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.

Like the Wicked Witch of the West, the world is melting — and fast.

The University of Zurich’s World Glacier Monitoring Service reported earlier this year, “The new data continues the global trend in accelerated ice loss over the past few decades.” The rate of ice loss is twice as fast as a decade ago.  “The main thing that we can do to stop this is reduce greenhouse gases” said Michael Zemp, a researcher at the University of Zurich’s Department of Geography.

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This is all sadly consistent with other recent research (see Another climate impact comes faster than predicted: Himalayan glaciers “decapitated” and AGU 2008: Two trillion tons of land ice lost since 2003 and links below).

And this country isn’t being spared — see “Another climate impact coming faster than predicted: Glacier National Park to go glacier-free a decade early.”

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But the story of the week, from the Miami Herald, is Chacaltaya, which means ”cold road” — and like our Glacier National Park, it is gonna need a new name [maybe “not-so-cold cul-de-sac”]:


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….

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.

What had been “the highest ski run in the world” now provides, on a snowy day, just 600 feet of trail.  But that impact is trivial compared to the real threat to many South Americans:

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.

And this is a global phenomenon.  The 2008 study, ”Mass loss on Himalayan glacier endangers water resources” (subs. req’d), which documents the melting of the Naimona’nyi Glacier in the Himalaya (Tibet), concludes ominously:

If Naimona’nyi is characteristic of other glaciers in the region, alpine glacier meltwater surpluses are likely to shrink much faster than currently predicted with substantial consequences for approximately half a billion people.

Again, we might avoid the Witch’s fate of melting entirely — if we only had a brain (see “Stabilize at 350 ppm or risk ice-free planet, warn NASA, Yale, Sheffield, Versailles, Boston et al“).  The solutions most certainly do exist.

The time to act is now.

One final note for the Miami Herald’s editors, on this awkward construction:

… there is a consensus among most scientists that human reliance on fossil fuels is the main cause of higher carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere, and that the so-called greenhouse gas effect has led to global warming and other climate changes…

Kudos for explaining to readers that global warming and climate change are driven by higher carbon dioxide levels, which in turn are driven by human reliance on fossil fuels.  I have two issues with the phrasing here.

  1. First the phrase “there is a consensus among most scientists” doesn’t really apply to the assertion that “human reliance on fossil fuels is the main cause of higher carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere.”  There just isn’t much dispute over that.  The “consensus” is that higher CO2 concentrations are driving warming and other climate changes.  [Personally, I rarely use the word “consensus” in this sense and prefer “understanding,” as in “scientists understand…”]
  2. “So-called greenhouse gas effect” is I think uncalled for.  That is, scientists and everyone else call it the greenhouse gas effect, so I’m not entirely certain why the weakening modifier must be added.

Just some small quibbles on a good story, though.