The changing face of Andean glaciers

Simeon Tegel

Pucaranracocha Glacier 20091 236x300 The changing face of Andean glaciersTo the untrained eye, the view from the Yanapaqcha glacier, some 17,000ft above sea level in the heart of the Peruvian Andes, represents nature at her most sublime. Sheer, snowcapped peaks stretch to the horizon while, through the clouds below, fertile ravines drain into perfect turquoise lakes.

But as our crampons crunch into the hard ice, it quickly becomes apparent that not all is well in this spectacular wilderness. “The glacier looks like a patient dying of a virus,” says Richard Hidalgo, arguably Peru’s foremost mountaineer. “The disease is eating it away from the inside.” Climate change is tightening its grip.

The statistics for glacier retreat in the Cordillera Blanca – or White Range, as this stretch of the Andes is known – are well documented: The average annual figure per glacier was seven meters in the 1970s, 20 meters in the 1980s, 24 meters in the 1990s and 25 meters in the 2000s. But, as Richard explains, the ravaging of the glaciers is about far more than shrinking snouts.

As we tour Yanapaqcha, his concern becomes palpable. A huge expanse of the lower part of the glacier is riddled with dark stains, slushy puddles, ponds that freeze every evening only to thaw out again each afternoon, and enormous sinkholes. Long sections of Yanapaqcha appear as concave hollows as the river of ice beneath the compressed snow gradually melts and buckles.

“These current conditions are scarier. You have to be even more careful,” says Richard, acknowledging how mountaineering, one of the world’s more dangerous sports, just became riskier still. He should know. An internationally-certified guide, Richard, 42, is headed this month to Nepal to tackle Manaslu, the world’s eighth-highest peak and the third of the 14 mountains over 8,000 meters that he will have summitted.

Indeed, last year a colleague and climbing partner of Richard’s, the experienced American guide Tyler Anderson, died just a few hundred feet above where we are standing – the first mountaineer, Richard believes, to perish in the Cordillera Blanca as a result of climate change. It is notable that the accident happened as Anderson was guiding clients up a mountain that he knew well and was, for a climber of his abilities, little more than an energetic stroll.

No one knows for sure but Anderson, 37, appears to have succumbed as a huge area of the glacier around a crevasse spontaneously collapsed. He fell 60ft and suffered massive injuries including a broken neck.  “That crevasse was not normal,” says Richard, who participated in the recovery of his friend’s body. “There was a labyrinth of holes within the glacier. I have never seen anything like that before.”

Yet the dangers of the Cordillera Blanca’s shifting landscape potentially affect far more than the climbing community. As they melt, glaciers lose their traction with the mountainside, increasing the risk of massive, unnatural avalanches. Meanwhile, the increasing run-off is forming vast alpine lakes in danger of catastrophically bursting their banks high above towns and villages along the valley floor. The risk is heightened by the possibility of an avalanche or rock-fall into the lakes. It bears remembering that the region is highly seismic.

One lake, Palcacocha, threatens the regional capital of Huaraz, with a population of 120,000. Its current volume of 17 million cubic meters is 34 times greater than in the 1970s and officials have since 2009 continuously categorized Palcacocha as being at “high risk” of overflowing. That threat arouses powerful emotions in a region that still vividly recalls how a 1970 quake triggered a massive slide of rocks and ice that wiped out the town of Yungay, killing a mind-boggling 25,000 people.

As we slowly move upwards, the glacier appears to recover. Eventually, most of its surface is a uniform expanse of white, broken only by the barely visible long, thin crevasses that occur normally as Yanapaqcha inches its way down the mountain. But even here, there appear occasional, incongruous sinkholes randomly scattered around the glacier.

Above us rises the imposing granite face of the southern peak of Huascaran, Peru’s highest summit at 22,205ft. But again, things are not as they seem. Richard notes how, just three years ago, the face was almost entirely covered by deep snow and ice. Climate change has now made this steep wall too slippery for snow to accumulate.

The shifts in the landscape are now coming so quickly that Richard sees them from one season to another. “I cannot even imagine how the Cordillera Blanca will be in 10 years time,” he says. Although Huascaran’s two summits and the vast col between them, at 20,000ft, remain blanketed, scientists believe that the mountain may be snow-free by mid-century. If that happens, then the White Range will suffer the final indignity of its name becoming nothing more than an antiquated misnomer.

