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Another one bites the dust, literally: Bolivia’s 18,000 year-old Chacaltaya glacier is gone

By Joe Romm  

"Another one bites the dust, literally: Bolivia’s 18,000 year-old Chacaltaya glacier is gone"

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Chacaltaya has disappeared. It no longer exists,” said Dr. Edson Ramirez, head of an international team of scientists that has studied the glacier since 1991.

Like the Wicked Witch of the West, the world is melting — and fast.

The University of Zurich’s World Glacier Monitoring Service reported earlier this year, “The new data continues the global trend in accelerated ice loss over the past few decades.” The rate of ice loss is twice as fast as a decade ago.  “The main thing that we can do to stop this is reduce greenhouse gases” said Michael Zemp, a researcher at the University of Zurich’s Department of Geography.

This is all sadly consistent with other recent research (see Another climate impact comes faster than predicted: Himalayan glaciers “decapitated” and AGU 2008: Two trillion tons of land ice lost since 2003 and links below).

And this country isn’t being spared — see “Another climate impact coming faster than predicted: Glacier National Park to go glacier-free a decade early.”

But the story of the week, from the Miami Herald, is Chacaltaya, which means ”cold road” — and like our Glacier National Park, it is gonna need a new name [maybe "not-so-cold cul-de-sac"]:

If anyone needs a reminder of the on-the-ground impacts of global climate change, come to the Andes mountains in Bolivia. At 17,388 feet above sea level, Chacaltaya, an 18,000 year-old glacier that delighted thousands of visitors for decades, is gone, completely melted away as of some sad, undetermined moment early this year….

Ten years ago Ramirez and his team of researchers concluded that the glacier would survive until 2015. But the rate of thaw increased threefold in the last decade, according to their studies. He believes the disappearance of Chacaltaya is an indication of the potent effects at higher elevations of the interaction of greenhouse gas accumulation and an increase in average global temperatures.

And he thinks other glaciers in the region also may be melting at a rate faster than previously known. Illimani, the colossal 21,200-foot mountain that looms over the city of La Paz and has served as the backdrop for postcard-perfect pictures since film was invented, is the home to several glaciers. They likely will melt completely within 30 years, he said.

What had been “the highest ski run in the world” now provides, on a snowy day, just 600 feet of trail.  But that impact is trivial compared to the real threat to many South Americans:

On the western, mostly arid side of the Andes, millions of people depend on rain, snow run-off and melting glaciers like Chacaltaya, Illimani and Huayna Potosifor their water.

There’s another problem, too. Not only are the glaciers melting, but less rain seems to be falling in the Andes, according to recent studies. The big rain-carrying monsoons drifting west from the Amazon basin have declined in size and intensity, another indication of major climactic changes, Ramirez said.

This year, for the first time, the amount of water flowing out of reservoirs serving nearly 2.5 million people in La Paz and its adjacent city, El Alto, will exceed the amount of water flowing into them.

And this is a global phenomenon.  The 2008 study, “Mass loss on Himalayan glacier endangers water resources” (subs. req’d), which documents the melting of the Naimona’nyi Glacier in the Himalaya (Tibet), concludes ominously:

If Naimona’nyi is characteristic of other glaciers in the region, alpine glacier meltwater surpluses are likely to shrink much faster than currently predicted with substantial consequences for approximately half a billion people.

Again, we might avoid the Witch’s fate of melting entirely “” if we only had a brain (see “Stabilize at 350 ppm or risk ice-free planet, warn NASA, Yale, Sheffield, Versailles, Boston et al“).  The solutions most certainly do exist.

The time to act is now.

One final note for the Miami Herald‘s editors, on this awkward construction:

… there is a consensus among most scientists that human reliance on fossil fuels is the main cause of higher carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere, and that the so-called greenhouse gas effect has led to global warming and other climate changes…

Kudos for explaining to readers that global warming and climate change are driven by higher carbon dioxide levels, which in turn are driven by human reliance on fossil fuels.  I have two issues with the phrasing here.

  1. First the phrase “there is a consensus among most scientists” doesn’t really apply to the assertion that “human reliance on fossil fuels is the main cause of higher carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere.”  There just isn’t much dispute over that.  The “consensus” is that higher CO2 concentrations are driving warming and other climate changes.  [Personally, I rarely use the word "consensus" in this sense and prefer "understanding," as in "scientists understand..."]
  2. “So-called greenhouse gas effect” is I think uncalled for.  That is, scientists and everyone else call it the greenhouse gas effect, so I’m not entirely certain why the weakening modifier must be added.

Just some small quibbles on a good story, though.

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11 Responses to Another one bites the dust, literally: Bolivia’s 18,000 year-old Chacaltaya glacier is gone

  1. paulm says:

    Climate change displacement has begun – but hardly anyone has noticed

    The first evacuation of an entire community due to manmade global warming is happening on the Carteret Islands
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2009/may/07/monbiot-climate-change-evacuation


    Journalists – they’re never around when you want one. Two weeks ago a momentous event occurred: the beginning of the world’s first evacuation of an entire people as a result of manmade global warming. It has been marked so far by one blog post for the Ecologist and an article in the Solomon Times*. Where is everyone?

  2. paulm says:

    “Ten years ago Ramirez and his team of researchers concluded that the glacier would survive until 2015. But the rate of thaw increased threefold in the last decade, according to their studies.

