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Rapid decline in glacier coverage of the Cordillera Blanca contaminating surrounding waters, Peru


70% of the world's tropical glaciers are based in the Peruvian Andes and are responsible for providing local communities with drinking water and the water supplies for agriculture, energy production and tourism.

According to new research, glacier coverage of the Cordillera Blanca, a mountain range in the Ancash region of Peru and a part of the larger Andes range, decreased by over 25% since 1970, twice the rate of the global average. Though water quantity is an apparent and impending issue for the region, the overall quality of the water may be of greater concern.

This rapid decline in ice coverage resulted in an increased concentration of heavy metals in the surrounding waters as they are being exposed and washed downstream by the process. 

Climbers on the Alpamayo mountain, Peru. Credit: RedWolf

A team of scientists from the University of Maine (UMaine) currently monitor the use of regions' grasslands and wetlands responsible for immobilizing heavy metals present in the valley's hydrological system. An important part of their research is focused on understanding how climate changes influence land use, water availability, and quality.

The work is regarded as highly important for the residents in the Cordillera Blanca, as it will inform stakeholders about the climate history of the region and provide important information to guide decisions about current and future water management strategies.

"I feel that our project was developed in a fully collaborative way with The Mountain Institute (TMI), which makes the project even more exciting, knowing that we are providing information and resources to an area of particular interest not only to TMI but also to the local communities and the Huascaran National Park," said Kathryn Warner, a trained limnologist and economist.

Declining water quality in the region could be resulting from a lack of wetland plants, capable of absorbing heavy metals in the environment, the scientists hypothesize. The Huascaran National Park, which comprises most of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, aims to restore the wetlands of the region.

One strategy for improving water quality in the area could be to remove grazing animals. However, this would also have implications for the livelihood of pastoralists, residing in the valley for millennia.

"We may be able to shed light on the ecological resilience of this system and how it may influence the social system of local communities and decisions by the national park," said Dulcinea Groff, the project's paleoecologist.

Groff uses the information from the last 10 000 years to measure and understand climatic variability and how animals and plants vary in their composition across the region.

The composition of plant species is directly related to water availability and has a significant role in soil and hydrological characteristics of landscapes.

Groff is processing samples from a lake sediment core, compiling previous studies of climate change and paleo-records from the region, and planning another trip to collect pollen from modern day plants as a reference for the pollen found in the lake sediment.

"My area of expertise provides baseline information for those looking to restore the environment, with the potential to provide information that may allow restoration ecologists to set realistic goals, conserve funding and understand the environment by looking back further in time," she said.

Jessica Sheick, the project's glaciologist, is using satellite imagery to monitor changes in the glacier's size. Observed trends will be utilized to infer glacial mass balance to compare with local temperature and precipitation records.

“I wanted to be a part of the (IGERT) program because I wanted to be able to work with researchers across disciplines and really understand how my research is important in the broader context of human-natural systems. I have learned a lot about effectively communicating my research and working in interdisciplinary groups," said Scheick.

Kathryn Warner is responsible for assessing the value of the area grasslands using TMI and Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina (UNALM) data. She is using cost-benefit analysis to interpret the effects of grazing on grasslands in the Quilcayhuanca Valley and the subsequent effects on water quality in the region. Using ecological and economic analysis, she aims to provide potential management and adaptation strategies that allow pastoralists to continue their way of living while improving water quality.

Calculating values of environmental goods and the resources and/or time people are willing to sacrifice to implement preventative and adaptive strategies is important to effectively create, modify and apply adaptation measures, Warner explained.

"It is important to first understand the climate history of the region and potential impacts of future climate changes on individuals before generating adaptation and management strategies."

Featured image credit: The University of Maine

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