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Climate Change in Peru

The world is warming. One piece of evidence is widespread glacial retreat. Many of Earth’s glaciers are shrinking and smaller glaciers are disappearing altogether.

Earth’s temperature has warmed about 0.74 degrees Celsius since 1906, and this warming impact is even greater at the high elevations where most glaciers are found.

The frozen freshwater reservoirs held in alpine glaciers are crucial water sources for millions of people. Their retreat, and perhaps disappearance, could trigger major water supply crises.

The Quelccaya Ice Cap, in the eastern Peruvian Andes, has for centuries provided surrounding farmlands with precious runoff water. Today local inhabitants report that flows have dwindled.

Scientists confirm that the ice cap is shrinking at an increasing rate. The cap retreated by about six meters per year during the 15 years between 1963 and 1978 but has averaged over 60 meters per year for the last 15 years–ten times faster. A small lake that first appeared in front of the glacier in 1991 and covered six hectares (15 acres) has grown with the retreat of the ice; it now covers almost six times that area and is up to 60 meters (200 ft) deep. The accelerating rate of retreat of the glacier is consistent with that observed for six other glaciers in the Peruvian Andes.

The Quelccaya crisis is not local in scope. Glaciers are an important source of water for the hydroelectric plants that generate about 70 percent of Peru’s power, and for Lima—a city of eight million people. About one in four Lima residents have no water service, and the city already struggles to provide for them. In particular, the glaciers and ice caps are very important in maintaining water flow during the dry season. As they diminish in size, there will be ever increasing variability in seasonal stream discharge.

In the foreseeable future, dwindling meltwater from Quelccaya is likely to make a deteriorating situation worse in an already arid region.

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