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As glaciers melt, tourism dries up in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca

by Max Nathanson and Griffin Bohm
Wednesday, 17 January 2018 11:44 GMT

Mountaineering guide Roger Sánchez pauses during a trek through the Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru, July 7, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Griffin Bohm

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As Andean glaciers recede, local economies are changing in Peru's mountains

HUARAZ, Peru, Jan 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Mountain guide Roger Sánchez has spent 13 years guiding climbers through the glacier-strewn highlands of Peru’s Andean Cordillera Blanca.

But lately he’s found another client: mining companies looking for new digging spots as Peru’s high mountain glaciers melt.

Sanchez doesn’t mind the switch. “The mining companies pay better. I want my daughter to get a good education,” he explains.

But Peru’s fast-melting glaciers are bringing many other unwelcome changes for residents of Peru’s tourist-dependent Ancash region, north of Lima.

Lake Palcacocha, which sits above Huaraz, the region’s capital, has grown 34 times larger than it was in 1970 as glacial meltwater pours down from the mountains, said Courtney Cecale, a University of California, Los Angeles, PhD student in anthropology, who is studying climate impacts in the Cordillera Blanca.

“The wrong earthquake or avalanche could send an enormous tidal wave into the valley below, directly threatening 110,000 lives,” she said.

That threat is at the heart of a pioneering climate change lawsuit, in which Huaraz farmer and mountain guide Saul Luciano Lliuya is suing Germany utility RWE. The suit charges that RWE’s coal-fired power plants are an important contributor to climate change, and are raising risks to Luciano and other residents of Huaraz.

The lawsuit, which a German court has agreed to hear evidence in last year, seeks $20,000 toward a $4 million local government effort to cut flooding risks from the lake.

Meltwater from fast-disappearing glaciers also is eating into newly exposed rock in the Cordillera Blanca mountains, turning the water rushing downstream acidic – sometimes as much as lemon juice, making it undrinkable, said John All, a climate researcher and director of the Mountain Environments Research Institute at Western Washington University

“You find cows and other livestock dead in the pasture from just drinking the water they always have,” said All, who also heads the American Climber Science Program, which conducts conservation-focused research in remote and mountain environments.

In nine years of research in the area, he says he has seen more dead cattle and donkeys in areas suffering acid water problems than in other valleys – and even his own team feels ill working in those areas and drinking the local water.

Eduardo Figueroa, manager of mountaineering hotel "Edward's Inn" in Huaraz, Peru, at his front desk, July 16, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Max Nathanson


Unusually heavy rains last year, linked to an El Niño phenomenon, have made life difficult in many areas of Peru, washing away roads and stranding families. But the bigger worry is that glacial melt, which normally supplies much of coastal Peru’s water, is beginning to diminish, creating new problems.

Largely due to their location in the tropics Andean glaciers are receding faster than those in the Arctic, and are among the fastest disappearing in the world.

The rapid melting has made them increasingly treacherous for mountaineers, eating into Huaraz’s long-established tourist industry. More unpredictable weather also is hitting other forms of tourism, local people say.

“Aside from the receding glaciers, which are visible to the eye, tourism has been affected by changing precipitation and humidity patterns as well as a general uncertainty regarding the climate,” noted Miguel Martínez, a mountaineering guide with 15 years of experience based in Huaraz.

He said El Niño rains in 2017 led to it being the worst year for mountaineering guides in his 35-year lifetime.

With fewer climbers looking for certified Andean mountain guides, many guides – who undergo a rigorous three-year training programme – have been forced to increase their prices to survive, said Eduardo Figueroa, manager of The Edward’s Inn, a climber hotel in Huaraz. That has in turn led some visitors to hire cheaper but uncertified guides – a potential safety risk, he said.

Glacial melt and fast changing weather patterns also have led some elite climbers who once came to the Andes to instead head to Europe or Asia instead, he said.

General tourism to the region – including trekking – also is seeing a decline. Shifting rainfall and temperatures mean once dry summer months are no longer reliably good for a visit.

“The dry season is no longer dry,” All said. “The easier peaks are becoming too difficult to climb for most people, which has caused a spike in trekking” – something that brings in far less money for local people, he said.

A view of Huascarán, a mountain that towers over the Cordillera Blanca in Peru, July 3, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Max Nathanson

What is flourishing, as glaciers retreat and tourism dries up, is mining. “The mines show up and build bridges and roads and infrastructure and the communities love it,” All said.

But mines may also be contributing to the ongoing melting of glaciers, as wind-carried dust from their operations – as well as other “black carbon” from open fires, fossil fuel exhaust and dust storms as far away as China – drifts for long distances and lands on the ice and snow, darkening its surface and attracting more sunlight, the researcher said.

Mining officials in the region, contacted for comment, said higher temperatures and declining snowfall in the Cordillera Blanca are the drivers behind the glacial melt and that mine dust is not a contributor to the problem.

Regardless of the contributors, the glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca are expected to lose 90 percent of their ice in the next few decades, All said.

That suggests that “in another 20 years or so, there won’t be any mountain climbing left in the Cordillera Blanca,” as easier-to-climb snow and ice give way to less stable bare rock, he said.

(Reporting by Max Nathanson and Griffin Bohm; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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