In the Peruvian Andes, the future is now. In fact, people there are incredulous that lawmakers in the United States actually debate climate change, and baffled that many North Americans challenge the worldwide scientific consensus that Earth’s average temperature is steadily on the rise. South American climate observers (i.e., regular citizens as well as scientists) recognize that for people, animals, and vegetation, as well as for societies and nations, the consequences will be profound. The truth is, they already are.
Last December, Kenneth Young, a professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment who is affiliated with the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS), traveled to Lima, Peru, to participate as one of ten official observers from the Association of American Geographers at the meeting of the UN Conference of the Parties (COP). The COP met under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in preparation for the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol and to plan for the signing of a new climate treaty at the twenty-first UNFCCC, to be held in Paris in December 2015.
“I was impressed by the complexity of the event, and the degree to which climate science was not really under debate,” Young says. “Instead, it was economic and political considerations of the energy sector that often predominated, despite pleas to consider vulnerable people and places.”
Early Signs of Warming in the Andes
Thirty years ago, Young did not have climate change in his sights. A biogeographer studying vegetation dynamics in Andean national parks, he paid a visit in 1985 to the newly established Abiseo National Park in Peru’s Cordillera Oriental. Upon his return to the park four years later, he was taken aback by dramatic changes in vegetation growth patterns.
Mountainous areas like this park, where altitude climbs steeply over a relatively small linear area, are excellent places to observe patterns in plant and animal life. The higher the altitude, the colder the temperature. Thus, Young observed in 1985 that the park was home to shrubby forest at timberline, up to the altitude of about 3,400–3,500 meters, and beyond that altitude there were grasslands.
Young says he returned to the park in 1989 and observed that shrub vegetation had grown in about 150–200 meters or so higher than where it had previously occurred, up to approximately 3,650 m. In other words, the line where shrubs stopped and grasslands started had moved upward. At first he assumed that this marked change in vegetation pattern was due to new government policies: Cattle raisers in the area who had practiced grazing on lands had been ordered by the government to stop these practices upon the park’s establishment. Yet when Young observed the surrounding areas outside the park, he saw that the shrub line had climbed there as well. The reason was clear: Warming temperatures had made higher altitudes hospitable to shrub growth where it would not have happened before. The fact that this was evident in the short span of four years was surprising.
Young felt this was a compelling reason to study climate change: “I didn’t seek out the topic; it came to me.”
Young developed the first climate change course at The University of Texas at Austin during 2000–2001. He began teaching it in 2003, the same year he published the first article on his findings in the Cordillera Oriental. “Peruvian readers were very receptive,” he says.
Climate Change, Glaciers and Water
The change in vegetation patterns in the cordillera is one stark example of what a few degrees of warming can do to an ecosystem. Young says glaciologists studying the Andean Cordillera Blanca now believe that the current glacier recession also began in the mid-1980s. Tropical glaciers have been in negative mass balance, meaning that they are losing more ice on average than they are gaining. Young explains that measurements of glaciers do not involve looking only at area, which is visible in satellite photos. Instead, scientists look at volume change. This is much harder to capture, he says, as one is measuring height, but it is the truest measure of glacial retreat, and relates directly to the question of water resources.
Young says that as of this writing, about a 30 percent reduction has been seen in Peru’s glaciers over the last several decades. The situation is even worse in Bolivia—50 percent—with La Paz suffering major water shortages. In Peru, waters produced by glacial melting have traditionally irrigated coastal agricultural areas, but water is now waning because in some areas there are no more glaciers. One example is the village of Chacas, situated below a valley within Huarascán National Park. Farmers in the area used to rely on glacial melt for agricultural irrigation, but now must rely solely on rainwater to irrigate. They are already experiencing water shortages.
Yet neither a shortage of water nor changing ecosystems and species habitat can fully encompass the incredibly complex implications of glacial melt and warming trends on life in the Andes. Every aspect of human–environment interaction stands to be affected: where things grow will influence where people farm; temperature and moisture changes will profoundly affect soil. As Young writes in a review of the glaciological literature, there are “temporal mismatches to address in this kind of research.” For example, “important soil properties may develop over decades to centuries, while nitrogen stocks that affect plant growth may change in weeks, and soil moisture and surface temperatures vary daily or even hourly. Farmers and pastoralists must somehow assess these biophysical conditions and may modify their decisions concerning planting schedules, crop choices, and herd sizes from one season to another, or may adapt their production systems to the new conditions” (Young 2014).
In turn, these changes in the ecosystem, and in the interaction between human beings and nature, have economic and political repercussions as well, says Young: “The changes affecting landscapes also have ecosystem implications, including for environmental services that are directly or indirectly useful to people. The changes occurring in the high tropics thus have numerous economic and political consequences.”
As Go the Andes, So Go the Rest of Us
Kenneth Young is frank about the setbacks experienced by scientists in his field. He had felt hopeful in 2007–2009, when he worked for two years with the National Science Foundation and there was stimulus funding to study climate change. That funding gradually decreased and has now flatlined, he says, which is a matter of concern.
“In Peru, everyone is talking about the very immediate problems of climate change and people don’t doubt it’s happening.”
In contrast, it is unsettling to him that in the U.S., climate change science is being called into question so prevalently.
Yet if Young is aware of the setbacks, he is far from throwing up his hands. At his December 2014 talk in Peru, he focused on the future of Andean forests, a question with international import since these forests extend from Venezuela to Chile and Argentina.
Everything must be done with climate change in mind, he says, from policymaking to planting. Agriculturalists must plan which trees to plant based on various climate realities. Since carbon and water are both factors in planting, some forests and types of vegetation help save carbon, and others help save water. Sometimes these are mutually exclusive, and compromises are needed. On the level of policy, a system of carbon and water credits can help manage these trade-offs. In addition, Young recommends that conservation NGOs and governments pay people to keep cloud forests intact in order to preserve their rich biodiversity and their important contribution to climate stability. He will address the management of both carbon and water resources in ongoing research, including ways to finance and sustain such efforts.
Feature Photo: Kenneth Young
Feature caption: Pastoruri Glacier, Cordillera Blanca, Peru 2014.