In the last 50 years, Bolivia has lost about half of its glaciers, and experts say the situation will get worse as climate change escalates. After generating a lake due to its melting, the Charquini glacier, in the Cordillera Real de los Andes, became a popular tourist destination and an undisputed issue within an increasingly hot planet.

By Carolina Mendez Valencia

The snowy layer that covers the mountain little by little turns into a lake of crystal clear water that reflects the blue of the sky and recreates the turquoise tones. That image that captivates the usual visitors achieves a perfect contrast with the brown of the rocks, increasingly visible among the white blanket. This is Charquini, the glacier that is part of the Cordillera Real de los Andes and is melting little by little due to the climate crisis.

Since the beginning of 2021, the mountain and the “Esmeralda” lake, which can be reached after an hour hike uphill, have attracted many Bolivians. As Bolivians could not travel elsewhere due to the Covid-19 pandemic, they arrived at the foot of this glacier, which is 5,340 meters above sea level (masl). Thus, and with the amplified impact of social networks, Charquini —three hours from the city of La Paz, Bolivia— positioned itself as the tourism focus of attention.

The tourism focus not only meant the possibility of witnessing the majestic mountainous beauty, but also represented an encounter with an ice object that drips before the visitors’ eyes. In addition, it was another factor for its meltdown.

“What happened in Charquini was something irresponsible: a completely disorganized tourism that brought out the defenselessness of glaciers in the country. The impact on the mountain was not only in the area of ​​snow but in the entire periglacial complex, including the bofedales that are the rock ecosystem”, explains Carmen Capriles, expert in climate change and activist of the group Climate Reaction.

In recent months, Charquini has received an average of 1,000 daily visits on weekends. This tourist boom implied a significant impact, according to Capriles, due to the garbage left by people and the unruly trampling of the periglacial zone. SUV vehicles even went up the mountain so as to prevent people from walking up to the lake.

Chacaltaya fate

Until the end of the 90s, Chacaltaya was one of the glaciers of the Cordillera Real closest to the city of La Paz that boasted, for several decades, the highest ski resort in the world (5,400 meters above sea level). 

The mountain has been visited by locals and foreigners since 1943, when a track was set up in the heart of the Andes. But now, all that is just a memory. More than 10 years ago, the snow in Chacaltaya disappeared completely, which showed the effects of global warming on the glaciers. 

This situation is added to what happens with other white giants of the Cordillera Real, such as Illimani or Huayna Potosí. According to data from the Bolivian Mountain Institute (IBM for its initials in Spanish), as of 1980, the country lost half of its glaciers.

Edson Ramírez, a hydraulic engineer specialized in glaciology from the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (UMSA), explains that it is not possible for Chacaltaya to revive, because it has already lost its ability to transform snow into ice. He believes that the same will happen to Charquini. 

“What we are seeing now is that, actually, the glacier is beginning to disappear, and that is why measures must be taken to avoid accelerating its death,” he warns.

Ramírez has been monitoring Charquini since 2003, when it was seen that it had already lost half of the area it had in 1940. Since then, an average loss of one meter in its thickness has been recorded each year. This allows us to forecast that, around 2050, Charquini will become another victim of an increasingly hot planet –if it does not happen before-.

“The last decade is the hottest on record since 1850 up to now. 2020 was 1.2°C above the reference period”, states Inés Camilloni, PH.D. in Atmospheric Sciences from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), who mentions as causes of the intensive use of fossil fuels, the change in land use (due to deforestation and urban growth) and the intensive agricultural and livestock activities.

Charquini

What happens when a glacier melts?

The melting of a glacier is not a local phenomenon. It is probably the clearest indicator of what happens in the planet. The rise of temperature causes the retreat of glaciers, but also heat waves, rising sea levels, droughts and floods. All that becomes a boomerang that hits ecosystems that suffer, in turn, tremendous disorders.

