How to say goodbye to a glacier | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
Daniel Alarcón: Hello, ambulantes. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
This end of the year, we are doing something a little different, which we hope you will like. Some of you already know that we produce another podcast, called El Hilo, which airs every Friday. El Hilo is a news podcast, one subject per week, the kind of subjects that are a topic of conversations all over Latin America.
We’re very proud of that podcast, and we think that if you haven’t gotten to know it already, you’re in for a treat. It has something in common with Radio Ambulante—well, several things, but mainly, that commitment to telling a good story with characters that help us understand what Latin America is all about.
So this week and the next, we’re going to share a couple of our favorite episodes of El Hilo with you on this feed.
That’s it. I hope you enjoy it. Thank you.
Helena Carpio: The leaking drops were so constant that you couldn’t hear your own voice. They were like waterfalls. And I remembered when I was little, I’ve always loved camping, and sometimes my parents and I would count the stars. And of course, after five minutes we realized it was an impossible task. Well, the same thing happened to me with the glacier. I sat inside the cave looking at the translucent walls and the millions of bubbles inside, trying to count the leaks. And after five minutes, I realized it was a useless task. I’ll never be able to figure out how fast it’s melting. I couldn’t count them. They were too fast and there were too many at once.
Silvia Viñas: Welcome to El Hilo, a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios and Vice News. I’m Silvia Viñas.
Eliezer Budasoff: And I’m Eliezer Budasoff.
Temperatures are rising faster in higher parts of the Earth. And in the last fifty years, the Andes have lost half of their tropical glaciers. Scientists predict they could disappear before the end of the century.
Silvia: And Venezuela could become the first Andean country to lose all its glaciers.
Today: The last glacier in Venezuela and what it means for us to be the generation that will see it disappear.
Helena: Shoot, I don’t even know where to step.
Eliezer: She is Helena Carpio, mountaineer and journalist for the Venezuelan magazine Prodavinci, where she covers environmental issues. This audio is from February 2018, her last expedition to the Humboldt Peak, in the state of Mérida. Helena already knew the Humboldt; she visited there with her family for the first time in 2014.
Helena: I think I wasn’t able to appreciate it then. It seemed very interesting that there was snow in a country that also had Caribbean coasts, that had desert dunes. But, well, I don’t think I was able to understand the relevance of the ice I was treading on.
Eliezer: Three years later, her perception changed, thanks to an article she read in The Economist magazine, where it said Venezuela could become the first country to lose its glaciers.
Helena: So I present this story to my editor and head out towards Mérida.
Eliezer: She was going to climb the Humboldt again.
For Helena and two mountain guides who accompanied her, the expedition to the Humboldt Peak began in Los Nevados, a town sheltered by one of the slopes of the Venezuelan Andes, called the Sierra Nevada.
Helena: It’s a small town with white houses, white as snow. And it’s called Los Nevados because about fifty, sixty years ago, a lot of snow used to fall there and the snow accumulated on the peaks that surrounded it. So when the inhabitants of Los Nevados looked up toward the sky, they all saw snowy peaks. And people always say that, well, that nowadays what remains white in the snowy mountains are the walls of the houses, because all the glaciers and the snow that used to exist are barely there anymore.
Eliezer: The trip lasted about ten days, and they covered over twenty kilometers to reach the second highest peak in the country, which rises to 4940 meters above sea level.
Helena: It’s a mental job, you know? Because… because you go at a human pace; we know that each step is less than a meter, and you’re trying to climb something that is a thousand meters above your head. There you are, in your boots, trying to balance yourself between the precipice and the almost-vertical cliff in front of you. The rock is shiny. It really looks like marble at times; it has these pink, green and yellow internal veins, which indicate the rock is very old, and also its slippery texture tells you there was a glacier there, because that’s how the glacier erodes; as the glacier erodes it creates slides.
Eliezer: As you climb, the glacier cannot be seen from everywhere, but Helena told me there’s a specific moment, halfway up, where you can begin to see it.
Helena: And you go faster, and you get more excited, even if you are getting tired, because you know the summit is near. We started looking up and it looked like a bunch of clouds. And it’s only when the sky clears that you really understand the white stuff over there is ice. It isn’t water vapor, and it isn’t birds, or . . . It’s ice.
