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No Rain in the Amazon
How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet
By Nikolas Kozloff
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 Nikolas Kozloff
All rights reserved.
THE GLOBAL NORTH FAILS TO ACT
You don't need to tell poor campesino farmers in Peru about climate change—for years they've been living it. From melting glaciers to glacial flood bursts to impromptu frosts and hail, the weather has bewildered the Peruvian people and they don't know what's coming next. Above all they wonder what's wrong with the Global North. In particular, Peruvians are going to be looking to the developed world to provide more leadership at United Nations climate talks held in Copenhagen, Denmark. Given that the Global North has been polluting since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect richer countries to cut their emissions and provide funding to poorer countries in order to ameliorate the ravages of climate change. In particular, poor countries want affluent nations to commit to cutting their carbon emissions by 25–40 percent of 1990 levels by 2020. Poor countries say they're willing to shift to low-carbon growth, but only if they receive sophisticated technology and funding to make the transition. The United States, which failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol climate agreement, now says it wants to be part of a new agreement at Copenhagen. However, Washington says it's unrealistic to commit to a 25 percent target in the next decade.
That leaves poorer countries defenseless. As the world grows more and more concerned about climate change and its possible effects, experts are paying particular attention to glaciers, which provide a critical water supply to millions in poor nations. The atmosphere's temperature is rising fastest at high altitudes, and from Alaska to Montana's Glacier National Park to Mount Kilimanjaro in East Africa, glaciers are in retreat. Much of the world's fresh water is in glaciers atop mountains. The glaciers act as gigantic storehouses: In wet or cold seasons, they grow with snow; in dry and hot seasons, the edges slowly melt, gently feeding streams and rivers. More practically, they are a vital part of the planet's system for collecting, storing, and delivering the fresh water that billions of people depend on for washing, drinking, and agriculture. Farms are dependent on glacier meltwater; huge cities have developed on the belief that mountains will always give them drinking water; and hydroelectric dams rely on the water flow to generate power.
In Asia and Latin America, hundreds of millions of people use runoff from glaciers for irrigating crops, washing, and drinking water. In the Andes, so-called "tropical glaciers" spread out over 965 square miles and form an imposing landscape. Twenty percent of the region's tropical glaciers are in Bolivia, while 8 percent lie in Ecuador and Colombia. Scientists are particularly concerned about the rate of ice loss atop these tropical glaciers. According to experts, ice loss is actually accelerating which represents a significant problem as with rapid loss the ice cannot replenish itself.
Although a few glaciers in southern Patagonia are increasing in size, almost all located near the tropics are undergoing rapid retreat. Particularly hard hit is Colombia, where some glaciers are now less than 20 percent of the mass recorded in 1850. In 1983, the five most important glaciers in El Cocuy National Park were expected to last for another 300 years at least. But according to measurements taken in 2005, these glaciers could vanish within twenty-five years. Meanwhile, the ice sheet on the Ecuadorean volcano of Cotopaxi and its glacier has retreated by 30 percent since 1976. Overall, Ecuador could lose half of its most important glaciers within twenty years. In Venezuela's provincial state of Mérida, only a small number of glaciers remain. In Bolivia, the Chacaltaya glacier is expected to completely melt within fifteen years under present conditions. In Chile, the O'Higgins glacier has shrunk by nine miles in one hundred years, and in neighboring Argentina the Upsala glacier is losing fourteen meters a year.
Peru contains a full 71 percent of South America's tropical glaciers, and to the dismay of many local inhabitants ice peaks are now turning brown. Quelccaya, the world's largest tropical ice cap, is retreating at about 200 feet a year, up from 20 feet in the 1960s. Over the past few decades Peru has lost 22 percent of its glacier surface area. That spells trouble for the Andean nation, which relies on glaciers for much of its water supply. According to the authorities, the country has lost seven billion cubic meters of water as a result of glacier melt. That's the same amount of water consumed by Lima, a city of more than eight million people, over the course of ten years. In the early 1980s, when you traveled between the towns of Huaraz and Chavín you could see impressive glaciers. Passing by the Chanicocha Lagoon, onlookers would marvel at an enormous peak covered in snow year round. Now, however, the snowy area has been reduced by 90 percent.
In an era of global warming, certain Peruvian glaciers have fared particularly poorly. Take, for example, the case of the Broggi glacier. Old black-and-white photos of Broggi from the 1930s show the glacier full of ice. By 2005, however, the glacier had entirely disappeared. Within the Andes' so-called White Mountain Range, 145 small glaciers disappeared between 1970 and 2003. The Black Mountain Range, located near the White range, surpasses 5,000 meters in altitude. These mountains have lost all their glaciers. One of Peru's most celebrated glaciers, Pastoruri, has also been melting at an accelerated rate. In the mid-1970s one could hike up the glacier. By the early 1980s, however, observers noted that Pastoruri had less snow and the peak's well-known ice caverns were disappearing. Ten years later hikers could not find their treasured caves anymore. In early 2007 the last cavern on Pastoruri collapsed under an unusually strong Andean sun. Tourist postcards showing the great caverns of Pastoruri have become obsolete.