1. Pucaranracocha glacier, in the Cordillera Blanca, in 2009. The glacier has retreated hundreds of meters already. Credit: Alton C. Byers, The Mountain Institute

2. Pucaranracocha glacier, in the Cordillera Blanca, in 1932. Credit: Erwin Schneider, courtesy of the Association for Comparative Alpine Research, Munich

3. Richard Hidalgo inspects the melting snout of Yanapaqcha glacier, in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. Credit: Simeon Tegel

4. A huge sinkhole. Credit: Simeon Tegel

5. A collapsed section of the glacier. Credit: Simeon Tegel

6. Will this stunning view become a thing of the past? Credit: Richard Hidalgo

7. Holes ravage the lower part of the glacier. Credit: Simeon Tegel

t The changing face of Andean glaciers

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  • crashtestmonkey

    Sorry but I’m still looking for the facts in your list.

    1. No, that will primarily be the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field
    2. Whatever
    3. Not fact. Anything pre-1958 is theory
    4. See 3 

  • david_fta

    Still looking for the facts on my list?  Look no further, they’re summarised here.

    1. and 2.

    Earth’s surface is warmed by absorbtion of short wave sunlight.  (White surfaces, such as ice caps, stay cold by reflecting this sunlight.  As the earth’s surface warms, some of this sunlight-reflecting ice melts away, exposing darker surfaces underneath which absorbs more of the sunlight).

    In response, Earth returns the same amount of energy to space.  The solar shortwave energy is balanced by the earth re-radiating to space as a ‘black body’ radiator with a characteristic temperature of ~255K; that is, from space the earth’s spectrum is roughly that of a radiating body with an optical surface temperature of around 255K.

    Earth’s surface cools by evaporation of excited water molecules, heat transfer to deeper sea and to polar ice caps and by convection and radiation back into and through the atmosphere.  At higher altitudes, where the atmosphere gets less dense, the proportion of energy (heat) transfer by long wave ‘thermal’ (microwave) radiation increases.  Observing earth’s spectrum from space has big absorbtion bands due to greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere.  Prominent among these is carbon dioxide (CO2).

    Greenhouse gases such as H2O, CO2, methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), CFC’s, and ozone (O3) absorb, then re-emit, some longwave wavelengths.  About half of the re-emitted radiation is diverted back down toward the surface, as confirmed by radiation measurements at both surface and satellite observatories.  This discrepancy increases with atmospheric CO2 concentration.

    3. and 4.  

    Historic fossil fuel use and cement production data (Oak Ridge National (US) Laboratory Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center) shows sufficient CO2 emission from 1800 to raise atmospheric CO2 from 280 ppm to 430 ppm.  Dissolution of CO2 in oceans has limited atmospheric CO2 to about 390 ppm, and decreased ocean pH.

  • Guest

    Funny you should mention thin ice. Even if the extent / area records aren’t broken this year the volume looks very dodgy indeed.

    See Piomas volume estimate.

    Still I expect it’s the blowtorch pixies that are melting all this ice in all these places.

  • David Cage

    Whether it is happening or not is irrelevant. What matters is whether it is man causing it and until the groups with the theories are made to face outside quality controls for their work given that so many who have looked at it are satisfied it is grossly sub standard nothing whatever should be done on its basis.
    The reality is that no data prior to the last fifty years is reliable enough to the sort of accuracy needed for any firm conclusions.
    If any conclusion is more likely than any other it is that the cleanups for acid rain and the USSR de industrialisation have increased temperatures in the northern hemisphere closer to what it would have been without man’s intervention as theorised 30 years ago. This is especially true now we can see the converse in the southern hemisphere.
    All we ask is for some hint of accountability from a group obscenely self satisfied with standards that would be labelled junk by engineers. Does that really warrant the insults that inevitably come from AGW disciples like scooby2?

  • David Cage

    More like the warmth from AGW bovine excrement so prolific these days.

  • David Cage

    Item one is only even remotely proven by so called science that would be rated as junk by any proper professionals being totally recursive as a method even when glorified by pseudo scientific trerms like hindcasting.
    Item 2 is totally simplistic in that so what if greenhouse is one of a hundred variables of which the other 99 are more significant as we now have total proof given temperatures are not rising faster as they should.
    Item three says that should have caused a one degree drop if they stopped using bad computer models and returned to the better hard ware model testing methods of a decade ago or learnt how to do it from proper engineers.
    Item 4 that means the temperatures should be rising at twice the rate of last year’s by now if the theory was not bunk as CO2 is still increasing.

