The sword hanging over us all: Palcachoca Lake

T he fateful day was 31st December 1941. That morning, the thriving city of Huaraz was visited by an uninvited guest. Everyone knew, and in some ways, we were expecting it. However, it was a guest no one had wanted to come.

A gigantic block of ice had fallen into Palcacocha from an adjacent glacier, breaching the moraine of the lake. Almost immediately, the resulting wave caused another lake, Jiracocha, to overflow. It took only 15 minutes for a torrent of water to arrive in Huaraz. And so, death stormed through the city, claiming the lives of approximately 1,800 people, according to the figures. It didn’t stop there; a piece of us all died that day.

However, death was not finished in this small part of paradise. A pendulum started swinging, and the Sword of Damocles was strung above our heads, waiting to fall. The volume of the lake has grown more than 34 times since 1941, and the population of Huaraz is now greater and denser than before.

However, there is hope. Many people and institutions have dedicated a significant amount of time studying and reducing the risk posed by the lake’s existence. NASA (using satellites) and the University of Innsbruck in Austria are amongst those conducting major studies. Additionally, the lake is monitored constantly by the Autoridad Nacional del Agua (ANA) and other investigating parties that are interested in the subject, such as Dr. Steven Wegner who published his paper, “Nota Técnica 7: Lo que el agua se llevó”, in conjunction with the Ministry of Environment. His work contains a huge collection of data on the topic.

A couple of years ago, Dr. Wegner was asked if the lake would kill us, and he gave a very honest reply. He said that the level of the lake was supervised constantly thanks to drainage engineering works, and that the adjacent glaciers were also continuously monitored. Yet even with all these measures taken, he predicted that there would be far less warning ahead of a future incident, and that it would be far more tragic than that of 1941.

This problem is serious and requires great care. So who is responsible? The truth is, we all are, because for too long we have exploited the earth’s natural resources. Palcacocha is a glacial lake that has gotten bigger thanks to global warming. And so the real question is this; isn’t it time to give back to nature?

Huaraz has paid for the consequences of our actions, but should we allow other places to suffer the same fate? We shouldn’t let geographical differences divide us. Together, we are stronger. Think hard about what you can do because the future is in your hands. So ask yourself, how can you help?

Author: Ximena Gonzales Sánchez
Translated by Nicola Phillips

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