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Hints of new life in the shadows of Venezuela’s last glacier


This story is original featured on Atlas Obscura which is part of Climate office cooperation.

In 1986, at the age of 21, Alejandra Melvo moved to Mérida, Venezuela, the “city of eternal snow” to study physics at the University of the Andes. There, in the mountainous city, she often looked toward the horizon at the vast Sierra Nevada de Mérida: a vast expanse, huge and towering three miles into the sky, covered with snow and broad sheets of glaciers. Having just arrived from Uruguay, the country with no mountain ranges, I fell in love.

As the years went by, the Mellous saw the landscape transform. Two of the glaciers that could be seen from the city were rapidly retreating. Large cracks appeared, splitting the ice into smaller pieces. Entire portions of the glacier collapsed, exposing the rocks beneath. By 1990, Mount Pico la Concha had lost all of its glaciers. In 2017, Pico Bolivar, Venezuela’s highest peak, followed suit. Today, only one glacier remains in Venezuela: at the second highest peak, Pico Humboldt.

“It’s an era [almost] Now it’s completely over,” says Melvo, a particle physicist at the University of the Andes, who has recently been working on projects involving biology and ecology, including the search for this last glacier.

The Pico Humboldt Glacier has survived in part because it is protected by the shadow of its summit – but just barely. In 1910, the glacier covered nearly 1.3 square miles. The latest measurement, in 2019, indicates that the glacier has shrunk to less than 0.02 square miles, or about the size of a Merida football field, less than 2 percent than it once was. If the glacier disappears, Venezuela could become the first country in the world to have glaciers and then lose them all.

Experts say this is inevitable, as no climate intervention will slow it or stop it in time. The tropical glaciers of Venezuela — like others, in places like Colombia, Peru, Kenya or Uganda — are particularly sensitive to climate change, since they are already exposed to warm temperatures. By the end of the decade, the last decade will be gone. “Retreat, you can’t stop it, it’s not possible,” says Maximiliano Pizada, a quaternary geologist at the University of Minnesota who is not involved in current research on the glacier.

But rather than despair, a team of Venezuela-based scientists are looking forward to a rare opportunity. These glaciers have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, and now the peaks that once covered them will likely remain exposed with permanent snow and ice for thousands more. This transition provides a unique window into how life appeared in essentially lifeless terrain, Melvaux says, a process known as “primary succession.”

“[We’re] You witness exactly the moment when these things change from one state to another. This is very special,” she says. “You can rarely see things on the geological scale happening before your eyes.”

Scientific work began with a series of long, steep excursions. In 2019, Melfo and a multidisciplinary team, including a botanist, ecologist, lichenologist, and more, made three trips to Pico Humboldt. At an altitude of over three miles, with plenty of equipment to carry, and without much experience in such conditions, the team took two to three days to reach near the base of the Pico Humboldt Glacier.

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