By John Otis
Fifteen thousand feet up in the Colombian Andes, Jorge Ceballos climbs the windswept edge of Nevado Santa Isabel, one of country’s few remaining glaciers. He’s found his way back to an 18-foot-long measuring stick that was buried in the ice here a little more than two years ago. Since then, so much of the glacier has melted that all but three feet of the stick are now exposed.
“If you come back next year,” Ceballos says, “the entire thing will be exposed. Isn’t that incredible?”
Ceballos works for the government’s Hydrology and Meteorology Institute. He is the country’s top expert on glaciers, and a big part of his job is monitoring their disappearance.
In the 1800s, there were 19 glaciers in Colombia. Today, there are only six, and Ceballos says they’re losing three to five percent of their ice every year. At this rate, he says, they’ll be gone by mid-century.
Santa Isabel is one of three glaciers here in Nevados National Park – “Nevados” is Spanish for glacier – and Ceballos says it’s likely to be the next to go, due to its relatively low altitude and small size of just three square miles. The slopes of Santa Isabel are already alive with the gurgle of melt water rushing in dozens of rivulets down the mountain.
With Global Warming, Rain Replaces Snow
Ceballos says there are several reasons for what’s happening here. One culprit is dark ash from a nearby active volcano, which settles on the ice and accelerates melting. But he says the main problem is global warming. Fifty years ago, he says, the park’s glaciers began at 13,500 feet. But now, he says, due to rising temperatures it rains at that altitude, and researchers have to climb farther and farther up the mountains to find snow and ice.
Glacial retreat receives more attention in neighboring Peru, where the massive ice cap is critical for the water supply. By contrast, Colombia has plenty of water but very little ice and snow. Here, people’s attachment to glaciers is more emotional.
Park guide Juan Pablo Gomez says the glaciers provide a rare chance for Colombians to touch natural ice and play in the snow and that they come away awestruck.
“It’s like the first time you see the ocean,” Gomez says. “Many people cry. Others hug me and say: ‘Thank you so much. You’ve made my dream come true.’”
An Emotional Loss
For returning visitors to the Park, the shrinkage of the glaciers has been shocking.
Colombian oil worker Johnny Reyes remembers exploring the park’s vast network of ice caves a decade ago. But when he came back recently, guides told him they’ve melted.
Reyes says his first question when he got to the park was, “Have you still got the caves?” He says a ranger told him, “No, not the caves, not any more.
“So I got really sad that day,” Reyes says. “So I said, ‘I got my pictures.’ He was like, ‘keep your pictures with you, because that’s the best you’re gonna have.’”
Reyes is among 60,000 visitors a year to Nevados Park. But ranger Gabriel Echeverry wonders whether tourists will still come to a glacier park with no glaciers. He laughs while suggesting a rather desperate alternative.
“We could stock the park with deer so tourists would have a reason to come.”
In reality, there might not be much else that Colombia can do. It can’t stop the glaciers’ demise, since the warming temperatures are largely the responsibility of the US, China and other industrial giants. That leaves Jorge Ceballos focused on the sad task of documenting the glaciers’ disappearance.
Brief Respite from Retreat
He and a team of assistants climb Santa Isabel every other month to dig into the snow and collect samples. Colombia has just gone through 18 months of cold temperatures and extraordinary precipitation, provoked by the recent La Niña weather phenomenon. Ceballos says that thanks to La Niña, the top of Santa Isabel, at 16,000 feet, has actually accumulated five more feet of snow in that time. Even better, his samples indicate the snow is turning into longer-lasting ice.
Still, La Niña is over. Warmer weather is on the way and Ceballos suspects the build-up won’t last.
In fact, he’s so concerned about protecting what little ice remains that his exhausted team spends its last hour on the summit carefully shoveling snow back into all the test holes they’ve dug before heading back down Santa Isabel.
“Our children and grandchildren will look at photos of glaciers,” Ceballos laments, “and (they’ll) ask, ‘what happened? Why did they melt?’”
What would you call Nevados National Park … or Glacier National Park in Montana … when the glaciers are gone? Post your thoughts below.