  • david_fta

    Gday David Cage, I’m delighted that you are contributing to the general wisdom.

    In response to my statement that earth’s overall climate is regulated by atmospheric greenhouse gases, you assert that it’s not even remotely proven.  Thanks for inviting clarification of my statement, I prove it by observing that if earth didn’t have an atmosphere, it would have a climate like that of the surface of the moon.  The earth has a much milder climate than the moon, which is sufficient to prove the point.

    Item two: carbon dioxide is a major greenhouse gas because there is so much of it relative to other greenhouse gases.  You write “so what if greenhouse is one of a hundred variables of which the other 99 are more significant …”.  The point is, earth’s climate history is well described by a combination of atmospheric composition, continental distribution and the occasional extraterrestrial upset, some of which I summarise as follows. 

    1.  Long slow cooling since the Eocene may be linked to the opening of the Drake Channel between Antarctica and S America allowed Antarctic Circumpolar Current to thermally isolate Antarctica, freezing it over and increasing earth’s albedo (reflection of visible light), thus allowing further cooling.

    2.  Spread of angiosperms (flowering plants) around the world, supplanting slower-growing gymnosperms.  This has accelerated rates of bio-sequestration, causing a long slow cooling of the earth’s climate by removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

    3.  Formation of the Isthmus of Panama ~2.7.million years ago is thought to have lead to increasing Arctic ice buildup, and the Pleistocene cycle of glacial and interglacial periods.  Up until about 900,000 years ago, the Pleistocene glacial-interglacial cycle had a period of about 41,000 years.

    4.  Over the last 900,000 years, the glacial-interglacial cycle has been a bit more chaotic, with apparent periodicity about 110,000 years I think.  Glacial periods (Ice Ages) have been more severe than previously, probably due to even lower atmospheric CO2 levels due to ongoing progress of step 2 above.  The current interglacial period, the Holocene, began about 11,000 years ago.

    5.  What’s different about this interglacial period is the spread of a large clever ape around the world.  For some millenia, this ape has been cutting down trees wherever it goes, thereby slowing, then halting step 2.  Over the last couple of centuries, this ape has also been digging up long-geosequestered carbon, and recycling it to the atmosphere.  Half of this recycling of fossil carbon has occurred in the last three decades.

    6.  The activities of step 5 have halted, then reversed, the cooling trend that would otherwise have marked the end of the Holocene.  

    The Good News is that Ice Ages are unlikely to return for a while because atmospheric CO2 is now higher than before the Arctic froze over.

    The Bad News is that ice-cap melting has not caught up with the new, higher atmospheric CO2 levels.  Expect sea level rise ~1.6 m by 2100, ~7 m by 2200.

    My item 3, that fossil fuel use has driven the rise of atmospheric CO2 from 280 ppm to 390 ppm is not based on climate modelling.  I obtained a record of historic fossil fuel use (Oak Ridge National (US) Laboratory Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center), and did my own calculations.  This shows sufficient CO2 emission from 1800 to raise atmospheric CO2 from 280 ppm to 430 ppm.  Dissolution of CO2 in oceans has limited atmospheric CO2 to about 390 ppm, and decreased ocean pH.  

    Your comment on item 4 is incoherent and meaningless.

  • Guest

    “All we ask is for some hint of accountability from a group obscenely
    self satisfied with standards that would be labelled junk by engineers.”

    International Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences

    As reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),
    most of the observed global warming since the mid-20th century is very
    likely due to human-produced emission of greenhouse gases and this
    warming will continue unabated if present anthropogenic emissions
    continue or, worse, expand without control.
    CAETS, therefore, endorses the many recent calls to decrease and
    control greenhouse gas emissions to an acceptable level as quickly as

    Institute of Professional Engineers New Zealand.

    “Professional engineers commonly deal with risk, and frequently have to
    make judgments based on incomplete data. The available evidence suggests
    very strongly that human activities have already begun to make
    significant changes to the earth’s climate, and that the long-term risk
    of delaying action is greater than the cost of avoiding/minimising the

    “Engineers Australia believes that Australia must act swiftly and proactively
    in line with global expectations to address climate change as an economic,
    social and environmental risk. Our role has been, and will continue to be,
    in leading capacity building to innovate for more sustainable, eco-efficient
    and less polluting outcomes in engineering practice. We believe that
    addressing the costs of atmospheric emissions will lead to increasing our
    competitive advantage by minimising risks and creating new economic
    opportunities.” (Policy Statement Climate Change and Energy: Engineers Australia)

