09 Apr 2009: Report

Retreat of Andean Glaciers
Foretells Global Water Woes

Bolivia accounts for a tiny fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions. But it will soon be paying a disproportionately high price for a major consequence of global warming: the rapid loss of glaciers and a subsequent decline in vital water supplies.

by carolyn kormann

Earlier this year, the World Bank released yet another in a seemingly endless stream of reports by global institutions and universities chronicling the melting of the world’s cryosphere, or ice zone. This latest report concerned the glaciers in the Andes and revealed the following: Bolivia’s famed Chacaltaya glacier has lost 80 percent of its surface area since 1982, and Peruvian glaciers have lost more than one-fifth of their mass in the past 35 years, reducing by 12 percent the water flow to the country’s coastal region, home to 60 percent of Peru’s population.

And if warming trends continue, the study concluded, many of the Andes’ tropical glaciers will disappear within 20 years, not only threatening the water supplies of 77 million people in the region, but also reducing hydropower production, which accounts for roughly half of the electricity generated in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.

Chances are that many of Bolivia’s Aymara Indians heard little or nothing about the report. But then the Aymara — who make up at least 25 percent of Bolivia’s population — don’t need the World Bank to tell them what they can see with their own eyes: that the great Andean ice caps are swiftly vanishing. Those who live near Bolivia’s capital city of La Paz need only glance up at Illimani, the 21,135-foot mountain that looms over the city, and watch as its ice fields fade away. Their loss adds to a growing unease among the Aymara — and many Bolivians — who realize that the loss of the country’s glaciers could have profound consequences.

The Aymara worship the ice-draped mountains as Achachilas, or life-giving deities, whose meltwater is vital to a region that suffers a five-month dry season and relies on agriculture to survive. Now, as greenhouse gas emissions heat the earth, the Aymara are bracing for a future in which glaciers no longer can be counted on to supply life-sustaining water.

In recent decades, 20,000-year-old glaciers in Bolivia have been retreating so fast that 80 percent of the ice will be gone before a child born today reaches adulthood. So far this melting has brought temporary increases in stream flow and contributed to massive Amazonian floods that forced several hundred thousand people from their homes last year.

But within the next decade, scientists predict that this torrent of meltwater will turn into a trickle as glaciers shrink, meaning that the age-old source of water during the dry season will steadily dwindle. Some highland farmers near La Paz already report decreased water supplies.

“Here you have precipitation only part of the year,” said French glaciologist Patrick Ginot as he stood at 16,500 feet next to Zongo glacier last year. “But it’s stored on the glacier and then melting throughout the year, and so you have water throughout the year. If you lose the glacier, you have no more storage.”

In effect, underdeveloped countries such as Bolivia are paying dearly for the massive energy consumption of the United States and the industrialized world. The so-called “carbon footprint” of the average Bolivian peasant is negligible, yet Bolivia’s poor are not only among the first to feel the harsh effects of climate change, but also are sorely lacking the resources to adapt to it.

“The grand question here is, who compensates,” says Oscar Paz, director of Bolivia’s National Climate Change Program, “because we are not culpable for climate change. It’s not fair that a country like Bolivia, which emits 0.02 percent of global greenhouse emissions, already has annual economic losses from the impacts of climate change equivalent to four percent of our GDP.” These losses, about $400 million, are largely due to the recent Amazonian floods.

Bolivia is one of many countries, nearly all in the developing world, facing looming water shortages from melting glaciers. Up and down South America’s western coast, Andean glaciers are the natural water towers to tens of millions of people, including those in the capital cities of Quito, Ecuador; Lima, Peru; Santiago, Chile; and La Paz.

Similarly, on the opposite side of the world, two billion people rely on meltwater from the Himalayas, which have lost 21 percent of their glacial mass since 1962. Himalayan glaciers are the main source of water for five
Underdeveloped countries are paying dearly for the energy consumption of the industrialized world.
major river systems whose flow irrigates much of China, India, and Pakistan’s rice and wheat and which also supplies much of the region’s drinking water. These river basins are the Ganges, with 407 million people; the Indus, with 178 million people; the Brahmaputra, with 118 million people; the Yangtze, with 368 million people; and the Yellow, with 147 million. Scientists predict that the Himalaya’s smaller glaciers will be gone by 2035 and that many large ones will disappear by century’s end, possibly leading to famine in a region whose population continues to soar.

