To make things even worse, political turmoil in the country makes it impossible to adequately study the situation.
When you think about Venezuela, a tropical country with lush rainforests, glaciers aren’t the first thing that comes to mind. But with much of South America crossed by the massive Andes, the continent is no stranger to glaciers. Venezuela itself boasted five glaciers up until 1991. Now, just one remains — and it’s fading away fast. When that happens, Venezuela will become the first country in modern history to lose all its glaciers.
Pico Humboldt is Venezuela’s second highest peak, at 4,940 meters above sea level. It’s part of the Sierra Nevada de Mérida mountain range, which offers much-needed relief from the heat. All of Venezuela’s five glaciers were inside this mountain range. The only remaining one, a shadow of its former self, lies near Pico Humboldt. Measuring just 10% of what it used to 30 years ago, the glacier is expected to completely vanish in ten, maybe twenty years.
Carsten Braun, a glaciologist at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, told The Economist that 2015 was probably the last time pico Humboldt could have been studied. Even then, he says, conditions were “a little dicey.” Venezuela is currently going through a dramatic economic and political crisis, which includes widespread protests and even hunger.
When Braun traveled to Venezuela two years ago, he was pulled off the bus and interrogated by men in military uniforms. Now, as the situation has escalated dramatically, a return would be insane. Braun would like to dot the glacier with sensors, capturing data on wind, temperature, and water run-off. This would offer much-needed information about how things are changing in the area.
Like other countries in South America, Venezuela relies on meltwater from the glaciers and it’s not clear how water availability will be affected without the glaciers. Having access to more data could help protect many declining glaciers. Understanding the situation on Pico Humboldt could help not only locally but across the entire continent but unfortunately, Braun will have to rely only on remote data, with no on-site samples or context. Satellite imagery can only tell how fast the glacier is melting and nothing else.
The retreat of these glaciers was initially a natural process, the final stage of a 20,000-year process which included ice recession. But in recent years, that process has sped up dramatically. Venezuela is extremely vulnerable to climate change, according to Professor Juan Carlos Sánchez, mainly because of its population distribution along coastal lines and unstable terrains. The country’s only Nobel laureate was co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He warns that outside of the short-term effects of climate change, the long-term effects will be even more devastating. The water cycle and subsequently, water availability, will also be strongly affected.