The majority of ice found on Earth is found at the Poles, unsurprisingly. However, the majority of non-Pole glaciers are found either in the Himalayas or in the Andes (with a few more located in the high mountains of East Africa, Mexico, New Guinea, and Iran). Researchers from the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) recently published a summary of their findings investigating the Andes glaciers, a summary which shows that over the past 30 years the Andes glaciers have retreated by 30% to 50%. The Andes glaciers appear to have reached their maximum extension between 1650 and 1730 (at least in this current era), a point of time that sits in the middle of what is known as the Little Ice Age.
Over the past 30 years, however, the glaciers have retreated, due primarily to the rapid climate change planet Earth is encountering, most likely caused by anthropogenic global warming.
The researchers believe that if the glaciers continue to retreat at their current pace, small glaciers could disappear in the next 10 to 15 years. The speed of the retreat has never been seen in the past 300 years. The researchers found that the surface area of the Andes glaciers in Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, were reduced by 30% to 50% since the end of the 1970s, and, in extreme cases, up to 80% to 100%.
Scientists from the IRD, along with colleagues from South America, North America, and Europe, studied moraines deposited along the glacier slides. A moraine is a rock deposit left behind by a glacier, and by studying their position scientists are able to gauge the former positions of the glaciers and at what time they left the deposits. Additionally, the scientists used aerial photographs and satellite imagery to reveal changes in glacial surfaces from 1950 onwards and modelled glacier responses to current fluctuations in temperature and rainfall.
Some ardent (unscientific) climate change deniers or sceptics may dismiss this as not much of a big deal and most definitely not their problem. However, while it may not be their problem, it is most definitely somebody’s problem, as the retreat and eventual death of glaciers in the Andes will cause catastrophic problems for the millions of South Americans who rely on the meltwater from summer glacier melt to survive. With glaciers gone – even if there are not as many as there once was – the amount of fresh water flowing through the rivers and into reservoirs will diminish drastically, cutting drinking water and water used for agriculture. Subsequently, studies such as this allow regional workers the opportunity to plan ahead for such problems, and investigate ways in which the problem may be stemmed, or even reverted. However, the underlying problem is – unsurprisingly – much larger than just the South American continent, and will require a worldwide effort to stem the tide of greenhouse gasses causing atmospheric warming.