Glaciers Are Melting: Causes, Consequences and Innovation

Glaciers Are Melting: Causes, Consequences and Innovation

Lima : Peru | Jun 08, 2011 at 4:26 PM PDT
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Himalayan Glacier

VIDEO--Himalayhan Glaciers--

Glaciers are the world’s largest reservoir of fresh water, holding approximately 75% of the world’s fresh water. Over the past century, most of the world’s mountain glaciers and the ice sheets in both Greenland and Antarctica have lost mass. But glacier melt is not limited to these areas. Glaciers are located on every continent, except Australia and they are all receding with severe consequences.

In December 2010, 193 countries met in Cancun for climate talks and developed The United Nations Cancun Adaptation Framework. They concluded climate change is real and unavoidable, and confronting it with blending climate science and technology, indigenous community’s adaptive skills, engineering and risk management is the future. Like blending families, this process takes a fair amount of cooperation, compromise and conversation. Peru is taking the warnings seriously with a proactive approach for a 20-30 year plan.

César Portocarrero is a glacial engineer in Peru, and his specialized skill is building retention dams and drainage tunnels to avert catastrophic floods from glacial lakes.

Climate change in the last sixty years has impacted high mountain glaciers in places like the Andes in Peru and The Himalayas, and many of the large glaciers melted rapidly, possibly from global warming, creating large glacier lakes. Over the years these lakes have been increasing in accumulation of water resulting in sudden discharges of large volumes of water and debris causing flooding on lowlands. This is called Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF). These outbursts are disastrous to life and property at the lower elevations that become inundated causing deaths, destruction of forest, farms and costly mountain infrastructure.

Cesar is visiting the small village of Cordillera Blanca in Peru with his friend from OnEarth magazine George Black. This region has a history of natural disasters including earthquakes, avalanches, mudslides, and floods. It is suspected that climate change is aggravating these risks as the glaciers melt.

Mr. Black writes of Cesar’s achievements, “The [Peruvian] village of Huauya lays right below the Laguna Parón, the largest such lake in the region, and the dam that holds back its waters is the crowning accomplishment of César’s career. Building it took him deep into the daily lives of the communities that were threatened; climate change stressed them further; learning to use the water and plant their crops more wisely became the stuff of survival.” In addition, “You could not find anyone who cared more about mitigating carbon emissions than Cesar Portocarrero, but neither could find anyone more richly immersed in the daily realities of adapting to climate change.”

Raising Awareness Uniquely in the Andes

Benjamin Morales, a glaciologist, has created a unique way to educate the public about glacial melting. The Pastoriri Glacier was once a popular skiing area in the Andes, but it was closed because the government felt it had become too dangerous. However, Mr. Morales has drafted a creative plan for a “climate change theme park.” He believes tourists will be attracted by what he calls a “Climate Change Route.” It’s a scenic and educational path winding past the glacier. In addition, he is suggesting a natural museum for teaching visitors about the many epochs of natural climate change from past ice ages.

Don’t be frightened this is not a re-creation of a visit to the movie Jurassic Park. All the dinosaurs are long gone, and only their footprints remain. Mr. Morales will be showing how ice ages of the past plowed finely ground rock and gravel into piles known as “moraines.” As Pasorriri Glacier has receded, dinosaur footprints dating back to a glacier free epoch warmer than today are visible. As visitors follow Morales’ “Climate Change Route” they will learn about manmade climate change.

Peru’s National Water Authority Launches Strategy to Mitigate Impact of Glacier Melt

In May of this year Peru's national water authority (ANA) announced plans to implement a program to mitigate the effects of glacial melting requiring an investment of 500 million dollars U.S., according to its director Carlos Pagador.

The country has seen glaciers in many areas reduced by 35%, with glaciers in some areas shrinking by up to 65%, Pagador told state news agency Andina.

The program provides a strategy for the next 20-30 years to make use of those water resources and mitigate risks caused by the melting. The initiative also plans to improve water infrastructure to protect cities near glacial lagoons.

“After registering the program with national public investment system SNIP, the next step will be to secure financing for the project, which has attracted the interest of multilateral organizations,” Pagador said.

International financial entities expressing interest are The World Bank, IDB, Latin American development bank CAF and Spain's international development cooperation agency, among others, the authority said in a release.

Climate Refugees

Rapidly changing climate is destabilizing global water and sea levels and with it ecosystems and living species. Temperatures are rising creating glacier melt, sea level rising, droughts, and extreme weather patterns around the world.

