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Ritacuba Blanco glacier is vanishing rapidly due to climate change

Just a few months ago, Ritacuba Blanco stood majestically in the Colombian Andes, cloaked in a pristine layer of ice and snow. Today, massive cracks scar its surface, revealing bare rock beneath, and signaling an alarming change.

The glacier, located in Sierra Nevada del Cocuy National Park, faces a rapid demise, melting at an unprecedented pace due to the compounded effects of climate change and the El Niño phenomenon.

Disappearing glaciers of Colombia

Colombia was once a land of glaciers. In the early 20th century, 14 of its peaks boasted these icy giants, covering the mountains with a perpetual layer of ice and snow.

Over time, however, relentless warming took its toll on these glaciers. Today, after decades of climate change and rising temperatures, only six remain. Even these survivors are rapidly retreating, and Ritacuba Blanco is the most vulnerable of them all.

The Ritacuba Blanco Glacier, located in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy National Park about 250 kilometers northeast of Bogotá, is melting at an unprecedented rate.

In 2022, it had only 12.8 square kilometers of ice and snow remaining — the lowest coverage ever recorded by the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies (Ideam).

This year, the glacier’s condition has worsened due to the compounded effects of climate change and El Niño. Massive cracks now scar its surface, revealing the bare rock beneath.

Why does this matter?

Glaciers are more than just picturesque landscapes. They act as natural reservoirs, storing water in frozen form during colder months and releasing it slowly when they melt during warmer periods.

This gradual melting provides essential water to the surrounding ecosystems and communities, particularly during the dry season. With glaciers shrinking, less ice is available to melt, disrupting the delicate balance and throwing local water supplies into chaos.

The loss of glaciers like Ritacuba Blanco has significant consequences for both people and nature. Communities that rely on glacial meltwater for drinking, irrigation, and hydropower are at risk of water shortages.

In Bogotá, unprecedented water rationing has already been implemented due to record low reservoir levels. Ecosystems dependent on consistent water flow from glaciers also face severe stress, threatening biodiversity in the region.

What’s causing the Ritacuba Blanco’s rapid melt?

The culprits behind Ritacuba Blanco’s rapid melting are a double whammy: a natural weather pattern called El Niño, combined with the long-term warming caused by human activities.

El Niño

El Niño is a warming of ocean waters in the eastern Pacific that occurs every two to seven years, lasting about nine to twelve months. It’s a natural climate cycle, but its effects have been amplified by rising global temperatures.

As the world’s baseline temperature continues to rise due to climate change, El Niño events are becoming more intense and damaging.

During an El Niño event, warm ocean waters disrupt normal weather patterns across the globe. In South America, including Colombia, El Niño brings extreme heat and dry conditions. This results in decreased precipitation and more intense solar radiation on glacier surfaces, accelerating their melting.

In Colombia, El Niño has caused major fires, with more than 17,000 hectares of forest going up in flames. Lakes have dried up, and the capital, Bogotá, has implemented unprecedented water rationing due to record low reservoir levels. For glaciers like Ritacuba Blanco, El Niño spells disaster.

“The El Niño phenomenon is perhaps the worst thing that can happen to our snowy peaks or glaciers,” said Jorge Luis Ceballos, a glaciologist at the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Ideam).

Greenhouse gases

The UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is unequivocal in its assessment of the main culprit behind global warming: Heat-trapping greenhouse gases are unequivocally the main culprit.

These gases, primarily carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, come mainly from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas.

When released into the atmosphere, these gases act like a giant blanket around the Earth, trapping heat that would otherwise escape into space. This greenhouse effect raises global temperatures, leading to widespread climate changes, including glacier melting.

Since the Industrial Revolution, human activities have significantly increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This has resulted in a steady rise in global temperatures, with 2023 being one of the hottest years on record.

Ritacuba Blanco is melting before our eyes

“At the end of last year, the walls here were about six meters (20 feet) high… today, they are one meter,” glacier guide Edwin Prada told AFP on a recent ascent of the peak.

The speed of the change is what’s shocking. Just a few months ago, Ritacuba Blanco’s glacier looked eternal. Now, cracks run deep in the ice, revealing bare rock, and the meltwater flows in rivers instead of being locked away safely for future use.

“Never has the thaw been as noticeable as it is now… Every time you go up it is worse,” expressed Humberto Estepa, a local resident.

Global consequences of Ritacuba Blanco melting

Ritacuba Blanco isn’t an isolated case. Glaciers worldwide are vanishing. The Himalayas, the “water towers of Asia,” are losing their ice, threatening crucial water sources for millions of people. This melting ice has a more direct impact too – rising sea levels.

“Ocean warming and rapidly melting glaciers and ice sheets drove the sea level last year to its highest point since satellite records began in 1993,” reports the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Think of glaciers like giant, slow-moving rivers of ice. When they melt into the ocean, the water level goes up.

The devastation of the glaciers isn’t just about water and sea levels. It’s a wake-up call from the planet that the climate crisis is real, and it’s accelerating. El Niño made things worse this time around, but the real problem is the relentless warming we’re causing.

El Niño has also contributed to devastating wildfires in Colombia and water shortages so extreme that they’ve led to rationing in the capital city.

What can we do to save glaciers like Ritacuba Blanco?

The story of Ritacuba Blanco is a somber one, but it’s not hopeless. There’s still time to act and help preserve this and other glaciers:

Reduce greenhouse gas emissions

One of the most effective ways to tackle climate change is to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy sources like solar, wind, and hydropower can significantly reduce emissions.

Simple measures like using energy-efficient appliances, LED bulbs, and proper insulation can lower our carbon footprint. Walking, cycling, and using public transport instead of driving can reduce emissions. For longer distances, consider carpooling or driving electric vehicles.

By reducing, reusing, and recycling, we can minimize waste and lower emissions associated with the production of goods.

Support climate policies

Individual actions are essential, but systemic change requires collective political will. Let your elected officials know you care about climate issues. Call, write, or email them, urging them to support strong environmental policies.

Advocate for laws and regulations that promote renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable agriculture while reducing emissions from fossil fuels.

Support candidates and political leaders who prioritize climate action and have concrete plans to tackle the crisis. Partner with local and global organizations that are working towards environmental sustainability.

Spread the word

Raising awareness about the climate crisis can inspire others to act. Have conversations about climate change, its impacts, and the actions we can take with friends and family.

Organize workshops, film screenings, or discussion groups on climate topics. Share informative articles, videos, and personal stories about climate action on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Glaciers like Ritacuba Blanco are the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to climate change. Their plight is a warning we can’t afford to ignore. It’s time to listen and act before we lose more of these icy treasures.


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