The protection of the Pastoruri Glacier by Engineer Benjamín Morales Arnao

During the Third National Congress of Professionals in Tourism in Huaraz (click here for a review of the congress by Fatima Quiñones) by far the most interesting exposition was the one presented by Benjamín Morales Arnao about the receding icecaps of the Pastoruri glacier. The exposition included a short summary of a study that describes the alarming rate at which the icecap is thawing. As you can see from the pictures on the front page, the situation is desperate. We need to start looking at ways of slowing the rate of thaw before it is too late.

Here follows an overview of the study, which was conducted by the Board of Andean Mountains under the leadership of Mr. Benjamin Morales Arnao. To save what remains of this iconic glacier, which was once was one of the powerhouses of tourism in the Ancash region and especially the Callejon de Huaylas and Catac district, Mr. Morales proposes to drain Pastoruri´s lagoon. The study concludes that the damage will be irreversible if immediate action is not taken.

Pastoruri Glacier lies south of the Cordillera Blanca at the head of the glacier’s Pachacoto basin, a tributary of the River Santa. Pastoruri is easily reached from Huaraz by a paved road heading 45km south to Catac and deviating to the Pachacoto Gulch going towards the east on a dirt road for about 35 km.

Pastoruri in the old days
The first study of the glacier basin Pachacoto was done by the Peruvian Corporation of Santa in 1967 by making up a map from a series of aerial photographs that were taken in 1962. This map indicated that the Pastoruri Glacier was more than 1000 metres downstream from where it is today. Since the late 70s the Pastoruri glacier has been one of the most visited touristic destinations in Huaylas and Peru, popular with climbers and skiers.

In the 80s annual programs were set up with national and international ski competitions being held on the glacier, which in turn brought a mass influx of tourists, a situation that benefited the local peasant community of Catac who implemented a horse rental service to transport tourists from the car park at the foot of the glacier, as well as providing visitors with food, hot drinks and warm clothes.

Glacial retreat
During the late 80s we start to see the first signs of the effects of global climate change and temperature fluctuation. Pastoruri was suffering from increased glacier melting and by the early 2000s a beautiful cave located on the front of the Pastoruri Glacier began to fade, beginning the formation of a lake right in front of Pastoruri.

The public, private organisations, visitors, travel agencies and researchers were concerned at how fast the glacier was deteriorating and in 2010 the Glaciology and Water Resources Unit of the ANA carried out studies and investigations into how to reverse the melting process. Since then they have monitored the glacier for movement, retreat and reduced surface area. During this time they have also initiated a study that monitors the growth of the lake in front of Pastoruri.

Glacier Movement and Glacier Ablation
It may seem to the casual observer that glaciers are static; however, they are actually advancing and retreating constantly because of a combination of snowfall and ablation (melting). Glacier movement can be determined in number of ways, but the by far the most popular is that of GPS (global positioning system).

Scientists document the terminus of the glacier (the end of the glacier) over a period of time to see whether it has shrunk or grown. In 2013, the average movement of the Pastoruri Glacier was about 3.80 metres, which was higher than in 2012 where the team calculated an average of 2.70 metres of movement. Glacial ablation is the term given to the process of melting, and is measured using makers. In October 2013, 15 markers placed on the glacier were measured and showed an ablation ranging from 2.52 metres to 0.29 m with an average of 1.64 metres per year.

Surface Reduction
The surface area of this glacier was reducing at an alarming rate, a rate that seems to be increasing. In the space of a year – from October 2012 to November 2013, Pastoruri was reduced from nearly 570,000m2 to fewer than 541,000 m2 – a reduction of almost 29,000 m2 (5%) – almost double compared with two years earlier.

When investigating the deterioration of the glacier we have to look at two different factors: the receding glacier fronts that are outside the area of influence of the lagoon, and the retreat of the glacier front that is in contact with the lagoon. The average annual melt-rate of the points of Pastoruri that are not influenced by the lagoon ranges from six to nine metres per year, numbers which are in keeping with the melting rates of other monitored glaciers with fronts at 5000 metres above sea-level such as the Chaupijanca glaciers in the Cordillera and Shicra Huallanca, which show a similar, if slightly less, annual declination. However, the annual average retreat of the glacier where the front is in contact with the lagoon is increasing rapidly. In 2013 alone the Pastoruri Glacier shrank by nearly 74 metres!