“The world has never faced such a predictably massive threat to food production as that posed by the melting mountain glaciers of Asia,” Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, wrote last year.

Studies show glaciers melting at alarming rates throughout the world, yet unlike mountains in higher latitudes, ice melts year-round off tropical glaciers, which are found on peaks close to the equator and receive the sun’s strongest rays.

“Glaciers, especially tropical glaciers, are the canaries in the coal mine for our global climate system,” Lonnie Thompson, a preeminent glaciologist from Ohio State University, said during a climate change forum in Peru last summer.

Bolivia’s glaciated mountains are almost all in the Cordillera Real, or Royal Range, which soars from the northwest to southeast of La Paz and its adjacent slum city, El Alto, separating the arid, windswept expanse of the altiplano (high plain) from the dripping verdure of the Amazon. Among these remote spires is a glacier that has become the most glaring symbol of Bolivia’s rapidly transforming cryosphere.

Called Chacaltaya, which means “cold road” in Aymara, the glacier was once Bolivia’s only ski resort and the world’s highest. Now it is a barren, russet moraine studded with clues of its past: a lonely chunk of ice sticking out like an elongated diving board and a dirty white signpost with the fading graphic of a cartoonish condor on skis.

Looking down from Chacaltaya, the significance of its disappearance hits home. In the distance, the corrugated tin roofs of El Alto gleam across the endless altiplano, which stretches like a placid brown ocean to the horizon. Water for the city’s nearly one million residents comes mainly from the region’s largest reservoir, situated at the base of a glaciated mountain cluster called Tuni Condoriri. Since 1983, the cluster has lost 35 percent of its ice mass. Glaciers Tuni and Condoriri, the two largest, are projected to disappear by 2025 and 2040, respectively, if not sooner.

Even closer is the glacier Zongo, the source for 10 cascading hydropower plants that provide a quarter of Bolivia’s electricity. These days, Zongo is receding 33 feet a year. To the southwest stands Illimani, and though scientists have not monitored its glacial retreat, residents of nearby Palca say it is extreme.

The Andean Regional Project on Adaptation to Climate Change (PRAA) says that Palca and two other townships are most reliant on meltwater for survival and the most vulnerable rural districts to glacial loss. Pure geography, the areas’ extreme poverty, and the lack of efficient irrigation methods are all factors.

Some residents already report decreases in flow, in part due to a drastic change in rainfall patterns. Worried about imminent water shortages,
There is little time for Bolivia to adapt before major water shortages begin, but the government lacks the money to pay for them.
many Palca residents are migrating to the city or to other countries, such as Argentina. One irony of this migration is that many are moving from Palca to El Alto in hopes of a better life, yet water there also is running dry — the combined result of skyrocketing demand and diminishing natural reserves. A few decades ago, El Alto was just a small barrio next to the airport. In less than 20 years, the population has grown from 200,000 to 900,000, without any urban planning.

Edson Ramirez, Bolivia’s leading glaciologist, published a study several years ago warning that water shortages would soon begin in El Alto and the outskirts of La Paz and worsen over the next decade. His team plotted a curve approximating when the water demand will surpass the amount that glaciers on Tuni and Condoriri will provide.

“Right now there is not a major problem in El Alto because the additional glacial melt has compensated for the demand, providing more water flow,” says Germán Aramayo, the vice minister of water resources. “But we’re going to begin to have problems.”

In 1998, Ramirez and a team of French scientists presented Bolivian officials with the first results of their glacier-monitoring work, warning of the rapid retreat that was to come. No one believed them. Now there is little time to adapt before major water shortages begin. Nor does the government have the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to pay for these projects, which include building dams and reservoirs.

Victor Rico, the director of the public water utility, EPSAS, blames this lack of foresight on the political and economic upheaval that has plagued Bolivia, embodied by the bloody “Water War” of 2000, a fight over water privatization. President Evo Morales’s socialist government only created EPSAS in January 2007, after nationalizing its predecessor.

