In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Exploring Impacts of Climate Change

Going green — By Stephanie on June 1, 2010 at 5:45 am
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Consider the impacts of melting glaciers on wildlife and human communities (image from Alan Vernon on Flickr)

A new book, In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society, the potential impacts of climate change are startling, as well as surprisingly long in the works.  Author Mark Carey describes how a glacier lake outburst flood nearly 60 years ago in Peru forever changed the lives of people in the city of Huraez… and how climate change continues to result in similar threats to human communities (let alone eco-systems) worldwide.

In 1941, a lake in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range overflowed from tremendous melt.  The flood-based destruction killed more than 5000 people and wiped out 1/3 of the city.

Reviewers of Carey’s new book enthuse about his sensitive coverage of the topic:

In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers addresses a topic that has been virtually unexplored in the historiography of the Andes and will be regarded as a significant contribution to the study of the historical construction of nature and disasters. In this original and beautifully written book, Mark Carey contributes to the study of Andean environmental, political, economic, and cultural history.”-Carlos Aguirre, University of Oregon

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Canadian glacier (image from Alan Vernon on Flickr)

In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers is focused on Peruvian tragedies of which, unfortunately, there have been at least four since the city of Huarez suffered devastation in 1941.  Outburst floods from melting glaciers occurred in 1945 and 1950, and then glacier avalanches in 1962 and 1970 further decimated the region.  As noted on

Climate change is producing profound changes globally. Yet we still know little about how it affects real people in real places on a daily basis because most of our knowledge comes from scientific studies that try to estimate impacts and project future climate scenarios. This book is different, illustrating in vivid detail how people in the Andes have grappled with the effects of climate change and ensuing natural disasters for more than half a century. In Peru’s Cordillera Blanca mountain range, global climate change has generated the world’s most deadly glacial lake outburst floods and glacier avalanches, killing 25,000 people since 1941. As survivors grieved, they formed community organizations to learn about precarious glacial lakes while they sent priests to the mountains, hoping that God could calm the increasingly hostile landscape. Meanwhile, Peruvian engineers working with miniscule budgets invented innovative strategies to drain dozens of the most unstable lakes that continue forming in the twenty first century.

Humans have learned, to some extent from their mistakes as a result.  Following the Huarez disaster, the government required glacial lakes to be drained, urban construction in the flood plain was prohibited and retaining walls were built.

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Himalayn Glaciers (image from wildxplorer on Flickr)

As in Peru, other communities worldwide have hand their socioeconomic order turned upside down as a result of outburst floods or glacier avalanches resulting from climate change.  Just how many glacial lakes have been affected are finally being tracked.  As of 1952, there were 223.  Today, the number has climbed to over 400.

Once identified, lakes are assessed for their danger.  This in itself is risky and dangerous.  Accessibility to the area is difficult.  The moraines behind the lakes vary greatly in their capacity to retain increasing meltwater volumes.  Factor in the incline of the glacier and the likelihood of large falls of ice causing large waves, as well.

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Cordillera Blanca glacier in Peru (image from Team Traveller on Flickr)

The book describes not only the logistics of working to prevent future tragedies from glacial offmelt, but also the politics involved.  Just in the past 30 years, the focus has changed from minimizing hazards to maximizing usage of the melt for hydrological electricity generation and irrigation.  That could even cause a shift in attitudes from one of worry to hopeful anticipation for melting glaciers….  Still, glacier retreat can only help the region to the extent that there are glaciers to melt in the future.

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Peruvian glaciers (image from stevendamron on Flickr)

If one thing is made clear in the book its the fact that the acceleration of glacier melt is an issue not just for Peru but worldwide. Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Nepal, India, Russia, Switzerland, the US and many other countries have populations which live near or depend on water from melting mountain glaciers.

The message from Peru of which the world should take note is that the disasters from melting glaciers have an impact that is far-reaching.  Political, social, scientific and engineering.  As the world continues to warm, we’ll be faced with that reality more and more often.

If you’d like to read more or order the book, its available on

Have any personal experiences to share?  Be sure to add in the comment section below.

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