From the figures gained from years of monitoring and investigating our team of scientists have determined that the increase volume of the lake is primarily due to the action exerted by the warmer water on the base of the cliff of ice. Interestingly the glacier surrounding the lagoon has formed lots of cracks, which makes it difficult and even dangerous to access Pastoruri. When the glacier moves these cracks fracture causing huge chunks of ice to fall off, thus increasing the volume of the lagoon further, creating more melt water rapidly decreasing the glacier’s surface.

Given the significant differences in the figures between the retreating fronts the team concludes that if the lake did not make contact with the glacier, Pastoruri would be retreating at a rate of less than 10 metres per year.

Why the growth of Laguna Pastoruri is dangerous
In the past there have been disasters attributed to landslides by glacial ice and rocks causing the destruction of many villages in the Cordillera Blanca. In none of these cases was there any type of control or monitoring of the glacial lakes. It is for this reason that the team started monitoring the annual rate of growth and modification of the glacier back in 2010.

From the data collected we can safely say that the increasingly rapid growth of the lagoon and the melting and retreating of the glacier front is uncontrollable under current conditions. The lake in front of Pastoruri has reached the length of 476.23 ml in just 13 years. At this rate of growth of the lake, the glacier will be cut at the lower left flank and continue splitting with the formation of numerous cracks.

The danger of the growth of the lagoon Pastoruri lies mainly in the following aspects:
1. Accelerated reduction of the main glacier surface because of growth of the lagoon and consequent reduction of water reserves.
2. Increased surface area and volume of the lagoon from falling ice chunks.
3. Danger of overflowing of the lake by the falling of large portions of ice into the glacier lagoon, producing high swells that could affect the ravine and Pachacoto Pastoruri.
4. Increased risk to tourists, by the formation of larger amount of cracks on its surface.
5. Decreased numbers of tourists because of the reduction of the glacier, and the inability to continue the annual, national and international competitions of winter sports.
6. Decreased sales opportunities that serve members of the Catac community and tourist service companies by the reduced flow of tourists.

Conclusion and recommendations to protect Pastoruri
The results of the studies conducted on Pastoruri in recent years are of great concern. The effect of global climate change is resulting in a crisis not only compromising the survival of the glacier, but also the economic livelihood of many members of the Community of Catac. And because this mountain is famous for attracting, not only those who perform in the winter sports competitions, but also the spectators, this dire situation will have a country-wide economic impact.

Historically the Cordillera Blanca has always been a place where there have been many disasters as a result of floods from glacial lakes; a situation that forced the Peruvian Government to develop a technology to prevent any such disasters through drainage and construction of security factors. The analysis of the dangers that threaten this unique glacier, due to the natural conditions of the environment, shows that unless things are put in place now to prevent further deterioration, and unless extreme measures are considered this glacier will be lost for ever, and the chances of the lagoon flooding risking many lives, increases by the day. One such solution that should at least be tabled would be the drainage of the lagoon; this is definitely a technically achievable solution, and one that could potentially halt the retreat.

To stop the rapid deterioration of the glacier, the team proposes to drain the pond in front of Pastoruri to a level where the water is kept away from the glacier front; thus decreasing its retreat to less than 10 metres per year, which in the current circumstances is a vast improvement. Also, the cracks would close, allowing the glacier to recover, meaning that not only could the annual competitions of the winter sports be reinstated, but tourists will once again be able to visit this beautiful area without risking their lives.

The drainage of the lagoon would hopefully decrease Pastoruri´s glacial retreat rates allowing them to come into line with the retreat rates of the glacier front not in contact with the lagoon. Simultaneously it permits the continuity of services provided by the Catac community and tourism agencies. However, the drainage of Lake Pastoruri requires a technical decision to be taken by specialised public and private entities including the municipality and the Commonwealth of Catac, which will be based on an Environmental Impact Study, topography of the lake and glacier, a glaciological study, bathymetry of the lake (the study of underwater depth of lake), a determination of thickness of the glacier and alternative drainage work options.

By Mr. Benjamin Morales Arnao, Executive Director of the Board of the
Andean Mountains.

December 2013

The Huaraz Telegraph would like to thank Mr. Morales and his son Benquelo for sharing this important piece of work with us and the readers.

All data sourced from Mr. Benjamin Morales Arnao.

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