Urgent glacier report: how much water does the Cordillera save for our future

Urgent glacier report: how much water does the Cordillera save for our future

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By Pablo Icardi

The inventory of glaciers in the Mendoza River basin is now ready, a fundamental piece of information for the future of the main oasis in the province. Most of the glaciers are "covered" and in total occupy the same surface as Capital, Godoy Cruz, Guaymallén and Junín together. Ricardo Villalba explains the details and the importance of taking care of that "savings bank" for water.

Much of Mendoza's wealth and future is in the mountains. Or in what it contains. And there is a vital resource there: the water stored in the "savings box" represented by the glaciers of the Andes mountain range. Now, for the first time, it is beginning to be known what is the real situation of this strategic reserve thanks to the inventory that the Argentine Institute of Nivology, Glaciology and Environmental Sciences (IANIGLA) is carrying out as part of the mandates emanating from the glacier law. And in the first data, to which MDZ had access, there is already important information.

Thus, for example, there are 570 square kilometers of glaciers that store water for a million inhabitants who live in the oasis that borders Greater Mendoza. And more than 60 percent of the glaciers in the Mendoza River basin "cannot be seen", since they are covered or rock glaciers, which also contain water reserves. Furthermore, all the ice formations are found above 3,300 meters above sea level and are mostly small glaciers.

The work is carried out by the Ianiglia, an institution directed by Ricardo Villalba, one of the most important researchers in the country. Villalba is part of the Panel of Experts that advises the UN on climate change (a group that won the Nobel Prize). His office is full of new maps that mark the areas that will now be protected. The information comes to light right in the middle of the debate on the promotion of extractive activities in Mendoza, such as mining.

The glacier inventory is being carried out throughout the country. Mendoza is the province with the greatest progress, because the work began earlier thanks to the prior support of the Provincial Government. The information that is being produced is essential.

On the one hand, the entire inventoried area is automatically protected by the glacier law. “The law indicates that in this area no exploration or mining or oil exploitation can be carried out. Nor can you build roads or do anything to modify the glacier, ”says Villalba.

But also, it is an essential database for decision making. “One can already tell which glaciers in the basin are most vulnerable. Also, the interesting thing is that one can pass this information on to decision makers. They can be told that the temperature is going to increase so that the strategic solid state water reserves disappear or are at risk ”, explains the specialist.

The data

So far the inventory is completed in the Mendoza River basin, while they advance with the Tunuyán River and begin with the South. The first steps of the work were obtaining information and images through some of the most accurate satellites of today. For this, the services of NASA and entities that manage Japanese satellites were hired. With this basic information, the cartography was prepared and then field work was carried out to specify the data and obtain other types of samples and information. The team that worked in the Mendoza River basin is made up of Lidia Ferri, Laura Zalazar and Mariano Castro.

In the case of the Mendoza River, 1612 glaciers were surveyed. Most of them are small in area, that is, less than half a square kilometer, but there are few glaciers that cover huge areas. In total, all the glaciers in the area cover a little more than 570 square kilometers. To get an idea it is equal to the surface of the Capital, Godoy Cruz, Guaymallén and Junín departments together. An important contextual information is that under this basin live more than a million inhabitants of Mendoza, who depend on the water that these glaciers keep.

The Tupungato River and the Cordón del Plata concentrate the largest amount of glaciers in the basin.

The most important sub-basin in terms of the amount of stored water is that of the Tupungato River (there are 595 glaciers), followed by the Cordón del Plata. Both are also coveted areas for reserves of other types of non-renewable resources.

41 percent of the glaciers in that basin are discovered, that is, the classic image of a block of ice in the middle of the mountain. 24% are rock glaciers, where ice is mixed with rock. Another 17% are covered glaciers; They consist of ice with a layer of sediment that covers and protects it on the surface.

The data is not minor, because when the glacier law was debated, a large part of the fight was over the type of glaciers to be protected and the inclusion of the periglacial area in a restricted area for activities. “The law is in force. Nothing that article 6 establishes, which is to change a glacier's location, alter its operation, can be done. You cannot do any activity that modifies the function of a glacier, which is to provide top quality water. I can't go and pollute a glacier, or spill toxic substances, or do any kind of construction, you can't build roads. That is already protected ”, clarifies Villalba.

Climate change and the true future of Mendoza

You have heard talk of a water crisis for a long time. In fact, Mendoza is going to be 2 years old in that situation. But there were worse situations that served to measure the importance of water and glaciers for the province.

In 1968 it did not snow in the Cordillera. That year there was one of the deepest water crises in memory, and there is no indication that this will not happen again. “In 1968 Mendoza was clearly dependent on glaciers. The Mendoza River brought almost 40% flow compared to a normal year, and it all came from the glaciers. If we did not have glaciers in 1968, all of us from Mendoza would have had to leave or have changed our way of life. We would plant potatoes or something else, but we would not have viticulture. The people of Mendoza are not aware that they owe the history of the development of the province to the glaciers of the mountain range ”, Villalba details.

The glaciers are above 3300MSNM

And just in case, highlight the importance of those huge blocks of ice. “Those glaciers take care of our back and are a more important reserve than the one we have in the bank. We have to be conscientious and intelligent in managing water. We cannot afford for that reserve, that little plate that the Cordillera gathered for hundreds of thousands of years, to destroy it because there is an economic boom in an activity that seems very good to us, which may be money for today. The Mendoza is not aware that the existence of Mendoza depends on those glaciers. I am not saying that Mendoza would be better or worse without the glaciers; but it sure would be different ”, explains the scientist.

The information that the inventory is producing will be able to determine the evolution of glaciers in the short term. Although there are already some assumptions: a product of climate change, there are already signs of its marked decline. "Unfortunately, with increases in temperature according to the general circulation of the atmosphere and possibly accompanied by a decrease in rainfall, the most likely future scenario is that these glaciers will be reduced over time, with which that reserve, that savings bank, it is going to decrease ", predicts Villalba.

The law mandates that, in order to have an overview of the behavior of glaciers and to make decisions, inventories are made periodically. "Within 5 years we have to have the entire country inventoried. But the important thing is that it has to be updated every 5 years. That will allow us to return to the same area, do all the mapping again and then with similar methodologies, let's go to have the possibility of comparing every 5 years how these masses of ice are changing. Know how that reserve, that 'money that I have in my pocket' is changing me. If it is increasing or I am getting poorer. it is very important to know what strategies we have to apply for management ”, explains the director of IANIGLA.

Work is also advanced in some areas of Patagonia. In other provinces there are particular cases. In San Juan, for example, the Government and the mining companies appealed the law through an amparo. And the local state carried out its own inventory of glaciers. But now the province will carry out the survey again following the methodology imposed by IANIGLA. Scientists from the University of San Juan will participate in this, who will survey the Río San Juan basin and the Río Jachal basin, where most of the large mining enterprises are located.

Mendoza is starting a strong debate about the future of its productive matrix. And in this context, extractive activities, especially oil and mining, appear as two of the main activities to promote. Now, with the glacier inventory underway, new information is added to take into account when making decisions.

Pablo Icardi - MDZ Diario de Mendoza - Argentina


The graphics and images belong to the progress report of the national inventory of glaciers, prepared by IANIGLA for the Secretary of the Environment of the Nation. References at the bottom.

Photos without references: Part of the team that works on the first national inventory of glaciers (landscape) // Ricardo Villalba, director of IANIGLA (vertical)

Video: Sea level rise is so much more than melting ice (May 2022).