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24 July1999

Glacial Snow Disappearing in the Andes

By Abraham Lama

LIMA, July (IPS) - The increase in global temperatures during the past 27 years has caused the loss of some 12 billion cubic metres of snow from the glaciers of the Peruvian Andes, according to experts here.

The problem of global warming, caused by greenhouse gases emitted through the burning of fossil fuels, has affected 20 zones of the Andean region and caused possibly irreversible damage to the Peruvian environment, said Ramiro Valdivia, a physicist at the Higher University of San Marcos, in Lima. At the same time the flow of water for urban and agricultural uses, has dropped considerably, he added..

The melting of the glaciers from global warming is a worldwide problem, but in the Andes mountain range, which traverses South America like a spine along the Pacific Ocean, the problem is worse than in other parts of the planet.

Benjamin Morales, president of the Andean Institute of Glaciology and Geo-ecology, explained that the glaciers were not just reserves of fresh water and molders of the landscape, but also acted as regulators of the world's climate.
''The reduction of water sources and changes in regional weather patterns increase the danger of the advance of desertification - that is to say, the advance of the dry, barren areas on the coast and mountain ranges of Peru,'' Morales said.

''Seventy percent of the glaciers of the world's tropical regions are located in the Peruvian mountains, and their fate will affect not just the inter-Andean zone and Peruvian coast, but also the great semi-tropical forests of the Amazon that extend across various countries of the continent.''

For his part, Valdivia calculated that, ''using as a reference the lowest value of irrigation water in international terms - one cent per cubic metre - deglaciation and the consequential reduction in water sources has cost Peru roughly one billion dollars.''

A few weeks ago, Valdivia travelled across the snowy zone of Ticlio, to collect measurements of the isothermic layer. The scientist had previously been to the glaciers of Arequipa, in the southern Peruvian range.
  ''In the zone of Ticlio, the 'isothermic zero,' meaning the level at which water becomes ice, is rising 10 metres a year, in such a way that the snow-capped zones are receding, in some cases even disappearing,'' he said. ''Now there are rocky outcrops and bare crevasses where there used to be snow.''

Ticlio is situated in the highest part of the Rimac River basin. The central highway and railroad that unite Lima with the Mantaro Valley soar up from that point to 4,818 metres above sea level, and this snowy pass - now at risk - is a scenic magnet for travellers.

The Blanca Mountains, in the northern range, are another tourist attraction and are the site of the highest peaks in the Peruvian Andes, among them Huascaran, whose summit lies at 6,721 metres above sea level. This area has also registered an alarming rate of deglaciation. After measuring the phenomenon in the northern ranges, a team led by environmental engineer Jorge Lescano, a professor at the Federico Villarreal University of Lima, revealed that the Blanca Mountains have lost some 2,600 square metres of ice in the last year.

''In the various glaciers of the Blanca Range, there is spotty but accelerated deterioration. In six of them, we estimated annual deterioration at 12 metres, and a reduction of more than two metres in the mass of ice that covers the peaks,'' said Lescano.

During the 1998 appearance of the weather phenomenon El Nino, rising temperatures melted the ice on the peaks surrounding the hydroelectric station of Machu Picchu, and a landslide buried the plant, whose reconstruction will take two more years and will cost 400 million dollars.

So far, in spite of the recommendations of experts, there are still no international treaties or domestic laws that address the problem of the melting glaciers. The Report on World Disasters of 1999 by the International Federation of the Red Cross, released several days ago in Geneva, warned of the dangerous effects of global warming. The world faced a decade of severe, large-scale natural disasters as a result of climatic changes, most of which are triggered by human activities, the Red Cross warned.

Global warming, according to most scientists, is the product of greenhouse gas emissions, so-called because they trap heat within the Earth's atmosphere and prevent it from discharging into outer space.

Among the most harmful gases, the report emphasises those released by the burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas), primarily used in industry and transportation - in particular, carbon monoxide.

In 1998, there were 311 natural disasters, compared to 179 the previous year, with a sum total of 126.7 million people affected and 59,261 peopled killed, according to the Red Cross report. Some 25 million people were forced to abandon their homes as a result of floods, droughts, deforestation and soil sterilisation, the organisation added.

''This situation created more refugees than the wars and armed conflicts,'' the report said.

[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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