Why 1,600 years of ice melting in 25 years is a bad omen

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Ohio State University glaciologist Lonnie Thompson and a colleague examines dried parts of the Quelccya ice cap in this undated photo.
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Ohio State University glaciologist Lonnie Thompson and a colleague examines dried parts of the Quelccya ice cap in this undated photo.

A glacier in Peru has melted to levels not seen since the end of the last ice age

Ice that took 1,600 years to form in the Peruvian Andes took only 25 years to disappear, according to a new study published in Science.

Lonnie G. Thompson, a glaciologist at Ohio State University, studied plants that had been recently exposed near Quelccaya, the world's largest tropical ice sheet, located 18,000 feet above sea level. Analysis of the plants showed that the ice cap is smaller than it has been for six thousand years.

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Ultimately, Thompson was able to figure out that 1,600 years worth of ice had melted in less than three decades. The culprit? Global warming, scientists told the New York Times:

[T]he melting now under way appears to be at least as fast, if not faster, than anything in the geological record since the end of the last ice age ...

Global warming, which scientists say is being caused primarily by the human release of greenhouse gases, is having its largest effects at high latitudes and high altitudes. Sitting at high elevation in the tropics, the Quelccaya ice cap appears to be extremely sensitive to the temperature changes, several scientists said. [New York Times]

The glacier is melting so quickly, Thompson tells The Daily Mail, that he has had to archive some of the ice "at -30ºC so that creative people will have access to it 20 years from now, using instruments and techniques that don't even exist today."

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That Peru's glaciers are melting isn't a surprise. Public Radio International published a story last year about a team of scientists who are doing everything — from covering ice in sawdust, to painting black rocks white to deflect heat — to slow the melting of Peru's glaciers. According to glaciologist Benjamin Morales, the glaciers have lost at least 25 percent of their ice.

The melting of the glaciers could have a dramatic impact on Peruvians. According to Reuters, the "coastal region west of the Andes range, home to two-thirds of Peru's population and 80 percent of economic activity, receives just 2 percent of the country's fresh water." Many people in the dry regions of Peru depend on the glaciers for fresh water, which is so scarce that the country is considering a $500 million project to drill a 12-mile tunnel through the Andes to bring in water from the Amazon basin.

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"How much time do we have before 50 percent of Lima's or La Paz's water resources are gone?" researcher Douglas R. Hardy asks the New York Times.

Sadly, there probably isn't enough sawdust to cover all the mountains in the Andes.

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