Eliezer: When Helena finally reached the summit and was able to get to the glacier, she noticed that something had changed compared to the last time she’d been there with her family, four years earlier.
Helena: Because I remembered it being much larger. I even climbed up on a tall rock and began to look to the horizon to see if I was missing some part of the glacier that I didn’t know, because I really saw that the tongues that used to cover and spread out to another slope weren’t there. The glacier was much smaller.
Eliezer: Helena had trained with mountain guides when she first climbed the Humboldt. She knew how to use special tools to move around on the ice, such as something she calls a “piolet”.
Helena: Which looks like an ax and is what mountaineers use to be able to move and navigate the ice safely. You anchor yourself, you throw it with all your might, as if you were going to cut a wall, and that’s what helps you get traction so you can move around on the ice. The same as crampons, which are these devices you attach to your boots and that work as if you had twenty knives stuck vertically on the soles of your shoes. That is what allows you to anchor yourself to the ice. I had to use them the first time I went up because, in addition, the hike was much longer . . . You had to cross . . . I’m certain you had to cross the glacier to reach the top of the Humboldt Peak. The glacier was so big that you had to go over the ice. That was no longer the case.
Eliezer: This time, it wasn’t necessary to use those tools to move over the ice.
Helena: Turns out the ice was so shallow that we didn’t need them.
Eliezer: Helena came across a wounded glacier, with cracks. She says that near the summit, the edges of the glacier no longer hug the rock the way they used to. There were even voids of up to a meter between the mountain and the ice.
Helena: We found a cave under the glacier, and when we went in, we climbed downwards, as if we were going down some sort of stairs in the rock, and we suddenly realized that we were under the ice mass. The acoustics there are very powerful. They sounded like waterfalls. In addition, I saw so many different shades of blue which I never imagined I would see in my life, more than in the Caribbean Sea. Just picture it.
There are these things like bubbles…
Eliezer: Helena describes the ice wall as a shop window, translucent and transparent. And inside you can see countless oxygen bubbles frozen into the ice. They are bits of atmosphere that may have been trapped there for thousands of years. Helena calls them ancestors because of the information they reveal.
Helena: So you’re looking at a giant that contains a whole lot of information and data that helps us all understand what our home, our planet, was like thousands of years ago. And they are disappearing in drops. And those drops simply flow down the basin and arrive to form lakes, and that’s it. The history of the planet disappears right there.
Eliezer: Before leaving the cave, Helena and her team did a little experiment. They pulled out an empty one-liter water bottle, held it under one of the stalactites of dripping ice, and counted the time it took to fill the bottle. One minute and thirty-eight seconds.
During her reporting, Helena went to many newspaper and magazine archives, trying to rescue the history of the glacier. She had heard rumors about a skiing competition that had supposedly taken place at Espejo Peak, one of Venezuela’s now-extinct glaciers. So Helena started looking year by year in the sports section of the newspaper, until she found photos and a review of the ski championship.
Helena: Searching and searching for files, I read a name that seemed familiar to me.
Eliezer: The name of a man who had the same last name as hers: Carpio.
Helena: And it was my grandfather’s name. It turns out that Miguel Carpio— Michel Carpio, as my father called him—was a skier and had participated, not in one, but in the two ski championships that were held in Venezuela. And not only that. The only one that was completed, which was the one in 1961, my grandfather came in second. Then I discovered my grandfather doing research on glaciers, and I really knew very little about my grandfather. My grandfather died when my father was sixteen, from a very violent cancer, and my father has a hard time talking about it. Even today, as an adult, I don’t know anything about my grandfather, and we have a very small family. So we always needed that giant; we always missed having that person in our lives. And how could I have imagined that I would find him on a glacier.
Eliezer: Helena found more than her family name in the newspaper files. A few weeks later, searching for photographs in an old magazine archive, she found a picture of her grandfather skiing.
