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So You Care About the Polar Bears?

August 19, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s impossible (and unfair) to expect everyone you meet to have abundant knowledge on science and current events.  I do, however, wish that I would not have to explain that my dedication to climate change research has nothing to do with the polar bears.

What do I have against polar bears?

I love polar bears.  The one at the zoo is adorable, and I do hope that his feral buddies have long happy lives and produce many, many children.  I just don’t believe that the polar bears are the larger concern when it comes to climate change.

I’m mostly worried about the water.  Projections for global water resources are becoming increasingly dire within a rapidly changing environment.  Water resources define human – political, economic, and social – vulnerability in many regions of the world today.   Certain alpine regions are particularly vulnerable, as rapidly retreating glaciers provide the primary source of fresh surface water downstream.

One such region is the Rio Santa watershed, which drains the Cordillera Blanca mountain range in Ancash, Peru.   The Cordillera Blanca contains the world’s highest concentration of tropical glaciers – nearly 600.  The glaciers provide a hydrologic buffer during the austral winter dry season, seasonally supplying between 40 and 60 percent of the region’s water resources.  As the glaciers retreat, a process begins in which meltwater discharge first increases and becomes much more variable, and then decreases and eventually ceases to supply the local rivers altogether.  Most of the glaciers in this region are in the later stages of the process, which poses some major problems for the developing and rapidly-growing populations downstream.   The consequences of reduced water resources in this region are numerous, and Peruvians have been and will be required to adapt under a rapidly shifting regime.   The figure below shows the various ways in which this glacier-dependent region uses water (click to embiggen).

Image

Climate change is an issue that is here and now.  Mitigation is important, but I think our focus should be on how we’re adapting, managing, and planning for a problem that is already upon us.

For a better-written article about Peruvian glaciers and people:

Indian Country: Melting Andes Glaciers Worry Indigenous Peoples

And for those of you who think that gritty science papers are sexy:

Mark et al. (2010). Climate Change and Tropical Andean Glacier Recession: Evaluating Hydrologic Changes and Livelihood Vulnerability in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru

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