Climatic displaced persons include weather related disasters, environmental degradation, and changing climate conditions. This category of refugee has increased in volume over the last decade, and definitely is an area to watch in the future as glaciers recede and ice melt flooding formerly habitable regions forces people to evacuate their homelands, many who have lived and thrived there for centuries.

In 2002 a National Geographic article reported, “Dozens of mountain lakes in Nepal and Bhutan are so swollen from melting glaciers that they could burst their seams in the next five years and devastate many Himalayan villages, warns a new report from the United Nations.”

In that same year, The entombment of a Russian village under 3 million tons of ice and mud from a collapsing glacier signaled the gradual yet vast climatic changes sweeping the world's mountainous regions, scientists said in

The disaster on the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains left more than 100 people missing and at least nine dead. Researchers maintain that the avalanche is part of a subtle chain of events that has transformed once-frozen mountains and is altering the course of nearby human settlements in unexpected, and sometimes disastrous, ways.

Reports of The Dig Tsho Glacial outburst in Nepal in 1985 destroyed a hydroelectric plant, wiping out 14 bridges and drowned dozens of villagers and leaving many homeless. Primitive warning systems have been installed which is a series of horns in an attempt to save lives during a flood.

Flooding in Pakistan in recent years is causing scientists to consider the impact of climate change. In The Express Tribune last October “ Scientists are pointing fingers at climate change as one of the factors for unprecedented heavy rains and the heat wave. In a research study by PMD on last year’s rainfall, a statement by Dr Hayley Fowler of the University of Newcastle in the UK says: “The water inflow in Tarbela [Pakistan] is largely dependent on three sources; glaciers (60 per cent), snow melt (30 per cent) and rainfall (10 per cent).” The report also mentions the mean temperature of the catchment areas as the determinant factor for the level of flow from glaciers. Climatic change appears to be a more important factor of the flood this year. The PMD admits in one of its report that there is a need to conduct comprehensive study on glaciers and develop a model to determine water melt from them.”

The number of people in Pakistan affected by the flooding in 2010 exceeded 20 million according to the United Nations. Many of those could be categorized as climate refugees.

“The Hindu Kush-Himalaya-Tibetan region has the largest concentration of glaciers outside the Poles. They feed many rivers, amongst them are seven of Asia’s greatest rivers - Brahmaputra, Ganges, Huang Ho, Indus, Mekong, Salween and Yangtze. These rivers directly affect the lives of two and half billion people living in the river basins. Himalayan snow and glacial melt supply up to 50 per cent of the average flow of the major rivers in the region. For example, in the ‘shoulder seasons’, before and after precipitation from the summer monsoon, 70 per cent of the flow of the Ganges, Indus, Tarim, and Kabul rivers depend on Hindu Kush and Himalayan melt water. In Western China, glacial melt provides the principal water source in the dry season for 25 per cent of the population,” according to a report “The Melting Himalayas. Regional Challenges and Local Impacts of Climate Change on Mountain Ecosystems and Livelihoods”,ICIMOD Technical Paper, Kathmandu, June 2007.” ICIMOD is The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.

Climate change and the consequential glacier melting are having a severe impact in areas around the world. Climate summits like the most recent one in Cancun prioritized establishing an international climate monitoring system to respond to climate change challenges establishing a need for scientifically based knowledge.

The BBC reported last December, “UN talks in Cancun have reached a deal to curb climate change, including a fund to help developing countries.”

Nations endorsed compromise texts drawn up by the Mexican hosts, despite objections from Bolivia. They wanted to declare that they were not happy with an item on the agenda relating to forests and the use of market mechanisms. At the previous summit in Copenhagen small countries expressed dissatisfaction with being held to standards and market forces similar to countries that are considered major world polluters like the U.S. and China. Draft documents in Cancun stated deeper cuts in carbon emissions are needed, but did not establish a mechanism for achieving the pledges countries have made.

Countries like Peru are making incremental changes in policies establishing positive methodologies for advancing interventions to protect the indigenous populations most at risk, which can serve as a model for other countries at risk. Global, multinational declarations such as those at Cancun can make a difference together with individual countries’ initiative to implement long term plans anticipating the results of climate change that incorporate climate science and technology to prevent and mitigate the destruction and loss of life associated with the residual damaging effects of glacial melting.


On Earth: A Survival Guide for the Planet

Andina News Agency in Peru

Climate Institute

National Geographic

CommonDreams. Org

United Nations


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Himalayan Glaciers are melting faster than any on earth.
Dava Castillo is based in Clearlake, California, United States of America, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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