By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Colombia’s glaciers are melting so fast that the country has lost more than half of its glacier mass over the past three decades due to rising temperatures linked to climate change, according to a report by the Colombian Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM).
"In the last 30 years, we have lost 57 percent of our glacier mass due to climate change... If current trends continue it is estimated that in about 30 years there will be no snow-capped mountains in the country," Ricardo Lozano, the head of IDEAM, said in a statement.
The report, which looked at glacier retreat in Colombia since 1850, said the Andean nation is losing between three and five percent of its glaciers each year.
In Colombia’s Andean mountains, the retreat of its glaciers is already affecting local water supplies, the report said.
Glaciers act as water banks, storing fresh water and releasing it when they melt. Snow and ice melt from glaciers feed rivers, providing people with a key source of water for drinking and farming. Some farming communities in Colombia wholly depend on water originating from glaciers.
El Cocuy national park in northeast Colombia has the highest concentration of glacial snow-capped peaks in the country, forming part of the Andes mountain range. In this area alone, some 3,500 farmers living lower down the mountains depend on water from El Cocuy's glaciers for their livelihoods, IDEAM estimates.
Flows of water from El Cocuy's glaciers are regulated by alpine grassland savannahs, known as "paramos."
Paramos act like giant sponges, absorbing, storing and gradually releasing water from glaciers. But as glaciers shrink, melt water flows are becoming thinner and more erratic, meaning that the paramos receive less moisture and risk drying out.
According to IDEAM, approximately 25 percent of the Colombian population depends on water resources from these paramos.
The importance of tackling glacier retreat was underscored in an editorial over the weekend in Colombia’s leading daily newspaper, El Tiempo.
“The melting of snow-capped peaks is today irreversible. It’s a reality that means it is obligatory to adopt a serious strategy to reduce the damage as much as possible,” said the editorial.
Glaciers are also shrinking fast elsewhere in South America, notably Chile, Argentina, Peru and Bolivia, the IDEAM report said.
Across Andean capitals, such as in Ecuador’s Quito and Bolivia’s La Paz, glacier recession has become a critical issue as millions of people rely on the shrinking glaciers surrounding these cities to provide them with drinking water.