    “Climate change will have both national and international consequences for the UK. For example, changes in trade patterns, food production and migration pressures will impact the UK. In the developing world climate change may have a severe impact, for example by 2020:
    • Harvests in Africa may have shrunk by up to 50%;
    • Between 75 and 250 million people are likely to
    face increased water shortages in Africa;
    • Over 3 billion people could be facing acute
    shortages of water in the Middle East and Indian
    • And by the end of the century rises in sea-levels
    could flood the homes of 94 million people in Asia alone. “(Institution of Mechanical Engineers)

    “Civil engineers are responsible for design and maintenance of
    infrastructure projects that facilitate economic development and protect
    human health, welfare and the environment.   Climate change may result
    in significant impacts to this infrastructure.  Civil engineers and
    government policy makers must work together to anticipate and plan for
    these impacts.” (American Society of civil Engineers)

    “However, comprehensive scientific assessments of our current and
    potential future climates clearly indicate that climate change is real,
    largely attributable to emissions from human activities, and potentially
    a very serious problem. This sober conclusion has been recently
    reconfirmed by an in-depth set of studies focused on “America’s Climate
    Choices” (ACC) conducted by the U.S. National Academies (NRC, 2010a, b,
    c, d). The ACC studies, performed by independent and highly respected
    teams of scientists, engineers, and other skilled professionals, reached
    the same general conclusions that were published in the latest
    comprehensive assessment conducted by the International Panel on Climate
    Change (IPCC, 2007). Recently, some errors in the IPCC (2007) reports
    have been acknowledged and questions about the transparency of the IPCC
    process have been raised. An independent review by the InterAcademy
    Council (IAC), a collaboration of the world’s leading national science
    academies, found “that the IPCC assessment process has been successful
    overall and has served society well,” and that “through its unique
    partnership between scientists and governments, the IPCC has heightened
    public awareness of climate change, raised the level of scientific
    debate, and influenced the science agendas of many nations.” (IAC, 2010)” (American chemical Society)

  • David Cage

    Pure supposition based on a totally inadequate piece of computer modelling that in engineering would get an new graduate fired.
    The data input is so sub standard in that even a gcse level sutudent with any ability would baulk at saying anything was proven beyond doubt when it uses secondary data with an accuracy of possibly as poor a plus or minus 5%  compared to primary data with worse than one degree at best overlaid with random noise to prove difference pattterns  that are sub degree level.
    One measurement every 100,000sq km is able to get and accuracy sub degree. Not even a total moron can seriously believe that if they did a test in their own garden with ten thermometers. Remember this is a scientific figure, not the local bookie’s odds on the temperature, we are supposed to be talking about.
    Then there  is the absolutely pathetic way that man’s output using the co2 emissions of fossil fuel is compared not to the output of natural sources but to the   difference between output and absorption i.e.the net value. It is as bright as saying my income is as good as a millionaires because my gross income is the same as the difference between his spending and his income.
    Do you seriously believe that if work like this was allowed to be examined publicly and honestly it would have a hope in hell of standing up to real examination.
    Don’t be ridiculous. That is why peer review is being fought to the death for.
    If the public had true access they would know that this is an internal evaluation of the true state of climate studies by those who have left in disgust at the prescribed thought line. Climategate only let out a little worm but it should have been the signal to look for the rest of the can full. One day it will be.

  • david_fta

    Thanks Mr Cage, your criticism of computer modelling is noted.  The problem for your case is that my arguments do not rely on computer modelling in any way.  

    That is, your fury and rage is entirely wasted, and my previous statements stand.

    You also completely misunderstand my atmospheric CO2 mass balance.  What I did was to start at 280 ppm CO2, and multiply that by the total dry mass of the atmosphere.  This gave a total mass of CO2 in the atmosphere.  To that figure I added CDIAC’s figure for industrial CO2 emission.  Then I divided by the total dry mass of the atmosphere to get the projected CO2 concentration for the next year.

    Starting with atmospheric CO2 of 280 ppm in 1750, I used a spreadsheet to perform the calculation described in the above paragraph for every year thereafter.  

    Whatever you are raging and being furious about, it’s nothing to do with my calculations.  Mind you, I see you have written in another thread: “Whether it is happening or not is irrelevant. What matters is whether it is man causing it …”

    Excellent.  My calculation shows that man is causing it.  

    Why are you so desperate to run away from the truth?

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