''Chacaltaya has disappeared. It no longer exists.''
–Edson Ramirez, head of a team of international scientists that has studied the glacier since 1991
At some unknown moment early this year, Bolivia's 18,000-year-old Chacaltaya Glacier – once the highest ski resort on Earth – officially vanished.
Its meltdown began in the mid-1980s. In 1998, Dr. Ramirez predicted its complete disappearance in 2015. His models were too optimistic. The rate of thaw tripled in the last 10 years due to accelerated climate change and quickened the death of the Andean glacier.
Ramirez, a leading glaciologist, proclaimed it a warning sign for the region:
"It's very probable that other glaciers are disappearing faster than we thought.''
This is consistent with recent research. In 2007, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that climate changes could melt away "most" of Latin America's tropical glaciers between 2020 and 2030.
The Chacaltaya is part of Bolivia's Tuni Condoriri glaciated mountain system. The whole cluster has shed more than a third of its ice mass since 1983. Tuni and Condoriri, the two largest glaciers, will be gone within 20 to 30 years, if not sooner. The glaciers of Illimani, the 21,135-foot mountain above La Paz, have 30 years left, Ramirez said, maximum.
The immediate problem is this: The thaw is putting a vital fresh water source at risk.
A reservoir under the Tuni Condoriri range provides 80 percent of the drinking water to 2`million-plus people that live in the city of El Alto and parts of neighboring La Paz. Some 60 percent of that water comes straight from glacial melt. (The glaciers also feed into 10 hydroelectric plants that power parts of the twin cities.)
This year, demand for water will exceed supply in the area's reservoirs for the first time, Ramirez predicted. Civil unrest is probable. Stay tuned. What happens in this water-hungry region of the Bolivian Andes could be a preview of what's to come across Latin America, and even the world.
This month, Ramirez and his research team will gather on Chacaltaya to honor the lost glacier and commemorate nearly 20 years of research. Think of it as "Requiem for a Glacier," part one of who knows how many.
The world's glaciers are melting faster than nearly all of the climate models have predicted – from Alaska to Greenland to the Himalayas and across the European Alps – with substantial consequences for hundreds of millions of people.
In fact, according to recent figures from the University of Zurich's World Glacier Monitoring Service, the rate of ice loss from the Earth's glaciers in 2007 was twice as fast as a decade ago.
"The main thing that we can do to stop this is reduce greenhouse gases," said Michael Zemp, a researcher at the University of Zurich's Department of Geography.
The good news is that solutions exist. If implemented, they would have an enormous impact in staving off a total global glacier meltdown.
Note:The pictures above are the Chacaltaya Glacier circa 1940 and 1982, top row, and 1996 and 2005, bottom row.
Bolivia's Chacaltaya Glacier is Gone (Miami Herald)