Ecuador has lost 30 percent of its snowcaps in the last three decades, and if global warming continues at this rate, in 70 years they will disappear completely.
In the case of the Cotopaxi volcano, however, the receding glacier could be a blessing in disguise, scientists say.
These are the conclusions of the Project for Adaptation to the Impact of Receding Glaciers in the Tropical Andes, or PRAA, of the Andean Community.
“Climate change is causing dramatic impact to glaciers at the global level,” the PRAA said. “Temperature variations in the Andes will reduce ice coverage and alter glacial runoff, eventually negatively affecting cold and fragile ecosystems, such as the páramos [Andean moors], and their capacity to store water.”
Páramos are fragile ecosystems located above the continuous timberline but below the permanent snowline. According to information from the Páramo Information Mechanism, in the Andes, páramo ecosystems are located from the Merida mountain range in Venezuela, across the mountainous chains of Colombia and Ecuador, up to the Huancabamba depression in Peru.
According to Jorge Núñez, Ecuadorian specialist of the PRAA, the effects on this ecosystem — which acts as a sponge that absorbs rainwater and melted ice — will be irreversible on the biodiversity and water availability, especially water storage and regulation.
One of these fast-melting glaciers in Ecuador is the Antisana, altitude of 5,753 meters (18,874 feet), which in the last 50 years has lost more than a third of its original surface area. Additionally, this glacier is one of the most important water sources for Quito, Ecuador’s capital.
Nuñez said that there is one short-term benefit to the glacier melt in the case of the Cotopaxi volcano, south of Quito. The volcano has recently entered an eruptive phase and, if there is large eruption, Nuñez says, there will be less ice to form deadly lahars of ice, rock and lava that would flow down the sides of the mountain.
María Victoria Chiriboga, director of Adaptation to Climate Change of the Ministry of the Environment, explains that only 8 percent of the water that descends from the Antisana comes from the glacier; the rest comes from the páramo area.
Colombia and Ecuador have páramo environments, but these ecosystems are scarce in Bolivia and Peru, where water supply comes from rainwater and water stored in glaciers.
Peru has 70 percent of the Andean glaciers, while Bolivia has 20 percent, and Ecuador and Colombia have 4 percent each. In 2009 Bolivia lost one of its most symbolic snowcaps, the Chacaltaya, of an altitude of more than 5,400 meters (17,700 feet) and a center for international ski competitions in the 1970s. Peru, meanwhile, lost in the last 35 years 22 percent of its glaciers due to melting, according to the World Bank.
Chiriboga believes that there is no way to prevent glacier recession, but it is possible to work to mitigate the negative effects.
With international support, the PRAA has set up weather stations in some of the Ecuadorian snowcaps, including the Antisana, which has three automatic facilities at different heights that measure the wind, solar radiation, height of the snow, precipitation, the temperature, and soil water saturation, which indicates the storage capacity of the páramo.