Helena: I had only one picture of my grandfather. It was the only one I had seen, the only one I had. And suddenly I found a second photo of him, skiing on the glaciers. In a file, in a dark cellar. The glacier started out as a story about climate change and environmental change and how the planet is changing rapidly. And it ended up being a story about my family and about my father and who I am. And it changed the way I see it. The glacier became my grandfather. The grandfather I never knew, and that is also funny because I have always liked mountains a lot. And I have always really liked nature and adventure. And finding my grandfather riding on that glacier made so many things make sense.
Eliezer: What has it meant to you to see this retreating of the glacier?
Helena: Really, one of the few certainties you have when you’re up there is that few people have been there, that not many go with you. And that part also saddens me, because I feel that maybe not so many people are going to miss them. And that hurts because perhaps Venezuela will not feel a radical change when its glaciers disappear. Beyond what it means for a town to stop being a city of eternal snow. But for the rest of the continent, for the Andes, millions of people will run out of water when the glaciers disappear. And it’s not just water for bathing, for drinking—it’s the water that powered the generation of electricity and that lights up your home. It’s the water that allows you to live and allows you to be a civilization. To be human. That water will disappear when the glaciers melt. So maybe we don’t feel that impact because our land never really depended on ice, necessarily. But it leaves us wondering: Well, what are we going to do now? What is Mérida going to be if it is no longer that?
Eliezer: After the break, we’ll hear from two scientists who are documenting the retreat of the Humboldt to better understand what is happening with Venezuela’s last glacier, and what it tells us about global warming and the rest of the glaciers that still remain in the Andes. We’ll be back.
If you’re enjoying this episode and want to support the important work we do at Radio Ambulante Estudios, please consider joining our membership program Deambulantes. Any donation, no matter the amount, supports Radio Ambulante, and El Hilo, so we can continue to cover Latin America as no other media outlet does. Help us reach our goal of 1800 new members by December 31st. Do it at radioambulante.org/deambulantes
Silvia: We’re back with El Hilo. As we heard in the previous segment, Venezuela could become the first country in the world to lose all its glaciers. So, to understand the current situation and what this means for the planet and the Andean region, we spoke with them:
Luis Daniel Llambí: I am Luis Daniel Llambí. I’m an ecologist with the Institute of Environmental and Ecological Sciences at the School of Sciences of the Universidad de los Andes, here in Mérida.
Alejandra Melfo: I am Alejandra Melfo, with the Fundamental Physics Center at the School of Science of the Universidad de los Andes, and I’m a physicist, although I am participating in these ecology projects.
Silvia: When she says “projects,” Alejandra refers, in part, to one called Último Glaciar, of the Universidad de Los Andes, in Mérida. Alejandra, Daniel, and other scientists are documenting the regression of the Humboldt and the new vegetation that is growing as a result of this retreat.
Silvia: Did you get to see Mérida with a visible glacier?
Alejandra: Of course.
Luis Daniel: Yes, yes, of course.
Alejandra: I arrived in Mérida in ’83 and you could see them . . . There was a glacier on the Bolívar Peak that went as far as the Espejo Peak. I mean, it was quite large; it covered the entire north, northwest face of the Bolívar Peak. It was visible from the city. And there was another, separate one, the Garza or La Concha glacier, that I saw disappear. I remember exactly the day when I looked out and saw the glacier had split in two lines exactly in the middle, and from then on the two pieces dissolved very quickly. That was very impactful to me.
Luis Daniel: The Bolívar glacier, the north face, the one that overlooks the city, we have seen it disappear in the last three or four years, right?
Alejandra: Yes, in 2013 we were still doing the study of microorganisms in the glacier. We went to the Bolívar glacier, we would take the cable car, then we walked three hours to the glacier. It was very big and it was very impressive.
Silvia: But these glaciers weren’t something you could see only in the distance. Alejandra and Luis Daniel explained that before they arrived in Mérida, the city’s relationship with the glaciers was very close.
Alejandra: Earlier, a century ago, glaciers were ice makers. They called them that, and the people of this city would go up on the glacier to get ice and came down with the ice on their backs to the town and even to nearby towns. And in Mérida, ice cream was sold in the main market, made with glacier ice. It was very, very striking to have those mountains in such a warm country, you know?
