What can be saved? Vanishing Venezuela

  • The Associated Press

A hardy team of scientists in Venezuela is determined to transcend the political and economic turmoil to record what happens as the country’s last glacier vanishes.

While most of the planet’s ice is stored in the polar regions, there also are glaciers in some mountainous regions of the tropics — primarily in South America.

Once the Humboldt glacier disappears, Venezuela will be the first country in South America to lose all its glaciers.

Monitoring it depends on continuous visits, notes Luis Daniel Llambí, a mountain ecologist at the University of the Andes in Mérida.

“The fundamental idea of the project will be to understand what happens once Venezuela’s last glacier withdraws and how life will colonise the highlands of Sierra Nevada of Mérida, which practically have not been studied at all,” said Llambí.

Temperatures are warming faster at the Earth’s higher elevations than in lowlands, and scientists predict that the glacier – an ice sheet in the Andes Mountains – could be gone within two decades.

Even in the best of circumstances, it’s no easy trek from the small mountain town of Mérida to the ice sheet perched within Venezuela’s Sierra Nevada National Park at nearly 16,500 feet above sea level.

Blackouts shut off the refrigerators where the scientists keep their lab samples.

Gas shortages mean they sometimes have to work from home.

They even reuse sheets of paper to record field data because fresh supplies are so scarce, or waterproof their worn-out old boots using burnt candle wax.

The deepening crisis in Venezuela since the death of former president Hugo Chávez in 2013 has transformed even simple tasks into immense hurdles.

Perhaps the hardest toll has been watching many of their colleagues and students leave, joining the more than 4 million people who have fled Venezuela’s political upheaval in recent years.

Alejandra Melfo, a physics PhD and physics teacher at University of the Andes, says those left are determined to carry on with their research.

“As a scientist, you can’t wait and abandon your research and say, ‘I’ll suspend it and start again in ten years, I won’t do this now and I’ll pick it up later.’ You have to have continuity,” she said.

In this Feb. 19, 2019 photo, scientist Johanna Bracho shows Eloy Torres a plant sample during a mission to study the Andean ecosystem known as the paramos — a mist-covered mountain grassland that lies between the top of the treeline and the bottom of the Humboldt glacier, in Merida, Venezuela.

Rodrigo Abd / AP Photo

In this Feb. 19, 2019 photo, scientist Johanna Bracho shows Eloy Torres a plant sample during a mission to study the Andean ecosystem known as the paramos — a mist-covered mountain grassland that lies between the top of the treeline and the bottom of the Humboldt glacier, in Merida, Venezuela. Throughout history, glaciers have waxed and waned numerous times. But the rapid pace of glacial retreat over the past century and a half, accelerated by human activities and the burning of fossil fuels, creates a new urgency — and opportunity — for scientists to understand how freshly exposed rock forms new soil and eventually new ecosystems.

The Institute of Environmental and Ecological Sciences at the University of the Andes was founded 50 years ago, in 1969.

Scientists there see themselves as custodians of long-term data monitoring how temperatures and plant life are changing in the region, including in the Andean ecosystem known as the Páramos — a mist-covered mountain grassland that lies between the top of the treeline and the bottom of the glacier.

On the rocks left behind when the glacier retreats, the scientists think that a new ecosystem resembling the Páramos may eventually begin to develop.

But there are many questions still to answer: Will it take decades to form new soil? Can plant and animal species that thrive at lower elevations also survive further upslope? Will they be able to adapt to continually changing temperatures?

“There’s a race going on between global warming and the vegetation’s ability to colonise these high areas, so the high areas of Merida’s mountain range should be number one priority for conservation,” said Llambí.

This Associated Press series was produced in partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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