State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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To the tip of the Andes

In the semi-arid Andes, glaciers store water and control the runoff of mountain rivers. They feed water to big cities such as Lima and Arequipa and irrigate the surrounding lowlands. But as the planet warms, mountain glaciers in the tropics are receding steadily. Despite their paramount importance, we don’t know the scale and the rate of the ice retreat and what its loss will mean for the regional climate and the people who depend on mountain glaciers for water and hydropower.

Nevado Coropuna (6420 m) is the highest volcanic peak in the Peruvian Andes

Gisela Winckler, Gordon Bromley and Joerg Schaefer, — all climate scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory — with Brenda Hall at the University of Maine, have recently started an NSF-funded project to study long-term glacier fluctuations in the Peruvian Andes. Our goal is to combine field geology techniques with cosmogenic dating techniques in the lab to analyze rocks that tell us how glaciers in this region have ebbed and flowed here for the last 20,000 years.

Gordon Bromley and Kurt Rademaker, getting ready for the field season

With the Columbia Water Center and other climate experts, we will use this historical information to understand how tropical glaciers respond to climate forcing. This project may help us anticipate how the glacial-hydrological system will react to future climate change, allowing experts to adapt and manage water resources more effectively.

On June 15, our field team—a mix of geologists and archeologists– left for Peru.

  • Gordon Bromley, a field geologist and Lamont postdoctoral fellow, has traveled extensively in Peru and Antarctica.
  • Kurt Rademaker, an archaeologist and Ph.D. student at the University of Maine, is investigating the settlement of the first Americans in the Andes at the close of the last ice age and how climate and environment shaped their farming.
  • Matthew Hegland, a geology student at Pacific Lutheran University, will provide field assistance.

Gordon, Kurt and Matt will report from their field trip on this blog while I will facilitate communication with them in the field and answer questions about the project and, specifically, the laboratory analyses. If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to ask. I will field questions and send them over to the Peruvian Andes from where the team, whenever possible, sends back answers.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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