A changing landscape

The natural world is in a constant state of change. Tectonic plates move, mountains erode, rivers forge new paths, coral reefs die, glaciers grow and recede. The forces which underpin these changes are far greater than anything man (or woman) can create, however they also take place over thousands, even millions of years. Observing such dramatic changes in our natural landscapes within one or two generations is one of the most devastating affects of human induced climate change.

Peru is a tropical country meaning that the temperatures are relatively stable year-round. Much like the top of Australia their seasons are more wet vs dry, than winter vs summer.

The 2018 wet season was longer than usual, resulting in a significantly greater snow load on the peaks. Several local guides I talked to mentioned it was one of the wettest seasons in ten years. As a result, routes which had not been ‘in condition’ for some time suddenly looked great and the crowds gathered.

Yet I still witnessed some amazing things which reminded me of the impact our societies are having on these delicate environments.

One on occasion I ventured to the South Face of a seldom visited peak called Mururaju. The face has a single route up it done first in the late 90’s around the same time of year that I was there; mid-August. Given the conditions that year and additional snow falls during the season, I expected the route to be good condition. It was. However, I noticed that the difference between the face I was looking at and the photo from the 90’s was huge! There was significantly more rock exposed where previously there had been either snow or ice and the glacier had retreated significantly.

 The South Face of Mururaju had significantly less snow and ice on the face than in 1999 and the glacier had retreated significantly.

The South Face of Mururaju had significantly less snow and ice on the face than in 1999 and the glacier had retreated significantly.

Such dramatic change in only twenty years was quite shocking. Particularly as most of the glacial retreat occurs through loss of thickness rather than length.

This was a common theme during my time in the Andes. In fact, I found out that most of the 722 glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca had retreated by more than 33% over the forty years since the park was established. Some up to 50%1.

This is devastating news not only for tourists and climbers like myself who flock from around the world to see these awe inspiring places, but for the local people of Peru and Bolivia. Glacial retreat will impact their livelihoods through tourism and agriculture which combine to make up almost 20% of the nation’s GDP, increased risk of flash flooding and an emerging power supply issue.

The surrounding wetlands directly beneath the glaciers act as massive sponges, soaking up water during the wet season to sustain life throughout the dry. As the glaciers retreat, the volume of water reaching these wetlands alters, impacting the number of livestock (mainly cattle and sheep) which can be sustained.

Eventually when the glaciers are gone, water, vegetation and the livestock which depend on them may no longer be able to survive during the dry season, devastating local communities.

Another risk to local communities is the risk of flash flooding. Lakes tend to form at the terminus of a glacier. As the glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca melt new lakes form and existing ones grow. These lakes can overflow due to heavy rainfall, landslides, significant glacial calving or seismic events.

Such a disaster occurred in 1970 above the town of Yungay causing more than 100,000 deaths; the deadliest in world history. As the glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca continue to retreat at an unprecedented rate, the risk of a similar disaster occurring needs to be monitored carefully.

Another emerging risk for Peru associated with glacial retreat is electricity supply. Hydroelectric power comprises 44% of the country’s installed capacity, however those plants provide 62% of all the electricity generated with fossil fuels used only for peak periods.2

Glacial melt water provides much of the water for these plants. As the glaciers retreat, governments will need to plan for and construct new infrastructure to ensure continued electricity supply to this developing nation.

 The North Face of Ranralpalca is a route which has not been in condition for many years due to retreated snow and ice. As the glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca retreat it will impact local agriculture, electricity generation and increase the risk of local flash flooding.

The North Face of Ranralpalca is a route which has not been in condition for many years due to retreated snow and ice. As the glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca retreat it will impact local agriculture, electricity generation and increase the risk of local flash flooding.

Closer to home one of Australia’s greatest natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef is under threat. Last year UNESCO considered labelling the reef under ‘in danger’ status after consecutive coral bleaching events. However, if the forecasts under a new report commissioned by the Climate Council are accurate, this may be unavoidable with potential repeat coral bleaching events likely to occur every two years by 2034.

The Cordillera Blanca and the Great Barrier Reef don’t share much in common. Perhaps the exception is that both may no longer exist within a generation or two. The name Cordillera Blanca (meaning white range) could seem inappropriate for mountains without permanent snow, while the Great Barrier Reef could possess no life at all. An incredibly sad thought.

As I mentioned at the start, our natural world is in a constant state of change yet remains to maintain a balance. Over the last century however, human induced climate change has tipped the scales too far and mother nature can no longer keep up. The rate of change which we are observing in places such as the Cordillera Blanca and in our own backyard is unprecedented and we all have an obligation to reduce the impact we are having. Not just so we can continue to enjoy their beauty, but so local communities can continue to thrive.

Implore your governments to do more, encourage your workplace to be conscious of their impact and manage your own. Walk, ride your bike or catch public transport. Eliminate single use plastics and increase the portion of plant-based items in your diet.   

To keep up to date with the latest reports on Climate Change issues please visit the Climate Council website.

Sources:

1 Parque Nacional Huascarán, 40 years, SERNANP (National Service of Natural Protected Areas Peru)

2 Peru Ministry of Energy and Mines