    And he thinks other glaciers in the region also may be melting at a rate faster than previously known.
    .

    That’s called tipping action. All accelerated predicted time scales we have seen over the last 2yrs or so indicate that the system tipping point has tipped.

    Just like when you pour a cup from a large 1/4 full jug of cool aid, it’s always very difficult get it right, we keep underestimating the rate of change.

    We’re heading for a new steady state. What will it be 4C, 6C ??? It very likely going to be more than 2C. Of course there’s going to be some slushing about before it settles.

  3. Gail says:

    paulm, I would hazard a guess that the unpredictable consequences of such rapid warming will make for quite a bit of violent slushing about before climate reachs a new steady state. We (the human race) may not be around to see it.

  4. Dramatic images. Really shows a tipping point

    Gosh, jeekers will the Waxman-Markey deal that cuts 14% by 2020 have any effect?

  5. Steve Bloom says:

    Ecostew beat me to it while I was looking for more detail, but here’s what I have:

    Joe, apparently there was a conference at UCSD last week that ramped the Tibetan-region melt predictions way up from anything I’d heard before (article):

    As climate change takes hold, even the mighty Himalayas and Hindu Kush mountain ranges are now losing their snow and ice.

    These are the world’s greatest repositories of snow and ice outside of the polar regions, and yet they may melt away in just 20 to 30 years, leaving more than a billion people desperately short of water, experts concluded in San Diego this week.

    “There’s been a super-rapid decline in the glaciers of the region,” said Charles Kennel, senior strategist at the University of California San Diego Sustainability Solutions Institute and former director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

    Yikes.

    (Note that the reference to the “Himalayas and Hindu Kush” is a bit unclear, since the latter is often considered a sub-range of the former, but if taken to be its own range is separated from the Himalayas proper by two other [sub-]ranges, the Karakoram and Hindu Raj. Even taking the meaning as the more expansive one limits the referenced area to the southern and western approaches to the plateau, although these ranges are clearly the most important in terms of watershed.)

    Also:

    The final, and perhaps most worrying factor for all of Asia is a documented shift in the annual monsoon season. “Experts here said the monsoon is declining in intensity and has become more variable,” said Kennel. The wettest part of India received no rain last year but a desert that had not seen rain in 50 years suddenly became wet. Overall, however there has been a decline in precipitation in the last 20 years, he said. And that also means less snow in the mountains.

    This change in monsoon behavior has made it into the literature, and frankly I’m mystified as to why the governments of the subcontinent haven’t already gone into a blind panic about it. Possibly it’s because the future projections don’t seem that bad, but still.

    The UCSD page on the conference didn’t have much to add, unfortunately, but those are pretty strong words coming from someone like Kennel.

    An unrelated article quotes China’s chief meteorologist to similar effect, but without the timeline. He’s also “paraphrased” as considering the loss of the new railroad to be the worst that could happen (as if), but that’s the Chinese government for you.

  6. mauri pelto says:

    Himalayan glaciers are melting significantly and this has an impact on current and proposed hydropower plants. However, take a look at the quote “Data from the International Commission on Snow and Ice in Kathmandu, Nepal reveal that the Himalayan glaciers are shrinking faster than anywhere else and could totally disappear by 2035.” Again look for yourself at the glaciers in google earth. Many are still quite large, they are losing volume and areal extent but not at a rate that will get rid of more than a few by 2035. Neither, Kennel who or the ICSI in Nepal have a grip on reality here. just like in GNP the extraordinary glacier recession is being exaggerated. Take a look at Gangotri Glacier which has retreated 1 km in last 35 years but still has an area of 280 km2, will it be gone in 26 years. No.

  7. Franklin Graham says:

    One need only look at the barren, lifeless face of Mars to see what may be in store for the Blue Planet. Yes, only some scientists actually speculate that Mars ever had life on it. The point is, without water as the base of life, in glaciers, lakes, oceans, and suspended in the atmosphere, any planet will quickly become a dried out sphere with little or no atmosphere at all. Who would want such a thing for this blue planet, except an idiot?

  8. Mike D says:

    Er, the water isn’t going to disappear, it’s just going to be redistributed. It has to go somewhere. Still a catastrophic scenario and likely the trigger for huge population displacement and mass extinction, but not the end of the world. Atmospheric carbon has been over 2000ppm before, and the planet was very different but it didn’t turn into Mars. Let’s keep our wits about us, shall we?

  9. Chris Winter says:

    Someone has taken some trouble to try and prove that the melting of Chacaltaya is not due to AGW. Unfortunately, he leaves many of the details of his method unspecified. I doubt this will surprise anyone here.
    .
    If anyone’s curious, this is the URL:

    http://www.made-in-southamerica.org/2009/03/reconciling-melting-glaciers-and.html

    The bottom line for me is that this effort, while apparently sincere, is not convincing. I think I’ll post a comment there.

  10. FredT34 says:

    Yes, I found these figures from Mrs Andersen (a nice economist) some time ago, and gave it a quick look.

    I downloaded the temperature sheets from La Paz and checked for high temperatures – not only mean temps as she did. It seems she missed the point that the number of high temps days increased these last years… and ice and snow usually melt when temps are high. The number of cold days won’t change anything – but an increasing number of hot days do impact glaciers.

    I didn’t send my remarks to her – I read the rest of her blog and found it would be a waste of time, she doesn’t seem to be open minded on this subject…