International Framework Aims to Protect and Manage Lands Recently Exposed by Glacier Retreat

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International Framework Aims to Protect and Manage Lands Recently Exposed by Glacier Retreat

BY EMILY DENNY |JUNE 2, 2022

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As global temperatures rise, glaciers from the Andes, the European Alps, the Himalayas and other mountain ranges are melting at alarming rates. While local communities are coming up with innovative solutions to adapt to these transforming ecosystems, international initiatives to support or upscale these efforts are rare. 

“We have so much data in the world about glacier retreat, but we don’t have data on what we are going to do when these glaciers are gone,” Anaïs Zimmer, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas at Austin, told GlacierHub. In a recent paper published late last year in the journal WIREs Climate Change, Zimmer and a team of scientists aim to fill this gap.

An emerging proglacial ecosystem after the retreat of the Yanamarey glacier in Cordillera Blanca, Peru. Courtesy of Anaïs Zimmer, University of Texas at Austin.

Currently, mountain glaciers are found in 44 countries. This means that almost a quarter of the world’s countries will have to manage approximately 227,000 square kilometers of exposed lands that will emerge by the end of the century in the highest emissions scenario – an area equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom. The paper indicates that this will bring a host of challenges for humans and ecological communities, including declining water quality and biodiversity, loss of cultural identity and increasing risk from natural hazards, such as glacial lake outburst floods. In response, Zimmer and fellow researchers propose an international framework that facilitates discussion and collaborative solutions that can apply to corners of the world that face similar challenges. 

The tropical Andes is one of the most impacted areas of the world by glacier retreat, warming faster than anywhere else outside of the Arctic Circle. As these glacial ecosystems warm quickly, glacier retreat poses increasing risks to communities that are reliant on mountain ecosystems for water and agriculture. “Some critical challenges include how to keep producing key agricultural products such as potatoes, quinoa and maca,” Daniel Ruiz Carrascal, a research scientist at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, told GlacierHub. Ruiz Carrascal’s research has focused on changing climatic conditions in the tropical Andes. He was not an author of this paper. Warming temperatures are increasing the risk of pests and diseases, forcing communities to move up mountain valleys seeking cooler temperatures and better access to water. 

These risks in the Andes are compounded by other significant issues, like acid rock drainage. One of the world’s largest deposits of metal sulfide-rich ores exists in the Cordillera Blanca, a mountain range in Peru. Glacier retreat exposes this rock to air and water, which acidifies the water, contaminating waterways that communities living downstream use for consumption and agriculture. In some cases, Zimmer has seen water that is so acidic it burns crops. 

The orange puddle consists of sulfide-contaminated water, a form of natural water contamination, at the Uruashraju glacier forefield in Cordillera Blanca, Peru.

The orange puddle consists of sulfide-contaminated water, a form of natural water contamination, at the Uruashraju glacier forefield in Cordillera Blanca, Peru. Courtesy of Anaïs Zimmer, University of Texas at Austin.

The best ways to adapt to these changes require the “revalorization of traditional management practices” in the Andes, Ruiz Carrascal explained. This includes promoting multiple planting and harvesting options that are currently being implemented by local farmers, like changing the timing of planting or the altitude of a given crop to seek a suitable climate. “Local communities are aware of the negative impacts of the loss of climatic suitability areas for certain products, like potato, and the boons and opportunities brought by the expansion of the distribution and altitudinal range of other products, like coffee,” he added. “But they lack access to financial opportunities and new technologies, do not have proper infrastructure at their service, and live under high poverty levels.”

During her time researching with The Mountain Institute, Zimmer noticed how these issues and local adaptations were missing in global conversations on adapting to pro-glacial landscapes. This absence inspired the framework that urges scientists, local communities and policymakers to support and fund these local adaptations, called the “High Mountain Call to Action for Landscapes and Livelihoods” or HiCALL. 

Think of the HiCALL like a spider web, Timothy Beach, a co-author of the paper, told GlacierHub. As local solutions to glacier retreat are developed in different corners of the world, a collaboration between local communities, Indigenous peoples, state organizations, international actors and the private sector can come together to create a network to best inform sustainable management of these lands after glacier retreat, he explained. 

“People get tired of the drumbeat: ‘global warming is happening and the glaciers are retreating,’” Beach, a professor at the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas at Austin, said. “Instead, they want to hear what you are going to do about it.” 

There is a lack of legal frameworks to manage emerging pro-glacial landscapes. The gap makes rural communities living nearby vulnerable to hydropower and extractive development, like gold mining. The HiCALL framework aims to tilt the balance from economic industries back to local communities, requiring bottom-up interactions between scientists, stakeholders, local and Indigenous populations, and policymakers. “The idea [of HiCALL] is to give power to these places, mixing local land management with international initiatives,” Zimmer added, emphasizing the importance of funding and escalating local adaptations to transforming mountain ecosystems. 

“Mountain environments are better managed by local communities who are characterized by a vast cultural diversity, are socially organized, and have permanently redefined their own agricultural practices for centuries.” Ruiz Carrascal added.

An emerging proglacial landscape of the Tour glacier on Mont Blanc in the French Alps.

An emerging proglacial landscape of the Tour glacier on Mont Blanc in the French Alps. Courtesy of Anaïs Zimmer, University of Texas at Austin.

Beach hopes HiCALL can start new conversations on the management of pro-glacial lands which have been missing at international conventions, like COP, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The framework’s next steps include performing a global survey with experts to understand what countries face similar issues posed by glacier retreat and how local adaptations can be upscaled. “[HiCALL] brings a rising tide of knowledge by showing just one more aspect of what global warming is doing to the world and how we can overcome it,” he concluded. These endeavors in remote mountain areas allow for the creative exploration of governance in communities around the world impacted by climate change. 


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 AdaptationAndesglacial lake outburst floodsglacierglacier retreat

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