Scientists say global warming is causing glaciers in the Andes Mountains to shrink at a faster pace than ever. In Ecuador, the pace of glacier melt threatens hydroelectric power plants and water systems that rely on water from the glaciers. With the help of the World Bank, local researchers are launching new efforts to track the decline and urge residents to preserve crucial water supplies. VOA's Brian Wagner reports from Ecuador's capital, Quito.
Once a month, water utility workers make the difficult journey up the Antizana volcano. Technicians must visit more than a dozen monitoring stations, to gather data about a massive Andean glacier at the peak and the water that runs off of it.
Diego Paredes, who is a technician for the Ecuadorean utility, EMAAP explained, "It takes measurements every five minutes. We download that data to our computers and use it to measure the water flow."
Technicians want to know how much precipitation is added to the glacier, and how much rain water and melted ice flow down into the the Ecuadorean capital's water supply. Maintaining a balance is crucial to Quito's future.
"The glacier is a huge reservoir of water that supplies us every year. We have a lot of monitoring activity to make sure it never runs out," Paredes said.
Hydroelectric power plants generate energy from glacier-fed rivers and the water flows into the city's water system. Quito's growing population has put strains on the water utility. But a bigger concern is whether global warming could eventually do away with Antizana and other Andean glaciers.
"When glaciers melt, at first there is a surge in water supply from melting ice," said Bernard Francou, a glacier expert with France's Institute for Development Research. "So you have more water, but then the glacier grows smaller and you have the opposite effect: less water."
Members of Francou's team are working with local experts to study the impact of global warming on glaciers like Antizana and nearby Cotopaxi. Along with water measurements, teams are using satellite photos of the glaciers. The data show warmer temperatures are taking their toll.
Mr. Francou reported,"One glacier near Quito has shrunk 30-40 percent in the past 30 years, and other studies show the same has happened with Cotopaxi. Comparing photographs from 1956 and now, we see the glacier is retreating."
Studies show the same is true for glaciers in Bolivia and Peru. Some scientists warn the glaciers could disappear completely in 30 years.
In Ecuador, experts are concerned that warmer temperatures mean added dangers to high-altitude ecosystems. Areas that once were too cold, are now home to farming and livestock. The new agricultural activities may threaten delicate environments in the Andes, says Jorge Nunez, of Ecuador's Environment Ministry.
"Our priority is to conserve water resources, because without water there is no food," he said. "We need to protect the highlands ecosystems to ensure our water supply, on the glacier and in the city."
The World Bank is funding experts like Nunez to track the immediate impacts of global warming and glacier melt across the Andes. One goal is to educate both policy makers and the general public on the seriousness of the problem.
Mr. Nunez warns, "Ensuring our water supply is one of biggest problems that will result from climate change, affecting millions of people. It is really important to talk about education to prevent [water] abuse."
Nunez says conserving water is one thing people everywhere should do now to sustain the planet's limited resources.