Luis Daniel: Mérida is a legendary city in Venezuela. So, now when people come and find that there is no longer any snow, many people only realize it when they come, because I think that for Venezuelans in general, there is still no awareness that we’re running out of glaciers.
Silvia: Of the five imposing glaciers that once existed in Venezuela, popularly known as the five white eagles, only one remains: the Humboldt Peak glacier, which is a little further away than these now-extinct glaciers were.
Alejandra: And it’s located in such a way that other mountains cover their view from the city, and it doesn’t have any roads around it, or nearby towns. It’s pretty remote, like . . . It’s not far, but it is remote. You have to be a mountaineer to get there.
Silvia: Mountaineers like Helena, for example, whom we heard in the previous segment.
What was it like for you to go to a glacier for the first time?
Alejandra: Well, the first glaciers I saw were exactly, exactly those. By taking the cable car, you could see them up very close. I didn’t get to touch it; that was around ‘83, ‘85 when I first came to the city.
Luis Daniel: For me it was in 1997. We climbed the Humboldt Peak on an expedition. We were taking a course with a glaciologist and a Canadian morphologist, so when the course ended, a small group of us went, and it was also a winter climb. It was in June, when it rains a lot and therefore it snows a lot. And I was totally spellbound by being able to walk first on the belly of the Humboldt glacier, which was huge at the time. It didn’t take long—it was several soccer fields, several hectares—first crossing the belly and then climbing to the peak. And since it was snowy, we got to the top and we never knew if we were at the summit, because there was so much snow that we weren’t sure if we were on the summit. Well, for a Venezuelan from, as I’ve said, Caracas—a city that is also in the mountains, but it’s fundamentally Caribbean—well, it’s . . . it’s a unique experience to be buried in snow in the tropics, right?
Silvia: And what is it like for you to see this regression?
Alejandra: It is hard, it is hard and it is painful to think that it will no longer be there. That it will disappear forever. This is something that particularly strikes me, a lot. And as it turns out, one also has to realize that these types of events, as with sad events in life, are very special. In other words, there was a glacier for thousands of years, after there was no glacier for tens of thousands of years, and we have to live the moment when we see it disappear. So one has to understand it as something very special, as an opportunity to learn things, to do research on how that process occurs. And to teach children or the general population that climate change is there. So, it is at the same time a very sad experience, but also very . . . with many opportunities to learn; and it seems very important to me to take advantage of that.
Silvia: What would you say is the main lesson we can learn from the Humboldt glacier related to climate change?
Alejandra: I believe it is evidence of the vulnerability of this planet. The feeling that you have a geographical element such as a glacier—it looks like a mountain, it’s huge, it’s gigantic. It was always there, even our great-great-grandparents remember it, but it can disappear. So this is showing you in a very graphic way that you can do harm, that you can change the planet on a gigantic geological scale. The planet is vulnerable and you can see that.
Luis Daniel: Yes, and the other issue I think is very important is that issue of the speed, because, since the changes that human beings produce in the environment are often very slow and cumulative, and often they’re not seen in one person’s lifetime, that makes them less real to the public, and we feel less urgency to take conservation measures. But this is a case in which the changes are being seen in human time, and that, in ecology, is not very normal. Ecological changes normally occur at rates that take several generations to analyze, right? But this is one that doesn’t need multiple generations. Our generation is seeing the change.
Silvia: And it’s a swift change.
Luis Daniel: Many people who oppose the idea of climate change argue that this has always happened. But the thing is that this is ten times or hundreds of times faster than what has occurred historically.
Silvia: Glaciers in Venezuela are disappearing at a very accelerated rate. In 1910, the glacial area in the Sierra Nevada of Mérida occupied an area as large as three hundred soccer fields. By 2019, that had been reduced to the equivalent of five soccer fields. This retreat happened in a single century. And the same thing has occurred in the Andes Mountain Range, which lost half its glacial area in the last fifty years.
Silvia: What is the importance of glaciers? I mean, why should we be concerned about their decline?
Luis Daniel: Well, that . . . that depends a lot on the region, right? In general, at a global level, obviously polar glaciers, especially Antarctica, are fundamental in regulating the balance of sea level at a global scale. So its melting is a serious indicator of climate change, and that is one of the fundamental concerns. The other is that there is a substantial mass of fresh water available, especially where there are large mountains such as the Andes, the Himalayas—the fresh water that is available in the form of ice and that is slowly released as the glacier melts.
