8 de abril del 2001
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The Thawing of the Peaks

By María Isabel García*

The glaciers of Colombia's Andean peaks are melting and the water reservoirs they feed could dry up within the century.

BOGOTA - The thawing of Colombia's mountain glaciers could mean the end of the water sources at lower altitudes their runoff feeds, such as the aqueduct of Manizales, capital of Caldas department, says Pablo Leyva, director of the governmental Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM).

Manizales, with 345,000 residents is located 2,130 meters about sea level in the Central mountain range, one of the three branches of the Andes in this part of South America.

Its aqueduct is supplied by the Blanco and Chinchina Rivers and from several gorges originating in Los Nevados National Park, an area of 38,000 hectares that is home to three of Colombia's six glaciers: Tolima, Santa Isabel and Ruiz.

Because of it environmental value, Los Nevados Park, in the heart of the coffee-growing region, was designated a strategic eco-region. Forty municipalities in the central departments of Caldas, Quindío, Risaralda and Tolima take at least a portion of their water from sources originating in Los Nevados.

The glacier of the snow-covered Ruiz volcano, which stands 5,400 meters above sea level, is the nation's largest and most awe-inspiring, and is a major tourist destination. It is, however, often associated with the 1985 Armero (Tolima) tragedy, when an avalanche caused by a volcanic eruption and the thawing of its peak buried more than 20,000 people.

The reduction of the snow and ice layers at the highest altitudes is a planet-wide phenomena that coincides with end of the current inter-glacial era, begun 10,000 years ago, explained IDEAM geographers Jorge Luis Cevallos and Christian Uscátegui.

''We must be cautious, but not alarmist. The thawing has accelerated because we are nearing the end of the glacial era. Remember that glaciation takes 100,000 years, and the inter-glacial period lasts 10,000,'' Cevallos told Tierramérica.

Cevallos and Uscátegui point out that other tropical glaciers - in Ecuador, Kenya and Namibia - are also shrinking.

Colombia's Caribbean region holds the glacier of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal intertropical mountain in the world, whose highest peaks - Colón and Bolívar - reach 5,700 meters above sea level.

Numerous rivers are born there that irrigate the flatlands in the departments of Magdalena, César and Guajira. The territory is home to some 15,000 Arhuacos, descendants of the residents of the Lost City, one of Colombia's most populous pre-Hispanic settlements. The native peoples achieved advanced techniques in erosion control for farming and in maximizing usage of the yearly rainfall.

The region is home to ''Citurna, land of snow,'' the name given by the amazed chroniclers of the Spanish Conquest, such as the priest Pedro Simón, who wrote of the ''sweetest waters of gold that slide through the summits like crystalline snakes until reaching the valley depths.''

In another arm of the Andes, the eastern range, the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy looms, giving the name to a 306-hectare park in the jurisdiction of the departments of Boyacá and Casanare, northeast of Bogota.

Sierra Nevada del Cocuy is South America's most extensive snow and ice mass north of the Equator. It is home to 22 snow-covered peaks with altitudes ranging from the 4,800 meters of Diamante to the 5,330 meters above sea level of Ritacuba Blanco.

Lastly, the Central branch of the Andes holds the Huila glacier. The mountain is an active volcano, as gases and sulfur crystals emanate from crevasses at altitudes of 4,900 meters. The glacier's runoff flows into Colombia's two main rivers, the Cauca and the Magdalena.

* María Isabel García is an IPS correspondent




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