Massive glaciers around the world have been slowly melting and retreating for millennia, sculpting our planet’s most iconic mountains, valleys and even the Great Lakes in the process. But here, in the Peruvian Andes, it’s been happening more rapidly in recent years.
“Here, treinta anos antes (30 years before) was begin of glaciares,” our group’s tour guide explains in an energetic bilingual burst. He’s pointing to a spot below the parking lot at the start of what might be the world’s highest sidewalk, winding about a mile to reach over 16,000 feet (4,877 meters) in elevation, and the base of Pastoruri ice cap.
Just a few decades ago, people came here to play and ski on the snow and ice. Today, rope lines and guards with whistles warn visitors away from climbing on the unstable glacier. No longer a recreational playground, Pastoruri Glacier has become a place to test different responses to the unrelenting global warming that’s rapidly shrinking the world’s few tropical glaciers, most of which are here in Peru’s towering Cordillera Blanca.
My visit here as a tourist is part of the latest experiment in responding to climate change that centers on Pastoruri. But like the glacier itself, it doesn’t appear to be faring that well. In the parking lot, where the walkway to a pair of increasingly humble ice patches begins, we are greeted by a series of brand new buildings meant to be a tourist center, but they’re all empty, locked and unstaffed.
Interpretive signs faded to near oblivion by the intense sun here trace the glacier’s retreat and carry the logo in the corner of something called La Ruta del Cambio Climatico.
The phrase translates to “Trail of Climate Change,” a tourist initiative that launched in 2013 in Peru to highlight spots experiencing the brunt of climate change. The somewhat morbid “catch it before it’s gone” approach aimed to provide a cautionary tale about the accelerating ravages of global warming, as well as a new source of tourism dollars.
Less than seven years later, all that remains of the effort are a few faded signs and unoccupied buildings, including some locked restrooms that appear to be much nicer than the ramshackle old baños across the parking lot.
Instead, more attention is understandably paid to the larger, more dangerous glaciers a few hours away that threaten to flood the communities below them. That’s actually the story that drew me to visit Peru. Visiting the remnants of this increasingly extinct ice cap was more of a curiosity.
Previous experiments at Pastoruri were a little more successful.
Back in 2011 and 2012, a local engineer had the idea to cover a backyard-size section of the glacier with several inches of sawdust to see if it would insulate the glacial ice and keep it from melting. Remarkably, the idea worked. But the proof-of-concept has not led to truckloads of sawmill waste covering the glacier.
Pastoruri has now shrunk by more than half, and so have the crowds that used to come here.
“It used to be a great place to take the family skiing,” engineer and glacier expert César Portocarrero Rodríguez told me later at his home in Huaraz, the capital of Peru’s Ancash region. “Now there is no snow and it is dangerous.”
An area where Peruvian families once skied just a few decades ago is now an empty drainage of rocks and sand left behind by the retreat of the ice cap in what’s now Huascaran National Park. In fact, the shrunken ice cap has separated into two small glaciers bisected by a large rock outcropping.
A map near the start of the walk up appears to map Pastoruri’s retreat, but is sun-bleached and hard to make out.
The Huaraz Telegraph called the Climate Change Trail a “complete failure” in 2017 and the clear neglect and abandonment of an initiative only about six years old is hard to argue with.
Then again, visitors like me are still coming to bear witness to the death of a place held dear by locals like Portacarrero. At least one prominent paleoclimatologist has suggested Pastoruri could disappear completely within a decade.
It’s a prediction that doesn’t sound that outlandish. Already, the site’s sidewalk needs to be extended to reach the ever-withdrawing edge of the ice field.
So while the maps and signs may no longer all be legible, the ramifications of climate change here are easy enough to read and interpret. They’re written all over the landscape.
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