Nestled in the Sierra Nevada de Mérida, the Humboldt glacier stands alone in Venezuela. But it wasn’t always this way. In 1910, glaciers covered at least 10 square miles of the country’s Northwestern region. Today, less than one percent of that remains. And the Humboldt, which was once one of five major glaciers, is disappearing.
Tropical Glaciers and Climate Change
While Venezuela may seem like an unusual home for a glacier, more than 95 percent of tropical glaciers sit in the Andes. Countries such as Peru and Colombia rely on these for drinking water, agriculture, and hydropower. Yet Andean glaciers have lost half their ice in just 40 years.
Mountain glaciers make up only about one percent world’s glaciers (most are sheet glaciers like those in Greenland and Antarctica.) However, the loss of these resources will have a dramatic impact on those who live in the Andes region. Some of the poorest people in South America will be forced to migrate as water becomes scarce.
The Humboldt and Venezuela’s Refugee Crisis
A melting mountain glacier may seem trivial compared to the struggles Venezuelans are facing. With thousands of people fleeing the country every day amid political upheaval and food shortages, studying the Humboldt is low on the country’s priority list. Nevertheless, the Humboldt may be a symbol of the climate change-induced refugee crisis to come.
As Venezuelans pour over the borders of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Brazil, the host countries must consider how they will provide for their new residents. Meanwhile, Andean states risk potential water shortages as glaciers melt, and Brazil must contend with rising greenhouse gases due to deforestation.
And Venezuela isn’t the only problem. Poverty rates are high throughout South America—reaching up to 38.6% in Bolivia. Every year, undocumented immigrants from across the continent head to wealthier countries such as Brazil and Argentina in search of a better life.
The combination of rising temperatures, water and food shortages, and increasing migration will only add more pressure to these struggling nations.
Time is Running Out for the Humboldt
Until recently, only two studies were conducted on Venezuelan glaciers—one in 1971 and one in 1992. The late Venezuelan geologist Carlos Schubert, who completed both, discovered that four of them disappeared within the 21-year period.
As for the Humboldt, scientists have predicted that it will be gone within the next decade or two. Still, given Venezuela’s current state, researchers have steered clear of the glacier. Satellite images provide some information, but the Humboldt is now so small that not much can be uncovered.
A Global Refugee Crisis?
While the Humboldt is small enough that its disappearance will have little effect, it’s a reminder that melting glaciers pose problems beyond rising sea levels.
Countries in the Andes along with other regions that rely on glaciers must prepare for the impact climate change may have. At the same time, the United States, Canada, and Europe must prepare for a possible refugee crisis throughout the developing world.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Citizens for Global Solutions.