Climate change is wrecking havoc with two of our planet’s icons: Ecuador’s glacier-studded Mount Chimborazo -the highest spot on our planet- and Peru’s Quelccaya, which until recently was the world’s largest tropical ice cap.
Mount Chimborazo is a 20,000-plus-foot volcano sitting on top of a bulge on the Earth. Mount Everest is a 29,000-plus-foot peak sitting lower down on that same bulge. Because Chimborazo is a bump on a bigger part of the bulge, it is 1.5 miles higher than Everest.
According to Isaac Newton, the centrifugal force of the Earth’s spin will result in a slight flattening at the poles and bulging at the equator, which would make the planet slightly oblate. Mathematicians call this an “oblate spheroid,” which means that anyone on the equator is already standing “higher,” or closer to outer space, than people who aren’t on the bulge.
An Archive of Human-Driven Climate Change
“Few peaks record the impact of human-driven climate change more vividly than Chimborazo itself,” writes Tim Appenzeller for Science. “The massive volcano, which last erupted 1500 years ago, rises just 1° south of the equator. On the peak’s eastern slopes, moisture from the Amazon Basin next door—plus temperatures that rarely drop below freezing except at the highest elevations—nurture grassland, bogs, and springy cushions of moss and dwarf alpine plants, all highly sensitive to climate change. Below the summit sprawl 17 small glaciers, bellwethers of global warming and a crucial water source for tens of thousands of people living at lower elevations.”
The Von Humbolt Legacy
In June of 1802, after a tortured attempt to reach Chimborazo’s summit, reports Appenzeller, German geographer Alexander von Humboldt “sketched a spectacular diagram that used the slopes of Chimborazo to depict a concept that had crystallized during his climb: that climate is an organizing principle of life, shaping the distinct communities of plants and animals found at different altitudes and latitudes. The diagram—Humboldt called it his Tableau Physique—has become what one recent paper described as “an iconic milestone, almost a foundation myth, in the history of ecology.”
The idea born on Chimborazo, writes Appenzeller, “that the physical environment shapes life’s grand patterns, gave scientists an intellectual framework for understanding a phenomenon Humboldt himself could not have anticipated: how human-driven climate change is transforming life.”
In his Essay on the Geography of Plants, Humboldt foreshadowed the impact of today’s global warming: “On this steep surface climbing from the ocean level to the perpetual snows, various climates follow one another and are superimposed, so to speak.”
Demise of Quelccaya
“The shrinking of the Quelccaya ice cap is a visual reminder of what is happening to our environment due to global warming,” said climate scientist Mathias Vuille . “People can see the change right in front of them.”
Quelccaya, which until recently was the world’s largest tropical ice cap, will have reached a state of irreversible retreat by the mid-2050s if warming trends continue, according to a 2018 study led by University at Albany climate scientists Vuille and Christian Yarleque. Located in the Cordillera Oriental section of the Andes mountains of Peru, the ice cap is at an average altitude of 5,470 meters and spans an area of 44 square kilometers.
Scientists have observed a shrinking of the Quelccaya ice cap, located in the Andes of Southern Peru, for decades. Though still bigger than nine thousand football fields, at an average altitude of about 18,000 feet, the ice cap’s total area has decreased by 31 percent in the last 30 years.
By analyzing future air temperature projections, Vuille and Yarleque, along with a team of climate scientists and glaciologists, estimate that Quelccaya will be losing more glacier mass due to melting, than it can make up for through snowfall, even at its highest elevation, by about the year 2055.
Once the melting reaches the glacier’s summit – its demise will be inevitable. “We divide glaciers into two parts. There is the higher part where the glacier gains its mass through snow accumulation, and then there is the melting at the bottom. The equilibrium line is the boundary between the two zones,” said Vuille, who is a professor in the University’s Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences.
“Our projections show that Quelccaya’s equilibrium line will be located above the summit from the mid-2050s onwards, leading to its eventual complete disappearance. If we continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates, we will soon be locked into an irreversible loss,” he added.
According to the team’s models, the central Andes can expect to see future temperature increases ranging from 3 to 5 degrees Celsius depending on the region, model and emission scenario, by the end of the 21st century.
This warming will not only melt away Quelccaya, but other glacierized surface areas in the region too, including in the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Ampato, where lower elevation glaciers could equally disappear.
Mountain glaciers in the tropical Andes are critical for the millions of people who rely on the melting ice for drinking water, sanitation, agriculture and electricity production. Peru generates about 54 percent of its electricity from hydropower.
“We often think about climate change as a problem that will impact future generations,” Yarleque said. “In this case, we are only looking at about 30 years down the road. People who are living in Peru right now will be impacted by the glacier changes in this region.”
The melting of glacial ice that took thousands of years to form also has a symbolic meaning, according to the researchers.
“We are not going to be able to save this ice cap without major societal changes. What we do today, matters for tomorrow,” added Yarleque.