The glaciers of Ecuador are located in the mountain ranges of volcanic origin and are restricted to the highest peaks. The glaciers (Antisana, Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, Cayambe, Los Ilinizas (north and south), El Altar and Carihuairazo) are limited to two mountain ranges: the Cordillera Occidental with four glaciers and the Cordillera Oriental with three glaciers. Its geographical location is “strategic” because it collects “atmospheric circulation from the Pacific” and also “humidity from the Amazon,” explains Rubén Bazantes, a glaciologist at the National Polytechnic University of Ecuador. This location is key, since it causes heavy rainfall that reaches 6,000 mm a year and makes the behavior of Ecuadorian glaciers different from that of others in the Andes.
The loss of volume in the glaciers of this region has been significant in recent decades and will probably continue to occur in the context of climate change. Currently, Ecuador has lost approximately 50% of the snowy glacier coverage since the mid-1950s. According to the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment (MAE), in 1990 the ice cover in Ecuador corresponded to 97, 2 km2. Seven years later it went to 60.7 km2, in 2010 it was reduced to 48 km2 and currently it is approximately 43.5 km2 (according to the latest National Inventory of Glaciers of Ecuador 2018, presented in the same year to the scientific society European Union of Geosciences).
The most imminent threat looms over the glaciers of “Carihuairazo”, in the province of Chimborazo, and the “Iliniza sur”, between the provinces of Pichincha and Cotopaxi. In the case of the “Carihuairazo”, 96% of its glacial surface has melted in a period of 63 years. Currently, the glacier covers an area of 30,000 square meters. The analyzes carried out estimate that this glacier will most likely disappear in the next 5 years. While the “Iliniza sur” does not have an exact projection, the thaw has also been notable. “Until the end of 2018, an average loss of 53% of glacier coverage was registered (nationwide),” said expert Bolívar Cáceres from the National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology (INAMHI), who also warns that it is difficult to predict the future of glaciers because the climatic conditions are random.
The melting is more evident in the “Carihuairazo” and “Iliniza sur” glaciers because they are located below the “equilibrium line” (limit between the accumulation zone and the ablation zone). This line is at 5,120 meters of altitude, so both glaciers are in a “state of loss and there is no recovery”, that is, they are in an ablation zone. The “Carihuairazo” is at 5,025 masl, and the “Iliniza sur”, at 4,750 masl.
The decrease in glacier coverage will cause irreparable impacts on the hydrological regime of the moors. In the dry season, that is, when there is a deficit of rain, the water of the moors comes in part from the melting of the glaciers. In the absence of glaciers, the ecosystem with development in high altitude areas, would lose this source of water regulation during periods of drought. Consequently, another consequence is the extinction of native flora and fauna species in the Ecuadorian moors, or the arrival of invasive species as a consequence of an ecosystem change. Another consequence is tourism. The Andean glaciers are a great attraction for national and international nature-loving tourists. Its disappearance could lead to the reduction of income of the surrounding communities that live on tourism.
Finally, the situation of the glaciers of Ecuador is critical, so reversing the effects of climate change on the reduction of glacier coverage both in Ecuador and in the rest of the planet is a global challenge, which must lead to the union and to the joint work of all parties.
– UNESCO y GRID-Arenda, 2018. Atlas de Glaciares y Aguas Andinos. El impacto del retroceso de los glaciares sobre los recursos hídricos. Link
– Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo, 2019. Ecuador. Link
– El Tiempo, diario de Cuenca, 2019. “Ecuador podría perder dos de sus siete glaciares”. Link
– El comercio, 2020. “Ecuador ha perdido más de la mitad de su cobertura glaciar”. Link
– Los glaciares de Los Andes, en peligro de extinción. Link