Tropical glacier loss: Real and fake solutions

Lykke Andersen

By: Lykke E. Andersen*

Bernard Francou, a famous glaciologist from the IRD in France, today made a very interesting presentation in La Paz about the loss of tropical glaciers around the World. It was only one of many interesting presentations made at the Climate Change Conference that is taking place these days, but it was so interesting indeed, that it inspired me to write my second blog in one day.

Francou documented the decrease in tropical glacier mass starting roughly in 1976 for the glaciers in the Andes and the Rocky Mountains and about a decade later for most other tropical glaciers in the World. Although tropical glaciers contain only a tiny part of all the ice on the planet, their melting currently contributes to about 26% of global sea level rise.

The main reason for the rapid melting of the Andean and Rocky Mountain glaciers during the last 30 years is that the naturally occurring Pacific Decadal Oscillation entered its warm phase in 1976 and that reinforced the warming from human greenhouse gas emissions, implying that annual glacier melt now greatly exceeds annual ice accumulation. He noted that tropical glaciers are not in balance in the current climate, so even if we reduce global carbon emissions to zero from tomorrow, our glaciers would still continue to melt.

When asked by the audience what the solution to the problem of tropical glacier melt might be, Francou answered that there are both real and fake solutions. An example of a fake solution is to paint glaciers white, an activity which, amazingly, has actually been implemented in Peru with financing from the World Bank. But the solution was very short lived, as the paint deteriorated and caused a lot of contamination. The real solution, according to Francou, is to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to stabilize the climate.

But by his own statement a few minutes earlier, stabilizing the climate would not be enough, as the current climate is already too hot to maintain tropical glaciers. Thus, we would not only have to reduce carbon emissions to zero, but actually start absorbing massive amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere to cool the planet. Apart from this being clearly unrealistic, it is not clear to me that it would be desirable even for the people depending on tropical glaciers.

If we reduced CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere sufficiently to reduce global temperatures so much that tropical glaciers started to gain mass again, then we would run into a different set of problems that would probably be even worse than the glaciers melting in the first place. First, if glaciers gain mass, local water users will have even less water available than if there were no glaciers, since part of annual rainfall would be used for glacier build-up. Second, with lower temperatures, the risk of frost would further increase, and frost is already the main cause of crop loss, at least in the Bolivian highlands. Third, with lower CO2 concentrations, crop growth would be compromised by lack of vital CO2, thus further reducing yields.

Basically, relying on glacier melt is an unsustainable strategy. We have been blessed in the Andes for the last three decades with above-normal water availability due to glacier melt, but that was never sustainable, and not even the most ambitious global climate change agreement will ever make it so.

The only real solution, as far as I can see, is not to depend on glacier melt. That is, we have to adapt to the new situation without melting glaciers. That will require investments in alternative water infrastructure, probably based on groundwater extraction. That is more expensive, but clearly not impossible. Very few people in the World have melting glaciers conveniently located nearby, and most of them have found decent water solutions.

So, even after a long day of climate change talks, I stand by the conclusions reached in my blog this morning. While we have to get CO2 emissions under control; that by itself will not be enough. Much more focus has to be put on helping poor people around the World adapt to climate change and climate variability. That means reducing poverty in general; increasing mobility so that people can move away from impossible places; using technology to become much more efficient in just about everything, but especially in the areas of agriculture and energy; and escape the excessive consumerist culture promoted by advertising, and instead start enjoying the deeper and more lasting pleasures in life, which coincidentally have very low carbon footprints.



Dr. Lykke E. Andersen is the Director of the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at the Institute of Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), La Paz, Bolivia.




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