity and friendliness, shared with everyone. She was one of the group, and there were no preferences of any kind.”
According to the website for the trip, the group traveled to many cities in both Peru and Bolivia and visited indigenous communities. In Peru, Malia traveled around Lake Titicaca and visited Machu Picchu. “Our time in Peru is highlighted by dramatic mountain landscapes, exposure to remote indigenous communities, and a deeper understanding of development trends and contemporary issues in southwestern Peru,” reads the Where There Be Dragons website.
“It is very encouraging to know that such an influential person has chosen the Andes and the Amazon to spend time in,” Lixaida Vasquez, a climber who has frequented the peaks in Bolivia and works at the climbing company Andean Destinations, added to GlacierHub. “I hope she has been able to become closely acquainted with these two regions. They are so beautiful and also so fragile.”
Now that Malia has returned to the U.S., she will next venture to Hollywood to complete an internship with film producer Harvey Weinstein before going away to college. She still has environmental concerns on her mind, however. She recently attended a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in January.
Hoffmann, for one, hopes Malia’s own children will be so fortunate to experience the glaciers of the region in their future. “The way temperature is rising, her children will not have the chance to see most of Bolivia´s glaciers – neither will anybody else her age,” he said.
“Glaciers in the tropical Andes have been rapidly losing mass since the 1970s. In addition to the documented increase in temperature, increases in light-absorbing particles deposited on glaciers could be contributing to the observed glacier loss. Here we report on measurements of lightabsorbing particles sampled from glaciers during three surveys in the Cordillera Blanca Mountains in Peru.”
“We investigate properties of the turbulent flow and sensible heat fluxes in the atmospheric surface layer of the high elevation tropical Zongo glacier (Bolivia) from data collected in the dry season from July to August 2007, with an eddy-covariance system and a 6-m mast for wind speed and temperature profiles. Focus is on the predominant downslope wind regime.”
“This paper discusses the formation and variations of supraglacial lakes on the Baltoro glacier system in the Central Karakoram Himalaya during the last four decades. We mapped supraglacial lakes on the Baltoro Glacier from 1978 to 2014 using Landsat MSS, TM, ETM+ and LCDM images. Most of the glacial lakes were formed or expanded during the late 1970s to 2008. After 2008, the total number and the area of glacial lakes were found to be lesser compared to previous years.”