High in the Peruvian Andes, Lake Palcacocha is the poster child for global warming-driven glacier collapse disasters
At the top of the mountain is Lake Palcacocha and the dwindling glacier that feeds it. In the lake is several billions gallons of ice water. An avalanche into the lake would generate a 100 ft high wave that would destroy the dam below and bury the city of Huaraz and it’s 200,000 residents. Along with the water would come trees, mud and everything else on the mountainside.
The phenomenon, a growing threat globally, is known as Glacial Lake Outburst Floods, or GLOF.
There is historical documentation of the looming danger. In 1941, the dam collapsed and sent a tidal wave down the mountain, killing thousands in Huaraz. Now the city has ten times more residents and the dam is holding back 30 x more water due to the increase in glacier melt.
This scenario is repeated across a score of mountain ranges around the Andes nation: as the glaciers that provide water for Peru collapse under the onslaught of global warming, large chunks of these ice caps break off and crash down. Depending on the terrain, a high percentage of them are poised to collapse into high altitude lakes, some of which are held back by dams.
The recipe for a spectacular disaster is easy to see and the government has taken some steps to engineer early warning systems for downstream villages. Many of the dams that collect glacier runoff have been fitted with emergency warning systems that warn of rupture, but an avalanche causing an overflow would happen too quickly to prevent large scale damage and death.
Unfortunately, some of the equipment has been dismantled and destroyed by villagers, who believe the gringo machines are responsible for the drought. They do not believe in global warming. Sound familiar?
A slower moving catastrophe is also in the making: the country is running out of water as runoff from the glaciers dries up. Where once there was snow, only bare rock shows now. Along with global warming comes a disruption in weather patterns, as the country endures yet another extended drought.
“We have glaciers across 19 mountain ranges. They are all shrinking.” – Marco Zapata of Peru’s Institute for Glacier Research.
There are ways that the danger could be reduced while at the same time improving long term water supplies, but government corruption and the resulting suspicion on the part of the citizens has thus far prevented any changes.
At some point there will be a multi-billion dollar disaster and something may or may not happen.