Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Massif •

Last update: November 19th, 2019 at 11:00 am

This early morning photograph, taken by astronauts looking down from the International Space Station, shows the many peaks of Colombia’s Santa Marta massif. The highest of these—approximately 5,700 meters (18,700 feet) tall and named for Christopher Columbus—supports a small, but permanent snow cap even though it is just 10 degrees north of the Equator. The summits are so high that trees cannot grow; the alpine landscapes appear gray and brown because only grass and small shrubs can survive the cold. The lower slopes are covered with the green tinge of forests. A forest fire sends up smoke from a valley in the distance.

Interestingly, glacial erosion features are visible throughout the gray summit zone area, evidence of an ice cap that was once hundreds of times larger than the modern snow cap. The Santa Marta snow cap is the only place where snow can be seen from the tropical beaches of the Caribbean Sea coast, about 45 kilometers (30 miles) away (off the top of the image).

The Santa Marta region is a tourist attraction because visitors experience several changes in climate, landscape, vegetation, and wildlife as they ascend the mountains. The massif contains dozens of endemic and threatened species, leading the Colombian government to protect the area as a national park and UNESCO to label it a biosphere reserve.


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