The Trek to Venezuela's Last Glacier: Scientists Take on the Andes Mountains amid Turmoil

By Larson, Christina; Narancio, Federica | The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education, January/February 2020 | Go to article overview

The Trek to Venezuela's Last Glacier: Scientists Take on the Andes Mountains amid Turmoil


Larson, Christina, Narancio, Federica, The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education


Editor's Note: As Venezuela reels from economic and political chaos, a team of scientists are braving the Andes Mountains to monitor the Humboldt glacier before it vanishes.

MERIDA, Venezuela (AP) - Blackouts shut off the refrigerators where the scientists keep their lab samples. Gas shortages mean they sometimes have to work from home. They even reuse sheets of paper to record field data because fresh supplies are so scarce.

As their country falls apart, a hardy team of scientists in Venezuela is determined to transcend the political and economic turmoil to record what happens as the country's last glacier vanishes.

Temperatures are warming faster at the Earth's higher elevations than in lowlands, and scientists predict that the glacier - an ice sheet in the Andes Mountains - could be gone within two decades.

"If we left and came back in 20 years, we would have missed it," says Luis Daniel Llambí, a mountain ecologist at the University of the Andes in Mérida.

Scientists say Venezuela will be the first country in South America to lose all its glaciers.

Glaciers In South America

Throughout history, glaciers have waxed and waned numerous times. But the rapid pace of glacial retreat over the past century and a half, accelerated by human activities and the burning of fossil fuels, creates a new urgency - and opportunity - for scientists to understand how freshly exposed rock forms new soil and eventually new ecosystems.

While most of the planet's ice is stored in the polar regions, there are also glaciers in some mountainous regions of the tropics - primarily in South America.

"Practically all of the high-mountain tropical glaciers are in the Andes. There's still a little bit on Mount Kilimanjaro," says Robert Hofstede, a tropical ecologist in Ecuador who advises international agencies such as the World Bank and United Nations.

Monitoring Venezuela's Humboldt glacier depends on continuous visits, Llambí notes. And even in the best of circumstances, it's no easy trek from the small mountain town of Mérida to the ice sheet perched within Venezuela's Sierra Nevada National Park at nearly 16,500 feet (5,000 meters) above sea level.

When Llambí and three other scientists made the journey this spring to scout out mountain terrain for a new research project, they first rode a cable car, then walked a full day to the base camp, pitching their tents in drizzling rain.

Each day, they then had to climb an additional three hours to reach the glacier, at times donning helmets and holding tight to ropes to maneuver up steep boulders. Some of the scientists had waterproofed their worn-out old boots using melted candle wax.

Resolve Amid Crisis

Mountain fieldwork always is physically grueling, but the deepening crisis in Venezuela since the death of former president Hugo Chavez in 2013 has transformed even simple tasks into immense hurdles.

"Things that you normally take for granted for research - internet, gas, electricity - all become scarce and unpredictable," Llambí says.

Perhaps the hardest toll has been watching many of their colleagues and students leave, joining the more than 4 million people who have fled Venezuela's political upheaval in recent years.

"Every week, someone asks me why I haven't left," says Alejandra Melfo, a team member who is a physicist at the University of the Andes.

Not now, she tells anyone who asks. …

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