Silvia: This is the case, above all, in Bolivia, Perú, Ecuador, and Colombia, where 99% of the world’s tropical glaciers are located. Andean glaciers are fundamental to the region’s water cycle, and over 50 million people in South America receive water from the Andes.
The melting of the glaciers is causing a dramatic deterioration, mainly because they have become so small that they can no longer provide the same amount of water, so river flows have dropped very considerably. And in the dry season we depend only on rainwater.
Luis Daniel: In addition, they threaten the great systems of wetlands and high-altitude wetlands, which are the regulators, the sponges that regulate the water. Much of the water that these high-altitude wetlands depend on comes from glaciers. Wetlands are drying up, so they are being colonized not by endemic, or typical, wetland species, but by more common species from the slopes, including outside species. So really, in the high Andean zone of Perú, northern Bolivia, Argentina and Chile, very important changes are taking place with the loss of glaciers.
Silvia: In Venezuela the glaciers are smaller and their contribution in terms of water is minimal.
Luis Daniel: Then the glaciers take on more of a cultural importance. For many indigenous peoples, they are associated with deities or the cult of mountain spirits in general. And in Venezuela, for example, they are emblematic for tourism. They appear on banknotes. If we choose four emblematic destinations, one is definitely the Caribbean, the Guayana region, and the glaciers of Mérida, right? So, if they are lost, well, that obviously has a great cultural and economic impact.
Silvia: The main reason for the disappearance of glaciers is global warming. But there are two things that make it more noticeable and faster in the case of the tropical Andes. The first is the elevation:
Luis Daniel: We have very high peaks. We’re talking about the glaciers being very high in the atmosphere, at five thousand meters and more. And that means that as warm air rises with the warming atmosphere, the rate of warming is greater at higher elevations.
Silvia: So Andean glaciers are warming faster than the global average and therefore melting faster. And the second reason behind the rapid disappearance of these glaciers is their geographical location, that is, the fact that they are located in an area like the tropics.
Luis Daniel: So the combination of the tropical location and the high elevation creates much faster rates of temperature rise than the global average. To give you an idea, we’re talking about zero point five degrees per decade, approximately. If you compare this to the global average of more or less one degree in the last century, it gives you an idea of what is happening here at these altitudes, five times faster than the global average.
Silvia: Luis Daniel and Alejandra think that it may be too late to do something to stop the melting of the glaciers in the Andes, but much can still be learned from the situation we are experiencing.
Alejandra: There are steps that need to be taken, not necessarily to stop the regression, which there is probably no way to do. But there are measures that you have to take. You know that you’re going to run out of glacier, therefore, you’re going to run out of water. Start working on it. I know that many countries are doing this, and I would like to think that the Humboldt glacier, when we say ‘the last Venezuelan glacier,’ the impact of those words may be useful for something, that a wake-up call was given, that if the Humboldt is going away it should be like an alarm clock. It’s melting away . . . you may run out of glaciers. It happened, look at it, and it’s very fast.
Luis Daniel: And it is important to take advantage of the moment, because Venezuela is going to be the first Andean country and one of the first in the world to end up… being one which had glaciers and will no longer have them. So the fact that we already have a country in the Andes that runs out of glaciers should be a wake-up call, not only for Venezuela, but for the entire region.
Daniel Alarcón: We at El Hilo are Silvia Viñas, Eliezer Budasoff, Daniela Cruzat, Mariana Zúñiga, Inés Rénique, Denise Márquez, Elías González, Desirée Yépez, Paola Alean, Xochitl Fabián, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, and Carolina Guerrero. Our theme song was composed by Pauchi Sasaki. Part of the music for this episode was composed by Rémy Lozano.
El Hilo is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios and Vice News. If you liked this episode of El Hilo, you can listen to more every Friday. It’s available on all the podcast apps, or at the website elhilo.audio. On Twitter and Instagram, you’ll find us as elhilopodcast.
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I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Happy Holidays, and thanks for listening.