“This situation of who’s going to be in charge of the water companies created major conflict,” says glaciologist Ramirez. “But they were not looking at the core problem — what are we going to do when we no longer have this water resource?”

Many Bolivian officials believe that industrialized nations, the source of most greenhouse gases, have an obligation to help countries such as Bolivia mitigate the impact of climate change. Bolivia is planning to launch pilot projects in La Paz, El Alto, and four nearby communities that would, among other things, build more storage tanks to capture water in the rainy season; the World Bank will provide most of the funding. But far greater investment is needed to build larger reservoirs, help farmers acquire efficient drip-irrigation technology, tap into underground aquifers, and rebuild municipal water systems, some of whose pipes leak half the water they carry.

Meanwhile, concern grows in places such as Palca.

“When I was a boy, the snows covered practically all these hills, but now year after year, they are melting away,” says Roger Seja, leader of the Palca farmers’ union. “It’s very sad. How do we find a solution if nature herself, the universe itself, brings us this?”

POSTED ON 09 Apr 2009 IN Climate Climate Antarctica and the Arctic Central & South America 


There does not seem to be any argument that for the past 20,000 years there has been a warming trend, that is except for the past seven years when the earth has been cooling.

But consensus is not science. Whether humans have anything to do with the earth's warming is an open question, yet the article above makes the assumption that it does without any reservation.

It is simply bad science to say the melting of glaciers is caused by the U. S. and other industrialized nations.

When 100% of the scientific community agrees, then the assumption and theory become fact. Until that time, conclusions made, as in the story above, are without basis.
Posted by Milt Burgess on 09 Apr 2009

Comparison of the LIA history of glacier activity with reconstructions of solar and volcanic forcing suggest that solar variability is the primary underlying cause of the glacier fluctuations. The peaks and troughs in the susceptibility records match fluctuations of solar irradiance reconstructed from 10Be (16) and Δ14C (18) measurements (Fig. 2 E). Spectral analysis shows significant peaks at 227 and 125 yr in both the irradiance and MS records, closely matching the de Vreis and Gleissberg oscillations identified from solar irradiance reconstructions.

P. J. Polissar*,†, M. B. Abbott‡, A. P. Wolfe§, M. Bezada¶, V. Rull�-, and R. S. Bradley*


These scientists in a paper published in the National Academy of Sciences have determined that the cause of the warming precipitating the glacial melt is solar activity. The above article blaming generic "global warming" omits any scientific explanation of the cause and leaves the dishonest implication that "Global Warming" from CO2 levels is responsible.

Posted by on 10 Apr 2009

Good article. This is an aspect of global warming that has been mostly overlooked. Very sobering.
Posted by Alan Freund on 11 Apr 2009

The Earth has not been cooling as a trend. According to NASA the global trend is warming, and the burning of fossil fuels along with deforestation are indeed part of this. And actually, if you look at the glaciers mentioned in this article you can see it with your own eyes. This article has much basis because it is based on reality, and it is way past time the international community steps up to the plate, and that includes the US, in taking necessary steps to cap greenhouse gas emissions and take the global water crisis seriously.
Posted by J Moore on 12 Apr 2009

re: Milt Burgess and anonymous: I see the junk scientists are doing their best to spin this one...
Posted by martin holsinger on 12 Apr 2009

Good emotive journalism, a little lacking in historical facts. Alpine glaciers have lost 60 percent mass since 1850[end of little ice age.] The interesting history is the timing of that loss. They lost 20 percent of that mass between 1855 and 1890, stabilized from 1890 till 1925, lost another 26 percent between 1925 and 1960, stabilized again between 1960 and 1980, and lost another 5 percent ice mass between 1980 and now. The correlation between glacial retreat and AGW is evidently zero, but thanks for your evident concern.
Posted by ian hilliar on 12 Apr 2009

So Ian, what are you actually citing? I would like you to support your claims, since you take such an authoritative tone.
Posted by Nate on 14 Apr 2009

For those who rest on the solar/volcanic front, volcanoes spew roughly 200 million tons of CO2
every year, while human activity produces tens of billions.

As for solar activity, that eleven year cycle of increased solar perturbations cannot account for
the empirical evidence linking CO2 parts per million in the atmosphere for the last one
hundred and fifty years, and the steady, and sharp, increase in global temperatures. It's in
the ice cores.

