Global Warming's Toll: Glacier in Bolivia is Gone

Published on
by
the McClatchy Newspapers

Global Warming's Toll: Glacier in Bolivia is Gone

by
John Enders

What was once the Chacaltaya glacier has now virtually disappeared (Edson Ramirez/Miami Herald)

CHACALTAYA, Bolivia - If anyone needs a reminder of the
on-the-ground impacts of global climate change, come to the Andes
mountains in Bolivia. At 17,388 feet above sea level, Chacaltaya, an
18,000 year-old glacier that delighted thousands of visitors for
decades, is gone, completely melted away as of some sad, undetermined
moment early this year.

''Chacaltaya has disappeared. It no longer exists,'' said Dr. Edson
Ramirez, head of an international team of scientists that has studied
the glacier since 1991.

Chacaltaya
(the name in Aymara means ''cold road'') began melting in the
mid-1980s. Ramirez, the assistant director of the Institute of
Hydraulics and Hydrology at the Universidad Mayor de San Andres in
nearby La Paz, documented its disappearance in March.

Approximately
35 miles from La Paz, it takes an hour and a half to drive the gravel
and rock road up tortuous switchbacks to the top of the mountain of the
same name. Visitors on a clear day -- and there are many such days --
can see the Bolivian highland plain, or altiplano, thousands of feet
below, and the nearby Huayna Potosi and Illimani mountains, part of the
Cordillera Real de los Andes.

AN EARLY DEATH

Ten years ago
Ramirez and his team of researchers concluded that the glacier would
survive until 2015. But the rate of thaw increased threefold in the
last decade, according to their studies. He believes the disappearance
of Chacaltaya is an indication of the potent effects at higher
elevations of the interaction of greenhouse gas accumulation and an
increase in average global temperatures.

And he thinks other
glaciers in the region also may be melting at a rate faster than
previously known. Illimani, the colossal 21,200-foot mountain that
looms over the city of La Paz and has served as the backdrop for
postcard-perfect pictures since film was invented, is the home to
several glaciers. They likely will melt completely within 30 years, he
said.

''It's very probable that other glaciers are disappearing
faster than we thought,'' he said. Researchers fear that Chacaltaya's
fate will be shared by other glaciers in other areas of Bolivia, and in
Peru and Ecuador as well, he said.

In May, the members of
Ramirez's research team will gather here to honor the fallen glacier
and to commemorate the end of 18 years of work.

Chacaltaya became
well-known long before it started melting. For decades it was declared,
and aggressively marketed, as ``the highest ski run in the world.''

Despite
the melting of the glacier, today a handful of hard-core alpinistas and
the occasional adventure tourist still schlep their skis and poles over
the summit a few hundred yards from where the glacier used to be. On a
lucky day, when a little snow has fallen just below the stony ridge,
they can ski for about 600 feet. Then they walk back.

THE SKI LODGE

''Very
few come to ski now,'' laments Alfredo Martinez, 73, who is one of the
founders of the Club Andino de Bolivia, based in La Paz. A lifelong
mountaineer, Martinez and a small cadre of mostly young followers keep
the ski lodge open, serving tea and soup and burning old wooden boards
from a nearby building in the fireplace for warmth. They charge
visitors 15 bolivianos, the equivalent of $2.10, for a clean-up and
maintenance fund.

In the good old days, when every tour agency
and guide book heralded Chacaltaya's unique altitudinal fame, the Club
Andino organized ski competitions and stored the equipment of dozens of
its members in the lodge. A large stone-and-wood building housed a
winch-and-cable tow operation that dragged skiers to the top of the
glacier. The descent was often heart-stopping, and if the skiers didn't
stop in time they could end up on the rocks below the snow-topped
glacier.

WATER SUPPLY

But it's not the end of alpine skiing
at Chacaltaya that worries researcher Ramirez, but the death of the
glacier and what that means for the people of the Andean cordillera. On
the western, mostly arid side of the Andes, millions of people depend
on rain, snow run-off and melting glaciers like Chacaltaya, Illimani
and Huayna Potosifor their water.

There's another problem, too.
Not only are the glaciers melting, but less rain seems to be falling in
the Andes, according to recent studies. The big rain-carrying monsoons
drifting west from the Amazon basin have declined in size and
intensity, another indication of major climactic changes, Ramirez said.

This
year, for the first time, the amount of water flowing out of reservoirs
serving nearly 2.5 million people in La Paz and its adjacent city, El
Alto, will exceed the amount of water flowing into them. This
eventually will become a major political issue for leaders in La Paz
and El Alto, he said.

To Juan Velazquez, who grew up just over
the mountain from Chacaltaya in the now-abandoned mining town Mulluni,
and later moved with his family to La Paz, the defunct glacier means
less income. As a taxi driver, he can earn the equivalent of 50 U.S.
dollars driving tourists from La Paz to the glacier and back. That's
the equivalent of a month's wages for some in this impoverished land.

BEYOND INCOME

But the loss of the glacier is the saddest part for him, not the lost wages.

As
a child, he and his playmates would use paint to darken under their
eyes, just like they saw in American movies, then journey up to
Chacaltaya to play in fresh snow atop the glacier.

''It's a tragedy,'' he said. ``It's as if someone had died.''

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