Scientists are also concerned about another glacier, Quelccaya. Before it melts, scientists are determined to unlock its climate secrets. Researchers have long argued that ice is a precious time capsule that can reveal crucial climate swings that occurred over the course of history. For example, fluctuations in various isotopes, or atomic forms, of oxygen chronicle shifts between warm and cold periods. At the same time, fluctuations in nitrate levels indicate how plants responded to the expansion and contraction of ice. Ice contains air bubbles from the ancient atmosphere and ash layers from volcanic eruptions long ago. It also has layers of windblown dust that reveal key information about broad shifts in precipitation; dust rises during dry periods and falls during wet epochs. What's more, ice records shifts in rainfall in the form of thicker or thinner annual layers.
After they extracted ice cores from Quelccaya, scientists were able to ascertain an intriguing 1,500-year-long climate record. By analyzing the cores, researchers were able to piece together the droughts and floods that unhinged pre-Incan civilizations. Scientists saw dramatic swings from wet to dry that coincided with variations in sea-surface temperatures typical of the El Niño weather phenomenon. In addition they discerned more long term shifts, from rainy periods to droughts that lasted decades and even centuries. Archaeologists studied weather patterns that eerily paralleled the rise and fall of a great pre-Incan civilization called Tiwanaku that flourished in the area of Lake Titicaca more than a thousand years ago.
Sifting through the ice cores, researchers saw that they appeared to reveal a wavelike sweep of ice growth proceeding south to north across the Equator. The pattern bore a marked correspondence to a 21,500-year astronomical cycle known as the precessional cycle. Like a child's top, the Earth wobbles as it spins which changes the time of year in which the Northern and Southern Hemispheres make their closest approach to the sun. That in turn affects rainfall patterns. According to experts, the precessional pattern is still at work but its influence has become harder to detect. "To me this is what makes our world today seem so different from the past," says glacier expert Lonnie Thompson. "If nature alone were in charge, then glaciers should be growing in the lower latitudes of one hemisphere and retreating in the lower latitudes of another. But that's not what's happening."
As Thompson sees it, the fact that glaciers are vanishing all across the planet constitutes a clear sign that the greenhouse effect is damaging the natural system. By drilling ice cores through to bedrock, extracting samples, and periodically monitoring the slow but accelerating retreat of Peruvian glaciers, he has amassed vital evidence of climate change: As the ice retreats, ancient plant beds have been newly uncovered. Carbon dating indicates that most of these plant beds have been buried for at least 5,000 years. The current retreat of the ice exceeds any other retreat in at least the last fifty centuries, researchers claim. By analyzing these ice cores, scientists have concluded that temperatures throughout the tropics are increasing.
Thirty years ago, the peak of Quelccaya was a dazzling expanse of white. Some 18,700 feet high, the huge glacier in Peru extended over 22 miles. The dramatic western face of Quelccaya looked remarkably like a 180-foot-high wedding cake. Along the face of the glacier, scientists noted layers of ice alternating with dust. If the cliff face ever melted, researchers believed, the sharply delineated layers would collapse into homogenized slush. In just thirty-three years, however, Quelccaya has shrunk 30 percent. When discussing disappearing peaks, Thompson frequently draws an analogy between the proverbial "canary in a coal mine" and glaciers. Like the canary, he says, glaciers are warning humankind of the buildup of dangerous gases. There is one important difference, however: "In the past," he says, "when the canaries stopped singing and died, the miners knew to get out of the mine. Our problem is we live in the mine."
If glaciers disappear this could hit Peru's tourist and mountain climbing industry particularly hard. In Huaraz the proprietor of my humble hotel expressed grave concern about glacier melt. However, he had not met with tourism officials in the government nor was there a long-term economic plan afoot to help Huaraz's tourist industry confront the potential challenges ahead. Huascarán, located east of the town of Yungay, is Peru's most famous mountain. It is the highest peak in the country and a favorite among mountain climbers and tourists alike. Situated within the White Mountain Range, it has deep ravines watered by numerous torrents, glacial lakes, and a variety of vegetation, which makes it "a site of spectacular beauty." But Huascarán is faring even worse than Quelccaya: The peak has lost about 40 percent of its ice area over the past thirty years.