Ramírez —who has been studying Bolivian glaciers for more than 30 years— explains the phenomenon as a series of interrelated events that begins in the ocean, runs through the Amazon and ends in the Andes Mountains.

“Wet masses come from the Atlantic Ocean, crossing the increasingly degraded Amazon basin,” he details. All this humidity arrives and is deposited in the mountain range, leaving suspended carbon particles that accelerate the melting of the snow.

Therefore, the burning of the Amazon or Chiquitania —where at least 800,000 hectares were flattened in 2021— is not only a local misfortune, but an impact that travels thousands of kilometers and is deposited in the mountain peaks. It stains there the whiteness of the snow and prevents the glaciers from bouncing sunlight hard enough, which causes runoff. 

When a glacier melts, it stops providing the ecosystem service it was carrying out: accumulating snow and transforming it into ice to later return it in liquid form to the rivers. If the mountain loses that capacity, it means that, in each extreme event, there will be a greater impact.

“As there is no damping, the storm will be more intense and it will pull the material eroded from the rock itself, at the same time,” warns Ramírez.

One of the evidences of the melting is the formation of lakes, either at its feet or even in the middle of the mountain, which act as water dams. As the runoff is fast, a collapse can occur and cause a sudden overflow. Therefore, there may be floods, but also subsequent droughts, since natural water factories are lost.

As time goes by, in the case of the Charquini, the bofedales that are around it will suffer the consequences of the lack of water and, therefore, that ecosystem will be altered.

Can Charquini be saved?

Johan Yugar, scientific communicator, who follows the reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), reaffirms that there is categorical strictness that humans are the cause of the acceleration of global warming.

 He explains that for the damage of the glaciers not to continue, the Earth’s temperature would have to drop, although he clarifies that, as it is a cumulative phenomenon, “if tomorrow we stopped releasing carbon dioxide, we would still have 10 years at least of global warming”.

 Therefore, we must start taking measures soon, both local and global. The first local step, Ramírez proposes, is to make a glacier law in Bolivia, which takes into account the systematic monitoring of mountains and the limits of the permitted activities.

 “In the case of Charquini, it is not about prohibiting tourism definitely, but about evaluating what the activity with the least impact would be like,” Ramírez clarifies.

 In South America there are specific advances in the protection of glaciers. In 2010, Argentina approved a law that allocates budgets to register ice bodies and prohibit activities that affect them. Chile, for its part, has a project in the Chamber of Senators, where there are already discussions on what should be the tolerable limits of interventions in the hills. And in 2017 Peru created the National Institute of Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems with the purpose, among other things, of projecting a rule that protects the Andes Mountain Range, which crosses seven countries.

 In the Bolivian case, although the Constitution establishes that the State, in all its levels, must protect the mountains, there are no regulations that specify, for example, which activities can be carried out on the glaciers and which others in the surrounding areas of mountain.

 “We have seen, for instance, that ice is removed to be used in meat processing plants. It is really disturbing”, warns Capriles.

 Now, the lawyer of the Ministry of the Environment, Rodrigo Herrera, believes that the regulations are not necessary, since he considers that they will not change the current situation. “I think we should work more on education and, in fact, we are already doing it. The Constitution already contemplates [the protection of] glaciers; what has to be done is to assume the responsibility that points to the city councils first, then to the provincial administrations and finally to the central government”, he states.

 However, at present, there are just a few measures of care that are being carried out in Bolivian glaciers, in general, and in Charquini, in particular. It had to be the scene of a skier’s death, last August, for the authorities to understand the mismanagement of tourism in the place. That is why the Office of Tourism of the Government of La Paz plans to reduce daily visits from 1,000 to 30, in order to avoid damages to the glacier.

 Ramírez highlights that a specific regulation will help to put the state of the glaciers at the center of the discussion and, in the case of Charquini, will focus not only on its astonishing beauty, but also on the cry for help in the face of the unstoppable melting that it is going through.