Beep beep beep. I look at my watch and its altitude alarm has been triggered. This indicator tells me that we have reached 5,600 meters (18,370 feet) above sea level. We are only 190 meters more to the summit.
A recent adventure brought me close to climate change. Too close for comfort, in fact.
“I must keep going…” “I must keep going…” The fatigue of nearly 7 hours of climbing through the night is weighing heavily on me. We’ve faced strong winds and icy snowfall, but thankfully the mountain clears and allows us to continue our way. The sun has been up for an hour, giving us a beautiful view of our conquest. Our bodies are craving oxygen, and the more altitude we gain, the slower we climb. My average heartbeat is 120 beats per minute (compared to 70 bpm at sea level)—which is normal at this altitude to as the heart works harder to get oxygen to the brain. Normally at sea level the oxygen rate in the air we breathe it’s at 20%, here at this mountain the air contains half of that 10%. It’s important to stay hydrated.
After finally seeing the summit, and knowing that our final ascent will take 30 minutes, we push onward toward our destination: the top of the Cayambe Volcano, in Ecuador. Arriving at the peak, the 8 hours of climbing, fatigue, dizziness, headaches and nausea are well worth it. We spend 20 minutes reveling in an explosion of dopamine, adrenaline, laughter and happiness.
Sadly, we cannot spend much time on the summit. We must begin our descent—often more dangerous than the ascent (most mountaineering accidents happen on the way down) due to fatigue. The danger of falling rocks due to warmer conditions is also imminent.
A couple of hours into the descent, our guide tells us to pay extra attention to the ice beneath our feet: we have reached a section with large crevasses that we must jump over. Should one of us fall into a crevasse, the other two will have to act quickly to press our crampons and axes into the glacier. We’re roped together and must prevent our team from getting dragged into the opening.
The crevasses add to the adventure. But while they challenge hikers, they represent larger signals of environmental concern. Some are brand new, and indicate that the glacier is breaking. As we continue our descent, we see signs of the glacier’s recession, brought on by climate change. It is as though the Cayambe Volcano where a living organism transforming its outer shell. The next time I climb its heights, its topography might seem new.
This glacier is not alone. Glaciers throughout the tropics and around the equator are slowly receding. With this shrinkage comes the issue of water availability. It is estimated that 200 million people around the world depend on melting water from glaciers, primarily in the Andes and the Himalayas. In Bolivia alone over the past 20 years, glaciers have receded approximately 43%. In Peru, where the capital city Lima depends heavily on glacier water for food production, Cordillera Real glaciers have receded approximately 40% between 1963 and 2006. Or in the neighboring volcano the Antisana in Ecuador, it is estimated that its glacier and the surrounding páramo provides around a third of the water for the city of Quito. The disappearance of these glaciers means a vast amount of water resources for energy, irrigation and human consumption will be lost. In addition, they could set off natural disasters such as floods and landslides, destroying vital infrastructure on the way.
In cities like La Paz, Bolivia (which has witnessed significant urbanization in recent years), water consumption during the dry season depends heavily on water from glaciers. For instance, estimates indicate that during dry season, the city depends on glaciers for approximately 30% of its water.
To design infrastructure that combats the potential negative effects brought on by climate change in drought sensitive regions like La Paz and El Alto in Bolivia, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is supporting the construction of a 23 meter-high dam in the Taypichaca Basin and an 8.2 meter high dam in the Khotia Khota Basin. These new dams will increase the size of two existing reservoirs and provide for long-term water storage that counters the effects of drought, glacial retreat and other climate change events. The dams also provide the water necessary to operate new potable water networks and improved irrigation systems that will benefit approximately 250,000 individuals.
The Bank applied environmental and social safeguards to ensure that project beneficiaries can thrive for the long term. These measures included:
- Consultations with the community to discuss the improved irrigation system and make sure it was in accordance with their necessities, a vital point in improving their resilience.
- Ecological Flow Analysis to the watershed, so that the bofedal (high altitude wetlands) habitat would not be affected by the changing patterns of the hydrological flow.
Making sure these types of habitats exist for future generations is a high priority. I hope that in the future climate change will not reduce (or even eliminate) these glaciers. Our ascent of Cayambe Volcano was not a singular mission in search of thrills, adventure, self-improvement or magnificent views. It also provided a close-up to the very real threat to a glacier that acts as a vital water tank to the area surrounding it.
After a total of 12 hours in the mountain, we finally arrived at the refugee. Exhausted, we have some warm soup and recall our victorious ascent. Looking up from the window some people might see a mountain. To others, they see a source of life.