Hints of New Life in the Shadows of Venezuela's Last Glacier

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This communicative originally appeared on Atlas Obscura and is portion of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In 1986, astatine the property of 21, Alejandra Melfo moved to Mérida, Venezuela, the “city of eternal snows,” to survey physics astatine the University of the Andes. There, successful the upland city, she often looked retired toward the skyline astatine the immense Sierra Nevada de Mérida: a large, muscular, towering expanse 3 miles successful the entity and blanketed by snowfall and the wide sheets of glaciers. Having conscionable arrived from Uruguay, a state with nary upland ranges, she fell successful love.

As the years went by, Melfo saw the scenery morph. Two of the glaciers that could beryllium seen from the metropolis were rapidly receding. Large cracks emerged, splintering the crystal into smaller chunks. Entire sections of the glaciers collapsed, exposing the stone beneath. By 1990, 1 mountain, Pico La Concha, had mislaid each of its glaciers. In 2017, Pico Bolivar, Venezuela’s highest peak, followed suit. Today, lone 1 glacier remains successful Venezuela: connected the 2nd highest peak, Pico Humboldt.

“It’s an epoch that is [almost] wholly finished now,” says Melfo, a particle physicist astatine the University of the Andes, who has precocious been moving connected projects involving biology and ecology, including probe connected this past glacier.

Pico Humboldt’s glacier has survived partially due to the fact that it is sheltered by the shadiness of its ain peak—but lone barely. In 1910, the glacier covered astir 1.3 quadrate miles. The last measurement, successful 2019, suggests the glacier has shriveled to little than 0.02 quadrate miles, oregon astir the size of Mérida’s shot stadium, little than 2 percent of what it erstwhile was. If the glacier disappears, Venezuela whitethorn go the archetypal state successful the satellite to person had glaciers and past mislaid them all.

This is inevitable, experts say, arsenic nary clime involution would dilatory oregon halt it successful time. Venezuela’s tropical glaciers—like others, in places specified arsenic Colombia, Peru, Kenya, oregon Uganda—are peculiarly delicate to clime change, fixed that they are already often exposed to lukewarm temperatures. By the extremity of the decade, the past 1 volition beryllium gone. “The retreat, you can’t halt it, that’s not possible,” says Maximiliano Bezada, a quaternary geologist astatine the University of Minnesota who is not progressive successful existent probe connected the glacier.

But alternatively than despair, a squad of scientists based successful Venezuela is eyeing a uncommon opportunity. These glaciers person existed for hundreds of thousands of years, and present the peaks they erstwhile blanketed are apt to stay uncovered by imperishable snowfall and crystal for thousands more. This transition, says Melfo, provides a unsocial model into however beingness emerges successful fundamentally lifeless terrains, a process known arsenic “primary succession.”

“[We’re] witnessing precisely the infinitesimal erstwhile these things alteration from 1 presumption to the next. This is precise special,” she says. “Seldom that you tin spot things astatine the geological standard happening successful beforehand of your eyes.”

The technological enactment began with a bid of long, steep hikes. In 2019, Melfo and an interdisciplinary team, including a botanist, ecologist, lichenologist, and more, made 3 trips to Pico Humboldt. At implicit 3 miles of elevation, with plentifulness of instrumentality to carry, and without overmuch acquisition with specified conditions, it took the squad 2 to 3 days to get adjacent the basal of Pico Humboldt’s glacier.