Cracks in Peru’s tallest mountain are caused by climate change, say researchers

A research team spent five days ascending the dizzying heights of Peru’s tallest mountain on a scientific expedition to record geological and biological changes on the peak. What they found are worrying signs of the impact of climate change on Huascaran, and highlights the urgency with which an action plan is needed to save the glacier.

The team consisted of eight specialists from the National Research Institute of Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (known as “INAIGEM”), which is affiliated with the Ministry of Environment. They began their climb on the 6th August from the town of Musho, near Yungay, Ancash, and took five days to reach the southern summit of the Huascaran peak in the Cordillera Blanca, 6,756 metres above sea level. It took them another two days to climb back down.

Engineer and INAIGEM expert in hydrology and glaciers, Óscar Vilca Gómez, says that as soon as they reached Huascaran’s summit, two large crevasses immediately caught their eye. Normally such crevasses are found in the lower part of the mountain and the peak has the highest concentration of snow. Vilca said the existence of crevasses on the peak was very worrying, as it may be indicative of strange behaviour at the bottom of the mountain. “And that’s a risk, because it’s like a cake; if the base crumbles, everything falls down,” he said.

Fellow team member and meteorologist Ricardo Durán Mamani explained that if a crevasse deepens to become a crack, an earthquake could then set off a huge landslide, severely affecting the Musho community in the Callejón de Huaylas. Like Vilca and Durán, the director of glacial research Ricardo Villanueva says the appearance of these crevasses is likely due to tremors in the area, as well as a lack of snowfall owing to global warming. He urges that more research must be carried out in Huascaran to keep an eye on these crevasses.

The team also witnessed another side effect of less snow on the peak. On their ascent, they saw vegetation, insects and bird nests between 3,000 and 5,000 metres, much higher than life is normally found on Huascaran. It is thought that the retreating glacier is forcing animals further up the mountain. Vilca noted that birds were building their nests in precarious areas of snow in order to be closer to food, and he urged biologists and botanists to carry out more research on the movement of animals and vegetation.

Other signs that the glacier is retreating were the high level of carbon pollution (caused by soot coming from forest fires and vehicles) and the amount of waste, such as plastic bottles, that intensifies the sun rays melting the snow. Indeed, between 1962 and 2016, the white area of Huascaran’s glacier shrunk by 18.7km2, a decrease of 29% of its total mass.

Director Villanueva stated that “the evidence was clear in November 2016, when despite a drought in Cordillera Blanca, the lakes were at full capacity without any precipitation.” He also said that a factor could also be warm air coming from the coast due to the El Niño phenomenon.

Next year the INAIGEM team plans to return to summit to carry out more investigations and to record any change during the year. One thing is already clear; steps must be taken to prevent the potential ravages of climate change in the Corillera Blanca.

Source: La República
Translated by Nicola Phillips
Photo: INAIGEM

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