At an altitude of 5400 meters in the Bolivian Andes, the 400 meter long track has become “a cemetery”. The country has lost 50% of its glaciers.
Mountaineer Bernardo Guarachi’s eyes light up as he recalls the glorious days of Chacaltaya, the world’s highest ski resort, in the Bolivian Andes, which is nothing but ruins in the absence of snow.
“Today it’s a cemetery,” laments the 68-year-old mountaineer, pointing to the rusty poles and cables of the chairlifts. His gaze sweeps over the 400-meter runway, the highest in the world, at an altitude of 5,300 meters, which he descended at full speed and which is nothing more than short grass and rocks.
“There were plenty of skiers who came on Saturdays and Sundays,” recalls the mountaineer who has climbed the highest peaks in the world. La Paz is only 30 kilometers away.
By 1998 however, the glacier had already only 7% of its 1940 surface. In 2009, it completely disappeared, further witness to the accelerated warming of the climate.
Bolivia has lost about half of its glaciers in the past fifty years.
According to the Atlas of the Andean Glaciers and Waters, published in 2018 by Unesco and the Norwegian GRID-Arendal Foundation, “the expected warming will cause the loss of 95% of the permafrost (permanently frozen ground) in Bolivia by 2050 ”And the“ disappearance of almost all glaciers ”.
Edson Ramirez knows it more than anyone: this glacier specialist from the University Mayor of San Andrés has carried out a vast study on the impact of warming on the Bolivian Andes.
He was the first to make an inventory of the country’s glaciers and in some cases to “document their disappearance”. “All glaciers similar to Chacaltaya (…) suffer from the same process of melting and disappearing”, he explains.
At the end of the 1990s, along with other scientists, he measured the thickest part of the glacier which was then 15 meters. “We knew that in fifteen years, the glacier could disappear”. It only took eleven years.
According to some forecasts, Andean temperatures could rise two to five degrees before the end of the 21st century.
“We must take urgent action in all countries to succeed in lowering the temperature of the planet,” said the researcher, in the midst of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.
Bernardo Guarachi looks towards the horizon. In the distance we can see El Alto, the big city located near La Paz. It shows the cloud of pollution that envelops the two cities.
“Man has changed a lot of things for a single ambition, to earn money, a lot of money and he has forgotten nature, the mountains,” he laments.
Bolivia is only 80th out of 181 CO2 emitting countries. The country of 11 million inhabitants has submitted to the United Nations a proposal for the most polluting countries to multiply by “five to ten” the funding intended for the most affected countries. And calls for an increase in the targets for reducing CO2 emissions.
Offerings to Mother Earth
Edson Ramirez denounces the practice of burning which devastates thousands of hectares in the east of his country every year to extend agricultural areas.
“The effects of fires also influence the state of glaciers,” he notes. Melting accelerates due to carbon particles settling on the snow and reducing the reflection of the sun’s rays.
The disappearance of glaciers could deprive millions of Bolivians of water. In times of drought, the melting ice provides up to 85% of the water consumed by the inhabitants of La Paz.
In the highlands, farmers are also feeling the effects. Offerings to Mother Earth accompanied by prayers for water are commonplace.
As if the altitude had no effect on him, Bernardo Guarachi walks through the ruins of the Chacaltaya refuge, built in the 1930s. The chalet has been in ruins for ten years.
“We have to change our mentality (…) You can have a lot of money, that will not allow you to buy water if the glaciers are running out,” he recalls.