Anyone who has been paying attention to global warming's continually accelerating effects is aware (or at least has heard of) glacial melting.
Glaciers in Alaska are melting at an alarming rate due to the repercussions of climate change. But did you know that glacial retreat isn't just a problem for the frozen Arctic Circle?
Tropical glaciers around the equator are experiencing incredibly rapid rates of retreat. Yes, there is such a thing as tropical glaciers, which are located at altitudes above 4,000 meters in equatorial regions.
Peru is home to 92% of tropical glaciers. Peruvian glaciers are disappearing in vast quantities that could lead to devastating results for local populations.
Exploring the Extent of the Glacial Retreat
A study conducted by scientific researchers from Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg from the years 2000 to 2016 set out to quantify and examine the rate and extent of glacial retreat in this area. The measurements were taken using satellite data, as the scientists analyzed the change in mass of the Peruvian glaciers over 16 years using Landsat imagery.
This study revealed a few things among them:
- The total amount of glaciers in Peru had reduced by 30% during this period.
- The rate of the glacial melting was four times higher than previously from the years 2013 to 2016.
Let's analyze this quantity in a different way. In terms of ice mass, 8 gigatonnes, or about 10% of the total ice mass, was lost during this time. To count the glaciers individually, out of a total of 1,973 glaciers, 170 of them have melted away entirely. By overall land area, the size of the loss is equivalent to 160,000 acres.
While the glaciers in this area have been steadily melting away since the 1980s, the glacial retreat rate has increased drastically in the last twenty years. Not only is the speed at which the ice is melting greater here than in different glacial regions, but the existence of large populations settled in nearby areas means that significant human consequences will be experienced due to the effects of the ice loss.
Causes of Glacial Melting
As with glacial melting in areas worldwide, a significant factor in the causation of this phenomenon is global warming. However, due to the unique climatic environment surrounding Peruvian glaciers, these glaciers also face unique predicaments.
For one thing, tropical glaciers are a lot more sensitive to climate and temperature fluctuations than glaciers in colder regions. Additionally, tropical glaciers have to experience climate phenomena that are exclusive to the equatorial region, such as El Niño.
El Niño is the warm phase of the recurring climate pattern known as El Niño-Southern Oscillation or ENSO. It is followed by the cool phase, which is called La Niña. It is described as the formation of a warm section of water in the central and east-central regions of the Pacific Ocean. This leads to other environmental changes like:
- Increased air temperature in the region
- A later rainy season
- Decreased precipitation
- Atypical water currents
All of these environmental factors caused by El Niño work together to increase the rate of glacial retreat. According to the study referenced above, El Niño is specifically responsible for the quadrupling of the rate of retreat from 2013 to 2016.
Moreover, on average, El Niño phases usually last for a period of about four years; however, their duration can range anywhere from two to seven years. Imagine the damage caused by seven years of glacial melting at that rate!
What Problems Does This Lead To?
Beyond just being beautiful to look at, Peruvian glaciers actually serve an important practical purpose for local populations. Glaciers in this region function as a source of water for Peruvian communities. The water produced by these glaciers has a multitude of vital uses for the people living nearby.
During the rainy season, glaciers collect water from the precipitation and store it as it either converts to snow, which rests atop the peaks, or turns to ice and assimilates with the glaciers themselves. Then, during the dry season or periods of drought, the glaciers release this stored water through natural and, under normal conditions, sustainable melting.
The meltwater released from Peruvian glaciers is harnessed by the local population and used to sustain various needs. The water is purified and made potable for drinking, used for agricultural irrigation, used to operate hydroelectric power plants, among other things. The meltwater that naturally runs off the glaciers also ensures that Peru's various rivers can continue to flow as usual during dry periods.
The meltwater that fulfills these needs is produced as part of a natural cycle of partial melting and refreezing, which occurs in tropical climates. However, the glaciers need to recover consistently every year to continuously provide this vital water source.
At the current rate of glacial melting, there is a risk that they will not be able to recover. Eventually, the glaciers will either disappear forever, or their numbers will be reduced to the point of uselessness. This could lead to a serious water shortage problem, which would have a devastating effect on Peruvians' lives.
Is Glacial Retreat Dangerous?
In addition to potentially destroying Peru's agricultural and hydroelectric industries, glacial retreat can also be a direct cause of deadly natural disasters. The most common and dangerous of these hazards are flood waves caused by water from glacial lakes.
When glacial ice melts, the water runs down the glacier side and begins to pool at its foot, forming a glacial lake. This lake will be held back by what is called the terminal moraine, or the sedimentary ridge at the furthest edge of the glacier.
The structural integrity of the terminal moraine can be jeopardized in two ways. It could naturally melt or erode away over time, or an avalanche of ice or rock could destroy it. Either of these eventualities could cause the moraine to burst like a dam or cause the lake to overflow over it, which can lead to a serious flood.
This flooding risk is not simply hypothetical. In 1941, a flood wave caused by glacial melting destroyed roughly one-third of the city of Huaraz. In the Cordillera Blanca region from 1941 to 2003, 25,000 people have been killed by glacial flood disasters.
What Can We Do To Help?
The problems created by the excessive melting of Peruvian glaciers are incredibly serious and can even be deadly. Luckily, some measures can be taken to mitigate the effects of glacial retreat.
Take Preventative Measures
By keeping track of glacial melting, such as by monitoring satellite imagery, as was done in the study by Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg researchers, impending disasters can be predicted enough in advance that they can be countered and prepared for.
By monitoring meltwater buildup areas, dams could be reinforced or even artificially built to prevent a glacial lake from flooding. Programs could also be initiated to drain water from glacial lakes in order to eliminate the risk of flooding and overflowing.
Support Green Initiatives
In addition to these preventative measures, it is also important to support green initiatives to combat climate change and reduce glacial retreat rate.
Ordinary citizens can do their part to eliminate unnecessary waste and reduce their carbon footprint. However, it is equally necessary to pressure large corporations and government powers to end their environmentally harmful practices and implement programs for sustainable development.
Peruvian glaciers are disappearing at alarming rates, as are glaciers in every part of the world. Accelerated glacial retreat can have devastating consequences for Peruvians.
Still, it's not too late to join the fight against global climate change and do your part to keep the problem from getting any worse.