Peru’s glaciers shrink by 40% in 40 years due to climate change

Study shows extent of damage climate change is already doing to Peru’s glaciers, with implications for its economy and society, as Peru gears up to host crucial UN climate talks.

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The Cordillera Blanca, the Andean mountain range home to many of Peru’s glaciers. Photo courtesy of Richard Droker via Flickr.

Climate change has caused Peru’s glaciers to shrink by an average of 40% over the last 40 years, a government report has said. The study, carried out by the National Water Authority (ANA by its initials in Spanish), revealed the extent to which Peru’s glaciers are already endangered by rising temperatures almost certainly linked to manmade climate change.

The report was carried out ahead of Peru’s hosting of the next round of global climate talks – COP 20 – in Lima this December, with Peru keen to play a leading role in helping countries negotiate a draft deal on global greenhouse gas emissions ahead of next year’s crucial COP 21 summit in Paris.

Included in the report is an inventory of all the glaciers falling in Peruvian territory, with a grand total of 2,679 individual glaciers covering a combined 1,300km². However, 87% of these glaciers have a surface area of less than one square kilometre, meaning that they are considered particularly at risk of disappearing completely in the near future.

Of the remaining glaciers that are larger than 1km², none are situated at more than 4,000 metres above sea level. The survey also noted that more than 1,000 new high-altitude lakes have been formed in recent years as a result of the glacial melt.

The Cordillera Blanca, like most of the rest of the Andes, is feeling the heat of climate change with many of its glaciers shrinking or even disappearing. Photo courtesy of Efe.

It is hoped that the report will help Peruvian authorities to gain a better understanding of its glaciers and how best to protect them in the face of rising temperatures and climate change. “Management of water resources becomes more efficient the more we know what the reality of our water situation is”, said the head of the ANA Juan Carlos Sevilla, who added that specialist information on the matter was essential “to be able to take the most effective measures to the benefit of the population”.

Glaciers are essential to many aspects of Peruvian life, especially as far as water resources are concerned. Meltwater is crucial to highland Andean communities during dry seasons, for both human consumption and for agriculture.

The glaciers also play an important role in Peru’s energy system, as the country gets more than two thirds of its electricity from hydroelectric power, with many of the rivers that flow west to the Pacific coast originating in the snow-capped Andean mountain range.

The fate of Peru’s glaciers also has global significance. The country is home to around 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers, making glacial retreat in the Andean country an important bellwether for how climate change and rising global temperatures are having an impact on environments and ecosystems around the world.

Peruvian authorities have recently taken steps to raise awareness of the severity of this issue, with the opening of a ‘Climate Change Trail’ around one of the country’s most stunning and well-known glaciers – Pastoruri – and its surroundings in Huascarán National Park.

The aim of the trail is to turn around diminishing tourist numbers to the area as its glaciers began to shrink and disappear, by installing an educational trail and museum so that visitors could learn and experience first-hand how global warming is affecting the world’s glaciers.

Huascarán National Park, home of the pioneering Climate Change Trail where visitors can see first-hand how climate change is affecting glaciers. Photo courtesy of absolut-peru.com

Coinciding with the release of the ANA report, the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner and chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra K. Pachauri, gave a keynote speech in Lima about the threat that climate change poses to Peru and how it can work to counter this threat.

Pachauri highlighted the fact that Peru is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, and that glacial retreat such as that revealed by the new report is one sign, among many others, of the threats that the country faces. He also reiterated that the more vulnerable members of Peruvian society would likely be those most affected by the impacts of climate change, and cited IPCC figures that suggest that glacial retreat could cost the country up to US$1.5bn a year through lost productivity, especially through impacts on hydroelectric power generation.

However, Pachauri also presented a vision of Peru adopting a sustainable development model that would help it face up to threats posed by climate change while contributing to global efforts against climate change at the same time. According to Pachauri, Peru “has the opportunity to embark on an industrialisation scheme that can still be sustainable”, and that in order to do this it “needs to bear in mind the technological and institutional options that would really represent a way to attend to the present generation’s needs without compromising those of the future”.

Rajendra K. Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2007, addresses a talk in Lima ahead of the Peruvian capital’s hosting of the COP 20 climate change summit in December. Photo courtesy of Andina.
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