The White Mountains possess the last remaining dwarf high-altitude clouded forests and Huascarán is home to such species as the spectacled bear and the Andean condor. For millennia, indigenous cultures have flourished around Huascarán, and dozens of archaeological sites are known throughout the area. According to legend, Huascarán and another mountain in the White Mountains Range, Huandoy, came into existence as a result of divine intervention. The Indians believe that there were once two empires that were bitter enemies and for years there was constant war. The kings of both empires had children: One king had a son named Huascar and the other king had a daughter named Huandy. Just like some kind of ancient Andean Romeo and Juliet, the two youngsters fell in love. But the couple was trapped: If they continued to love one another, they knew their parents would discover their illicit relationship and that it could lead to yet another bloody war. Keen to avoid conflict, the two lovers were careful to meet only at night when they would be safe from disapproving eyes. Tragically, word reached both kings of the affair and the couple was discovered. Forced to flee, the lovers were later caught and punished harshly. Chained face to face to a mountainside, unable to embrace each other, the couple cried endlessly—so much that their tears turned into rivers and froze to ice. Moved by the lovers' suffering, God showed mercy upon the couple and changed them into mountains: Huascar was turned into Huascarán and Huandy into Huandoy. To this day, it is said, Huascar and Huandy continue to cry and their tears flow into each other's lakes.
The disappearance of Huascarán and other snowy peaks would prove difficult for many Peruvian Indians: For them, the mountain is a symbol of cultural pride. Ever since the days of the Inca Empire thousands of people have made an annual pilgrimage known as Qoyllur Rit'i to the mountain of Ausangate in the month of June. A peak located in southeastern Peru, Ausangate is sacred to the Quechua-speaking Indians. During the pilgrimage and festival, dancers stand all night on top of the 15,000-foot glacier. Traditionally, members of the procession stand at the glacier so as to have the privilege of taking a chunk of ice from the mountain. The pilgrims take back blocks of ice to bless their lands and crops. They also give thanks to the apus, sacred mountains and the most powerful earthly deities, for their generosity. Later the community melts the ice and drinks the water, which is considered sacred.
In 2007, however, it was impossible to carry out the ritual since there was so little snow on Ausangate. For local Quechua-speaking Indians the changing physical landscape is culturally disorienting. Indigenous people refer to prominent features in the landscape as tirakuna or "the ones who watch over us." Within indigenous cosmology nature plays a central role, and though Indians are Catholicized, the Virgin Mary is identified with Pacha Mama or Mother Earth. When indigenous peoples drink alcohol they always make sure to pour a drop on the ground for her first. In 2007, out of respect to the apus the ukukos (members of the Qoyllur Rit'i procession) decided not to take any ice from Ausangate. Alarmed, some farmers interpret the disappearance of their glaciers as foreshadowing the end of the world.
* * *
In addition to Huascarán, climate change stands to unleash environmental chaos upon one of Peru's most beloved archaeological sites: Machu Picchu. Standing at 2,430 meters above sea level in the middle of a tropical mountain forest, Machu Picchu lies in an extraordinarily beautiful setting. Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui, a fifteenth century Inca ruler, constructed Machu Picchu with the help of his descendants. At its zenith, the site was probably the most astounding urban creation of the Inca Empire. The city's giant walls, terraces, and ramps appear as if they were cut naturally within continuous rock escarpments. Machu Picchu has been declared a World Heritage Site and one of the Modern Wonders of the World. Since its discovery in the early twentieth century, Machu Picchu has been inundated with tourists. In 1992 Machu Picchu received 9,000 tourists, but by 2006 the figure had jumped to 4,000 on a single day.
Though many tourists might not be aware, Machu Picchu is at ecological risk. In 1998, the nearby Salkantay glacier collapsed and a huge landslide buried a hydroelectric power station. Water gushed through the valley below Machu Picchu and flooded the area. Fleeing inhabitants, with nowhere else to go, climbed up on the slope of a mountain while others perished. Rescuers from Machu Picchu, using antiquated Russian helicopters, helped to gather up the traumatized local Quechua Indians and campesino peasants. The survivors had lost everything including their homes and possessions. Below the rescue site the whole area had become flooded, creating a gigantic lake. Relief workers helped to evacuate the survivors to Aguas Calientes, a nearby town. The hydroelectric power station was shuttered for a year and reconstruction cost the government $400 million.
While small landslides were routine in the area, what happened in 1998 was different. What witnesses saw in and around Machu Picchu is known in Peru as an aluvión, a glacial flood burst, and people have grown to fear such events. Experts point out that 1998 marked the appearance of the weather phenomenon known as El Niño, and that rising temperatures helped to melt the ice on the peaks surrounding the hydroelectric station. In addition to melting glaciers, local residents in Cusco and the Urubamba Valley are concerned about changing rain patterns. In the short term, Peru could experience cycles of extreme rain that fall within a short period of time. This in turn could create more landslides and flooding, similar to what occurred in Machu Picchu. Paradoxically, however, the country might also experience long periods of prolonged drought.
Excerpted from No Rain in the Amazon by Nikolas Kozloff. Copyright © 2010 Nikolas Kozloff. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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