Why Glaciers are Important

For Bolivians

Glaciers play a crucial role in the lives of many Bolivians. In addition to the obvious freshwater resources they provide to local communities that have settled at the base of these ice masses – and that includes the really major urban populations of La Paz and El Alto – they also play an integral role in regulating weather systems. As glaciologist Edson Ramirez has pointed out, “we have seen that there are modifications for the quantity of rain and these modifications are because of the loss of the glaciers.” Bolivia has distinct wet and dry seasons, and glaciers play a crucial role in storing up and slowly releasing water, making it available during the dry season when there is almost no rain.

The peak of Chacaltaya looking over La Paz used to be home to the world’s highest ski station – until Chacaltaya’s glacier disappeared in just a few short years.

Bolivia’s glaciers are melting at a rate faster than ever before. While climate skeptics can argue about the causes of intensifying natural disasters, it is impossible to deny that these giant bodies of ice are disappearing in front of our eyes. It’s clear that global temperatures have quickened over the past 30 years and Andean glaciers serve as record keepers. Prior to 1939 the rate of temperature increase per decade was .11 degrees Celsius. Since 1980, that rate has increased three fold to .34 degrees. Without a concerted global mitigation effort, the survival of these glaciers and the communities they serve are in question.

In addition to local community reliance on the fresh water resources that glaciers provide, Bolivia’s national energy infrastructure is also dependent on these ice masses. Within the country itself, glacial runoff contributes to the hydroelectric power stations responsible for forty percent of Bolivia’s electricity.

Ice Melt: A Global Danger

ice melt

Ice scultpure by Nele Azevedo

Globally, the amount of fresh water locked up in poles and glaciers is staggering. Of that roughly 3 percent of the earth’s total of fresh water, around 64 percent is frozen in the poles and glaciers – and it is disappearing. There has been a lot of recent research, for example, indicating that the Arctic’s mass of sea ice, a key factor in regulating the global climate, is receding at an alarming rate – with up to three quarters lost over the last 30 years. If global warming continues unabated, small island nations like Tuvalu and the Maldives will disappear with the melting of the ice caps and heavily populated coastal regions will become more susceptible to extreme weather events like hurricanes, floods, and monsoons.