Melting Glaciers Threaten Water Supply of Andean Communities

QUITO, Ecuador

The snowcaps of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela and Colombia have been melting at an unprecedented rate, with over 30 percent having disappeared in the last 30 years, according to new research published last week.

A study published in international scientific journal The Cryospherereveals that the tropical glaciers of the five Andean countries have shrunk by an average of one-third to one-half since the 1970s. The melting of glaciers across the Andes is also accelerating, with those at lower altitudes melting away the fastest.

Climate change, specifically temperature, appears to be causing the meltdown. The researchers have ruled out a change in precipitation, which does not seem to have changed significantly across the region, as the trigger, stating that an overall temperature rise of 0.7 degrees Celsius is the more likely cause.

The Andes contain 99 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers, and life in the area has adapted to the water they provide. As a result, the melting glaciers threaten Andean communities, agriculture, hydro-electric power generation and ecosystems.

The first impact is increased flooding, already experienced in Peru. The permanent loss of the glacial ice will also impact the water supply of millions, which depends to a large extent on seasonal melting.

For example, the Antisiana glacier in Ecuador, which supplies Quito with water, has shrunk by a third in the last few decades. It is predicted that Ecuador, which has 4 percent of the Andean glaciers, will have lost them all within the next century if current trends continue.

Other landmark glaciers have already gone. The Chacaltya in Bolivia, which once was a center for international skiing competitions, melted completely in 2009.

The ecosystems affected include those above and below the snowline and also those that rely on rivers fed by the glaciers, such as the rainforests and wetlands of lower altitudes.

There appears to be little chance of stopping the melt, but monitoring via weather stations on the glaciers might help governments to plan ahead, industries to develop contingency plans and communities to cope with the impact.