Colombia’s glaciers will soon be gone

The photograph on the wall in the farmhouse at La Esperanza where we stayed the night had been taken 15 years ago, but it looked very different from the place we had walked through earlier in the day. I use the word “walked”, but we’d been expecting to use a few more climbing skills. I had slogged my way up the steep scree and boulders of Bellavista pass in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada del Cocuy in heavy mountaineering boots, carrying ice axe, crampons and climbing harness, expecting to find a glacier on the other side, a glacier I was now clearly seeing in a photograph from 1996. But when we got there the glacier was all but gone, and we found ourselves scrambling over rock instead.

The photograph on the wall of the farmhouse at La Esperanza, taken in 1996. The mountain is Pan de Azucar, and Bellavista is the pass to the left, clearly covered by a glacier.
The photograph on the wall of the farmhouse at La Esperanza, taken in 1996. The mountain is Pan de Azucar, and Bellavista is the pass to the left, clearly covered by a glacier.

I loved my visit to the mountains of Colombia, as can easily be seen from my previous two posts about the beautiful Cocuy Circuit trek and its fascinating plant life, but there was one aspect of the trip that was very disappointing and left me deeply saddened. Everywhere we went there was evidence of glacial retreat. At Diamond Rock, on the very edge of the Cocuy mountains, we looked up and saw two tiny patches of white on glacier-scoured rock that was so recent that no hint of vegetation had begun to invade. We skirted Laguna de la Plaza on smooth grey slabs where frailejones plants had begun sprouting in damp nooks and crannies. Bellavista was the biggest disappointment, but even during our ascent of Ritacuba Blanco, the highest mountain in the range and a true glacier climb, our summit day began with a lengthy scramble over those familiar telltale smooth slabs. While the gigantic cliffs of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy are certainly a rock climber’s paradise, every mountaineer will lament the absence of snow.

I’d been made aware of the extent of glacier retreat in Colombia almost as soon as I arrived. I was met at the airport by Roberto, a park ranger in El Cocuy National Park who was home to spend Christmas with his family in Bogota. He told me that one of his jobs as a park ranger was to measure the retreat of the glaciers, and he knew that in places it was as much as 15 to 20 metres a year. But even so, I didn’t expect to see evidence so stark during the short time I was there. We know that glaciers are retreating worldwide, but only in Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains have I found it to be as dramatic as it is in Colombia.

Bellavista in 2011. Most of the glacier spilling down from Pan de Azucar is gone, and Bellavista is bare rock.
Bellavista in 2011. Most of the glacier spilling down from Pan de Azucar is gone, and Bellavista is bare rock.

One of the reasons for this is rainfall. The Colombian páramo, where many of the mountain ranges are situated, has a very wet climate anyway, but recently Colombia has been experiencing unseasonably wet conditions. In April last year La Niña caused torrential floods to devastate the country, leaving thousands of people homeless. While La Niña is a cyclical weather system, it used to strike once every 5 to 6 years, but is now much more common. At high altitude in the mountains where the temperatures are colder, increased precipitation might be expected to increase the size of glaciers, where rain instead falls as snow. But even a very slight rise in average temperature has had a dramatic effect at the fringes of the snowline. Here the snow is now falling as rain, causing the ice to melt more quickly.

The WWF has predicted that Colombia will lose its glaciers completely within the next 100 years, but from what I saw it seems it will happen much more quickly than this in the Cocuy. Already the snowline on Ritacuba Blanco has risen to 4900m, and the summit itself is only 5410m. You don’t have to be Carol Vorderman to calculate that at 15 to 20 metres a year it’s not going to take anything like 100 years for the Cocuy to lose the glacier from its highest mountain – more like 25 to 30 years.

Studies have shown that Colombian glaciers have lost 50% or more of their area in the last 50 years. Meteorological stations in the mountain regions have observed an increase in average temperatures of 1° C over the last 30 years. Currently glaciers still exist in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy mountain ranges, and on the volcanoes of Ruiz, Santa Isabel, Tolima and Huila, but not for much longer.

Ritacuba Blanco is still a true glacier climb, but for how much longer?
Ritacuba Blanco is still a true glacier climb, but for how much longer?

Does it matter? Even without its glaciers the giant cliff faces and extraordinary plant life of the paramo will guarantee that the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy will still be beautiful.

If you’re only concerned with the human cost, glacier loss in Colombia will be extremely negative. Much of the population of cities such as Bogota owe their drinking water to seasonal glacier melt from the mountains. The glaciers are also responsible for hydropower projects. No more glaciers will mean permanent flooding of low lying areas instead, and this is likely to affect thousands of people and millions of hectares of land currently used for agriculture.

But it’s not just about the human cost; it’s about nature and beauty, the loss of something spectacular no man could ever reproduce as a consequence of human activity.

I realise there’s a huge contradiction in flying halfway across the world, burning tons of fossil fuel in the process, in order to observe something that’s about to be eroded by global warming. It’s a conundrum I’ve never been able to resolve. The only solution would seem to be to stay at home and expend nothing in travelling, but if all of us did this then nobody would ever know about the remarkable places that are about to vanish. On a smaller scale, even driving up to Scotland requires fuel to be burned. We could give ourselves more time off work and sail like the early explorers did, but that requires cultural change.

I don’t know the answer, and I think that it’s now too late for Colombia’s glaciers anyway. But it’s not too late for many other places around the world. I believe that responsible tourism can bring benefits both for the environment and for local communities, and I don’t think that staying at home is the answer either. Visit Colombia and see for yourself, but – without wishing to sound like your mother – do it responsibly, please.

I’ll finish with a little video showing what we saw at Bellavista. The glacier was a disappointment, but all things are relative. Everything else that you see in this short film is incredibly beautiful (apart from some of my companions, who sadly are no longer oil paintings ;-)).

Watch on YouTube

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