23 C
Brunei
Sunday, July 3, 2022
23 C
Brunei
Sunday, July 3, 2022
More
    - Advertisement -
    - Advertisement -

    Intrepid scientists witness final days of Venezuelan glacier

    Christina Larson & Federica Narancio

    MERIDA, Venezuela (AP) — Blackouts shut off the refrigerators where the scientists keep their lab samples. Gas shortages mean they sometimes have to work from home. They even reuse sheets of paper to record field data because fresh supplies are so scarce.

    As their country falls apart, a hardy team of scientists in Venezuela is determined to transcend the political and economic turmoil to record what happens as the country’s last glacier vanishes.

    Temperatures are warming faster at the Earth’s higher elevations than in lowlands, and scientists predict that the glacier — an ice sheet in the Andes Mountains — could be gone within two decades.

    “If we left and came back in 20 years, we would have missed it,” said mountain ecologist Luis Daniel Llambí at the University of the Andes in Mérida.

    Scientists said Venezuela will be the first country in South America to lose all its glaciers.

    Throughout history, glaciers have waxed and waned numerous times. But the rapid pace of glacial retreat over the past century and a half, accelerated by human activities and the burning of fossil fuels, creates a new urgency — and opportunity — for scientists to understand how freshly exposed rock forms new soil and eventually new ecosystems.

    While most of the planet’s ice is stored in the polar regions, there are also glaciers in some mountainous regions of the tropics — primarily in South America.

    “Practically all of the high-mountain tropical glaciers are in the Andes. There’s still a little bit on Mount Kilimanjaro,” said tropical ecologist Robert Hofstede in Ecuador who advises international agencies such as the World Bank and United Nations (UN).

    Monitoring Venezuela’s Humboldt glacier depends on continuous visits, Llambí notes. And even in the best of circumstances, it’s no easy trek from the small mountain town of Mérida to the ice sheet perched within Venezuela’s Sierra Nevada National Park at nearly 5,000 metres above sea level.

    When Llambí and three other scientists made the journey this spring to scout out mountain terrain for a new research project, they first rode a cable car, then walked a full day to the base camp, pitching their tents in drizzling rain.

    Scientists gather at their camp late afternoon at the ‘El Suero’ lagoon, during the first day of their mission to the Humboldt glacier, in Merida, Venezuela
    Scientist Johanna Bracho shows Eloy Torres a plant sample during a mission to study the Andean ecosystem known as the paramos. PHOTO: AP

    Each day, they then had to climb an additional three hours to reach the glacier, at times donning helmets and holding tight to ropes to manoeuvre up steep boulders. Some of the scientists had waterproofed their worn-out old boots using melted candle wax.

    Mountain fieldwork always is physically gruelling, but the deepening crisis in Venezuela since the death of former president Hugo Chavez in 2013 has transformed even simple tasks into immense hurdles.

    “Things that you normally take for granted for research — internet, gas, electricity — all become scarce and unpredictable,” Llambí said.

    Perhaps the hardest toll has been watching many of their colleagues and students leave, joining the more than four million people who have fled Venezuela’s political upheaval in recent years.

    “Every week, someone asks me why I haven’t left,” said Alejandra Melfo, a team member who is a physicist at the University of the Andes.

    Not now, she tells anyone who asks.

    “Climate change is real and has to be documented,” she said. “We have to be there.”

    The Institute of Environmental and Ecological Sciences at the University of the Andes was founded 50 years ago, in 1969, and the scientists there see themselves as custodians of long-term data monitoring how temperatures and plant life are changing in the region, including in the Andean ecosystem known as the paramos — a mist-covered mountain grassland that lies between the top of the tree line and the bottom of the glacier.

    While most tundras have sparse vegetation, the paramos is famous for striking plants called frailejones that can be taller than humans and resemble a cross between a cactus and a palm tree. These mountain grasslands also store and release water that sustains the cities and croplands further downslope.

    It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Andean glaciers in maintaining regional water cycles.

    “More than 50 million people in South America rely on water provision from the Andes,” said Francisco Cuesta, a tropical ecologist at the University of the Americas in Quito, Ecuador, who marvels at the dogged work the team is doing under such punishing conditions.

    - Advertisement -
    spot_img

    Latest article

    - Advertisement -
    spot_img