BY GREGORY J. RUMMO
Climate change has replaced the term global warming to more accurately reflect the fact that there are places on our planet where the climate has indeed changed over the course of the twentieth century; whether becoming warmer or in some cases, colder; wetter or dryer, more stormy or less so. Nonetheless, it is still one of the most important issues of the twenty-first century, affecting almost every part of the world and every human being in one way or another. We are however, not the first generation to experience climate change in such drastic measures as the media often portrays it.
The meteorological history of our planet over the last 1000-plus years tells an interesting story of the climate's ups and downs. There have been epochs of warmer and colder climates. The heating witnessed during the latter half of the twentieth century was not unprecedented.
From about 850 A.D. to 1250, a 400-year warming occurred that we know as the Medieval Warm Period. The website Windows to the Universe explains that during this period, "the Vikings may have been better able to explore and colonize many areas in Northern Europe while the climate was relatively warm...because there was less sea ice. They traveled by boats to Greenland among other places through seas that would later become blocked by sea ice during the Little Ice Age." Two points to note: the Vikings called this place where their cows could graze on grass in green meadows and where they could plant warm-weather crops such as potatoes, Greenland not Iceland, and that this 400-year period of warming occurred on the earth long before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the internal combustion engine, and all of the other human activity involving the burning of fossil fuels that is routinely blamed for the warming recorded during the latter half of the twentieth century.
The Little Ice Age (1350 - 1850) which followed the Medieval Warm Period was a period when the world's glaciers expanded, covering much of North America, Northern Europe and Asia. The scientists who study the world's glaciers recognize this fact and tell us that since the end of the Little Ice Age, the world's glaciers have been receding at more or less a constant rate although there are some glaciers that buck this general trend. The 2009 Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change reported in its paper, "Climate Change Reconsidered," that in some places, for example in Scandinavia, glacial ice is increasing and in the Caucasus, the rate of retreat and advance is basically in equilibrium.
Despite all the talk of a "consensus" among climate scientists over the role of industrialization; the burning of fossil fuels and the concomitant increase of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere as the root cause for climate change there in fact is no such consensus and if there ever was, last year's revelations of fact-fudging and statistical massaging from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England have all but destroyed what remained. Whether industrialization plays a significant role is now wide open to speculation. Many believe that the periodic fluctuations of sunspots or in general solar activity or some other natural phenomenon is the cause for the observed changes in the Earth's climate.
But this debate is lost on the people living in the Andes Mountains in Peru. For them, climate change is a serious reality, especially in the snow-covered and glacier encrusted mountains of the Cordillera Blanca where the glaciers have been shrinking at an alarming rate over the last three decades and the annual rainfall has dropped, impacting the farming communities in the Cordillera Negra and the surrounding valleys.
Huascaran National Park is located in the heart of the Peruvian Andes. It is a principle focus of attention for adventurers and mountain climbers the world over. Within its 3000 square kilometers are 663 glaciers, 296 lakes and 41 tributaries of three major rivers. There are over 50 mountains with summits above 5,000 meters MSE. But the charm of the park has literally been melting in front of the world's eyes over the last 30 years. Almost 25% of the glaciers and the snow cover has disappeared. The most drastic changes can be seen at Pastoruri Glacier which has been receding at a rate of 24 meters per year. Scientists estimate that at the current rate, Pastoruri will have disappeared in as little as 15 years.
Huaraz is the major city in the area with a population of approximately 125,000. It is located in the middle of the Callejón de Huaylas, the immense valley that divides the Andes Mountains into two ranges. There are hotels and three and four-star restaurants where one can eat like a king for next to nothing. There are companies that offer guide services for mountaineering and trekking through various parts of Huascaran National Park as well as through the Cordillera Huayhuash, another scenic portion of the Andes located a little farther to the south. The city itself is encircled by mountains, the Cordillera Blanca to the east and the gentler slopes of the Cordillera Negra to the west. From any point in the city, the entire western-most portion of the Cordillera Blanca is visible. Mountains with names like Huandoy, Huascaran, (Peru's highest mountain at 22,205 feet) Chopicalci, Hualcan, Copa, Vallunaraja, Ochapalca, Ranrapalca and Churup standing tall like mute centurions, guarding the city while reflecting the sunrise off of their ice-crusted summits.
For the last ten years I have made an annual pilgrimage there. I have stood transfixed at the Mirador Rataquenua, a scenic overlook at 11,000 feet, which allows for a panorama of Huaraz below and the Cordillera Blanca in the distance. There is no doubt that such a vista is impressionable, perhaps even surrealistic and frozen in time. It is understandable why such a place attracts trekkers and mountain climbers from all over the world. And it is equally understandable why the people of Huaraz are worried about climate change in their own backyard.