In Venezuela, the tropical Humboldt glacier disappears

In Venezuela, the tropical Humboldt glacier disappears

Violet Field inPlanetDec 31, 2020 4 min read0 views

In 1910, the surface of the glacier was the equivalent of 300 football fields, compared to five today.

At an altitude of over 4,000 meters, mosses, lichens, and birds gradually colonize the remains of the last glacier in the Venezuelan Andes Cordillera. The snowmelt, accelerated by climate change, causes confusion but also opens up unique fields of observation for scientists.

According to data compiled by Venezuelan scientists seeking to document the effects of climate change, the Humboldt Glacier, located on the peak of the same name within the Sierra Nevada de Mérida, in western Venezuela, has lost more than 99% of its surface since 1910.

The last remaining ice at the sub-arctic region of #Humboldt Peak in Sierra Nevada # Mérida , #Venezuela , is on the verge of disappearing before long. #Glacier #GlobalWarming https://t.co/Xa1t4hIlup

- We The World Magazine (@wetheworldmagz) December 31, 2020

Sad but interesting

"For the inhabitants of Mérida, it is very sad, very difficult", underlines the physicist Alejandra Melfo, member of the project "Last glacier of Venezuela" launched by the Institute of environmental and ecological sciences of the University of the Andes (ULA ) in partnership with the National Geographic channel. But "it is extremely interesting for a scientist to have the possibility of observing how life gradually appears on the rock" exposed by the melting of the ice, adds the scientist, who took part in several field expeditions.

The Humboldt Peak Glacier (4,940 meters) - named after the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who crossed part of Venezuela and hypothesized that the climate can be changed by humans - is the last of the five main tropical glaciers in the South American country. If it were to disappear, Venezuela could be the first country in the world to see all of its glaciers disappear.

A rapid disappearance

“In 1910, at Humboldt Peak, there was the equivalent of 300 (glacier) football fields Today, there are only five”, testifies the project coordinator and specialist in environmental research, Luis Daniel Llambi, cited by National Geographic. Alejandra Melfo evokes an area of 4.5 hectares, according to measurements taken in 2019.

José Manuel Romero, 40, documentary filmmaker born in Mérida, who participated in the filming of a documentary about the project, climbed the peak glacier for the first time in 2000. “I reached the Humboldt glacier and it seemed infinite to me. You had to walk for hours on the glacier to get to the top. It was amazing, beautiful. I would never have imagined that it could disappear, at least in such a short time, ”he says.

When the ice recedes ...

But the retreat of the glacier represents a "unique opportunity to conduct studies that had not been done in the Andes, on how life colonizes the rock when the ice recedes", underlines Alejandra Melfo. During three missions in which around ten scientists participated, “mosses and lichens new to Venezuela” were found, she says, “species that had not been recorded at this altitude, including species never recorded ”.

"We have seen hummingbirds, in particular, a species (…) which pollinates plants at this altitude", underlines the scientist. "We found an association of mosses, lichens, and bacteria that form an environment where other plants can live." "The glacier dies and leaves life, a new opportunity for life," she says. Thanks to the project, “multitemporal maps” have been produced which allow us to determine where the glacier was throughout history in order to better assess its retreat.

During his lifetime, José Manuel Romero already saw the disappearance of two tropical glaciers in the Sierra Nevada de Mérida, that of the Bolivar peak and that of the Bonpland peak. The other two, El Toro and El Leon, went missing before he was born. "It's the first month of December that we go without seeing ice on Bolivar peak, not even a white spot, it's sad, not to mention the little ice that remains on Humboldt peak", laments -he. For him, the end of the Humboldt Glacier is now a “question of years”. “I don't think he'll make it through the end of the next decade. "