Andean Glaciers Are Disappearing Fast
Por Gustavo González
"Eternal ice" no longer exists in Latin America. Peru's glacier on Huascarán Mountain, one of the most famous in the Andes, has shrunk 40 percent in the past 30 years.
Glaciers around the world are disappearing more quickly than initially thought, and global warming is believed to be the culprit. The deglaciation phenomenon -- while most intense in Antarctica -- is having a major impact on the mountains of Latin America, warn scientists.
One can no longer speak of "eternal ice" in reference to mountain glaciers. This is proved by the continual reduction of the glacier-covered areas of the Southern Ice Fields in Chile and Argentina, of the Mexican volcano Popocatépetl, and of the Callejón de Huaylas, known as "the Peruvian Switzerland".
Latin America's glaciers are suffering the devastating impacts of global warming and of the meteorological phenomenon of rains and drought known as El Niño and La Niña, and of volcanic eruptions.
Glaciers hold 70 percent of the planet's freshwater, equivalent to a depth of 70 meters across the world's oceans. Antarctica stores 91 percent of this ice, but the importance of the remaining nine percent is not to be underestimated.
As water sources, glaciers are vital for herding communities and for farmers, but environmentalists report that they are also being destroyed by mining companies, which consume large quantities of water in processing ore.
Interest in Mexico's glaciers was spurred by the search for indicators of global warming, says Patricia Julio, researcher at the Geology Institute of the Autonomous National University of Mexico.
Popocatépetl, "mountain that smokes" in the indigenous Náhuatl language, rises 465 meters above sea level and is located where the states of Morelos, Puebla and Mexico meet, some 60 km north of the capital.
The process of glacier extinction there began to pick up speed in 2000, due to volcanic activity, though climate change and the impacts of human activities have long been affecting the ice fields.
"What happens next winter (December through February) could be definitive" for the glaciers' survival, Julio told Tierramérica.
Mexico's glaciers are of particular importance because they are the only ones situated within 19 degrees latitude North. In 1997, scientists began systematic observations of Popocatépetl, whose total glacial area was estimated at 0.53 square km in 2000.
The ice fields lost 1,500 square meters per year from 1982 to 1996, and its current area is just 30 percent of what was measured in the 1950s by archeologist José Luis Lorenzo.
Peru, meanwhile, with 470,000 hectares covered by what "eternal ice", possesses 70 percent of the mountain glaciers within the Earth's tropics.
In the past 20 years the ice-covered area of the Peruvian Andes has been reduced 20 percent, says activist Jorge Alvarez, with the non-governmental Board for the Defense of Natural and Cultural Heritage.
"And the process is tending to accelerate," he said in a Tierramérica interview.
"On Mount Huascarán, Peru's most famous mountain, a loss of 12.8 square km of ice has occurred, around 40 percent of what it covered 30 years ago," noted Alvarez.
"The acceleration of the deglaciation process is a catastrophic danger in the short and medium terms," says Carmen Felipe, president of the governmental Water Management Institute.
In the short term, the melting could cause overflows of reservoirs and trigger mudslides, and in the medium term, reduction in water supplies, said the Peruvian expert.
In the southern Andes, the most detailed studies are focused on the Southern Ice Fields in the Patagonian region of Chile and Argentina.
It is the largest glacial area in the Southern Hemisphere, after Antarctica, covering an area of 13,000 square km.
A report from the University of Chile's Glaciology Laboratory states that most of the ice field's 48 valleys have seen a sharp reduction in recent years.
The giant glacier lost 50 square km in surface area from 1945 to 1986, while its thickness was reduced by as much as 14 meters between 1991 and 1993.
The same deterioration suffered in western Antarctica "is occurring on a smaller scale throughout the Andean glaciers," reported award-winning researcher Claudio Teitelboim, of the Glaciology and Climate Change Laboratory at the Center for Scientific Research (CECS) of Valdivia, in southern Chile.
The director of the laboratory, Gino Casassa, warns that the deterioration of the mountain glaciers is a serious problem, as much for the climate and geographic implications as for the fact that "during droughts we rely on the water reserves provided by those glaciers."
* Gustavo González is an IPS correspondent. Abraham Lama (Peru) and Pilar Franco (Mexico) contributed to this report.