And 100 percent of scientists? Are you kidding? The only thing 100 percent of the scientific community agrees on is that they'll never all agree on anything. You know why? Because scientists dispute. It's the very nature of scientific inquiry and discovery and formulation. Do you need 100 percent of scientists to agree on evolution (even though 99.999 percent of them do, whether or not they believe in God) for you to agree that evolution is an inextricable force of biological development?

Scientists may disagree on certain aspects of a theory, evolution or other, but the overall
consensus is, in terms of global warming, that our contribution is not negligible. And
industrialized nations are mostly responsible. It's difficult to see yourself as the culprit, but to
deny it because of expected discrepancies in scientific debate (key word: debate) is not only myopic, but reckless. Check your insecurities at the door. Us or not, an environmentally
conscious civilization is exactly what we need. Unless you think we should just let the sun
Posted by Andrew on 18 Apr 2009

"As for solar activity, that eleven year cycle of increased solar perturbations cannot account for
the empirical evidence linking CO2 parts per million in the atmosphere for the last one
hundred and fifty years, and the steady, and sharp, increase in global temperatures. It's in
the ice cores."

Of course ice core samples consistently show the carbon dioxide levels increase after warming begins which would indicate the cause and effect relationship is just the reverse of the theory that carbon dioxide causes warming. Since we are in geological terms just recovering from an ice age it makes esnse that following the warming CO2 would rise.

The prime source for the global warming theory is the United Nations which without equivocation stated in it's 2007 report "La Niña cooling in the second half of 2007 (Figure 2) is about as intense as the regional cooling associated with any La Niña of the past half century, as shown by comparison to Plate 9 in Hansen et al. (Hansen et al. 1999) and updates to Plate 9 on the GISS web site. Effect of the current La Niña on global surface temperature is likely to continue for at least the first several months of 2008. Based on sequences of Pacific Ocean surface temperature patterns in Plate 9, a next El Niño in 2009 or 2010 is perhaps the most likely timing. But whatever year it occurs, it is a pretty safe bet that the next El Niño will help carry global temperature to a significantly higher level.

Competing with the short-term solar and La Niña cooling effects is the long-term global warming effect of human-made GHGs. The latter includes the trend toward less Arctic sea ice that markedly increases high latitude Northern Hemisphere temperatures. Although sea ice cover fluctuates from year to year, the large recent loss of thick multi-year ice implies that this warming effect at high latitudes should persist.

Based on these considerations, it is unlikely that 2008 will be a year with truly exceptional global mean temperature. These considerations also suggest that, barring the unlikely event of a large volcanic eruption, a record global temperature clearly exceeding that of 2005 can be expected within the next 2-3 years."

Probably due to the expected lower solar activity we have experienced historic drops in temperature since this prediction of record warmth from the UN's seven computer programs.

We have many hundreds of thousands of years of ice cores and earth core samples that conclude that the earth's temperature is overwhelmingly controlled by solar activity versus the UN's theory based on the last 150 years that, to be kind, has been inconsistent and cannot be verified within even this short period of time. Hundreds of thousands of years of correlation versus 150 years of disproven assumption.
Posted by on 24 Apr 2009

Thank you for this article. It is well written and informative and thank you again for bringing this all to light. The more I read the more I despair. I have no answers anymore. I doubt there is much hope for our beautiful planet called Earth.
Posted by dee on 29 Aug 2009

70 percent of the world's tropical glaciers are in the Andes and millions depend on their melt water. The global warming scenario for the next twenty years - Andean glaciers melt - high sierra and paramo desertify - people migrate to Amazon basin where surface water is already massively polluted by oil companies - settlers cut down trees to grow crops - rain forest disappears - savannah results - planetary atmosphere loses oxygen - scenario of accelerating ecosystem collapse.

Posted by esteban hammell on 14 Apr 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
carolyn kormannABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carolyn Kormann spent several months reporting in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia as a 2008 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism. She was also the recipient of a fellowship from New York University's Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, where she completed a master's degree in journalism with a focus on Latin America and climate change. She is now a reporter for the East Hampton Press in New York. Her work has recently appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review.



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