Tropical mountain glaciers are rapidly melting around the world (up to 99% are in South America), but those that remain in Colombia could be entirely gone before 2050.

Colombia has six remaining designated glaciers, in four distinct glacierized areas. The four areas are the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the Sierra Nevada de El Cocuy, Nevado del Huila volcano and three glaciated volcanoes within Los Nevados National Park (Nevado del Santa Isabel, Nevado del Tolima and Nevado del Ruiz). The volcanoes of Los Nevados National park and Nevado del Huila are part of the Cordillera Central of the Andes, Sierra Nevada de El Cocuy is part of the Cordillera Oriental of the Andes and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a coastal mountain range independent from the Andes. These glaciers have been losing ice mass for more than 150 years, since the “Little Ice Age”(LIA), but the scale and speed of this glacial melt has grown exponentially over the past 20-50 years.

Geographic Location of Colombia’s Remaining Glaciers. Source: IDEAM

Since the end of the LIA (estimated to have occured around 1850, 90% of Colombia’s ice mass has been lost, from an estimated total of 374 square kilometers (144 square miles) to only 37 square kilometers (14 square miles) in 2017, according to Colombia’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM). In the 20th century, eight glaciers disappeared, all on mountains whose peaks are below 4,800 meters (15,750 feet). These eight extinct glaciers had an estimated 24 square kilometers (9.3 square miles) of glacierized area at the end of the LIA. The remaining glaciated mountains in Colombia are between 4,950 meters (16,240 feet) for Santa Isabel and 5,775 meters (18,947 feet) for Pico Cristobal Colon in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which is world’s highest coastal mountain.

Colombia’s Declining Glacierized Surface Area, 1960 – 2017. Source: IDEAM

The decline of the six remaining glaciers has been speeding up. Since the middle of the 20th century, glacial area in Colombia has declined by more than 60%, and since the mid 1990’s alone, the overall glacierized extent in Colombia has declined by 36 percent. According to a study published in 2017 by renowned glaciologist Antoine Rabatel and collaborators, including Jorge Luis Ceballos at IDEAM, between the mid 1940’s and mid 1970’s, the surface area loss of Colombian glaciers was approximately one percent annually. However, in line with glacial loss from other Tropical Glaciers in the Andes and around the world, “Since the mid-1970s, the mean annual surface area loss rate has increased continuously, reaching −3% per year during the current decade in average for all the Colombian glacierized areas.” According to IDEAM, between 2010 and mid-2017, Colombia lost 18% of its total glacierized area, and between 2016-2017 alone, 5.8% of its total glacier surface area was lost.

The increase in surface area loss rate of glaciers since the mid 1970’s has occurred on all six defined Colombian glaciers, but not uniformly. The smaller and lower elevation glaciers of the Santa Isabel and Tolima volcanoes have seen the most dramatic reduction in glacial extent over this time period, compared to the higher elevation and larger glaciers of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and Sierra Nevada de El Cocuy. Nonetheless, they are all on trajectories towards extinction given even the most optimistic projections for global climate change.  

Profiling Colombia’s Remaining Glaciers and the Communities and Ecosystems that Depend on Them

Looking specifically at the chronicles and decline of the six remaining Colombian glaciers puts into perspective just how close they are to disappearing, and the sociocultural and ecosystematic impacts that will be felt when they are gone.

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range in the world, has had her glaciers reduced from 82 square kilometers (32 square miles) in surface area at the end of the LIA in 1850 down to 6.7 square kilometers (2.6 square miles) in 2017. Unlike Colombia’s other defined glacierized areas, the glaciers of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are not, and never were, a single ice mass, and presently consist of 38 different isolated ice masses. Although many of these ice masses are at higher altitude than other glaciers in Colombia, their isolation from each other makes them more vulnerable to permanent ice mass loss. Overall the surface area loss rate of glaciers in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is high, despite their greater elevation. From 2016-2017, 5.5% of the total glaciated area of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was lost.

The glacial melt of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta helps feed various rivers that are born in the cloud forests of the Sierra. These rivers support both agriculture and an “irreplaceable” richness of biodiversity that lives on the slopes of the Sierra, much of it endemic. In birds alone, there are more than 600 identified species, of which 18 species and 55 subspecies are endemic.

One of the rivers born in the Sierra is the Rancheria, which flows from its watershed in the cloud forests to the semi-arid desert region of La Guajira, Colombia. It is here in La Guajira where the Wayuu tribe is suffering from extended drought and contamination of water supplies due to climate change, mining activities, and the damming and decreasing flow of the Rancheria.

The four indigenous tribes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta; the Arhuaco, Kogui, Kankuamo and Wiwa, all consider the mountains and their glaciers to be sacred. The Arhuaco in particular, in their worldview called “kunsamu” in the Arhuaco language Iku, believe the glaciers of the Sierra, known as “Umunukunu,” to be the center of the universe, as do their close high sierra brothers, the Kogui.

“Kunsamu” – Vannessa Circe – Oil on Canvas – 2015

The Arhuaco symbolize the entire geography of their sacred territory, and associate the mountains in particular with the human body. The glaciers at the peaks of the mountains represent the head, the lakes and “paramos” represent the heart, and the rivers that flow from the glaciers, lakes and paramos of the Sierra represent the veins. In traditional Arhuaco dress, the men wear conical white “tutusomas” on their heads, to symbolize their connection to the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra. The tutusoma is a very strong part of the Arhuaco identity.

The Arhuaco and the other three tribes of the Sierra consider themselves to be “older brothers,” in charge of protecting the mother earth, while the rest of us are “younger brothers” that currently do damage to the natural world. The “mamos,” which are the spiritual leaders of the Arhuaco and Kogui, believe us younger brothers are bringing about the end of the world through our careless treatment of nature. According to a mamo in the Arhuaco village of Jerwa, “We protect the mother earth and try to restore her balance, but if our younger brothers do not change their ways, the world will die.” If the glaciers of the Sierra disappear, for the Arhuaco it is like losing the head of the mother earth that they feel is their natural duty to protect.

Sierra Nevada del Cocuy

The glaciers of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy (also referred to as “Guican”) are likely to be the last of Colombia’s glaciers to fully disappear, but their recession and eventual disappearance could be the most impactful.

El Cocuy is historically the largest glacierized area in Colombia (nearly 150 square kilometers, or 58 square miles, of glacier area at the end of the LIA), and remains so at 13,3 square kilometers (5.1 square miles). Despite this more than 90% reduction, and a significant amount of fragmentation, the glaciers of El Cocuy represent 36% of Colombia’s total remaining glacierized area as of 2017.

The highest point of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy is the glaciated peak, Ritacuba Blanco at 5,380 meters (17,651 feet). There have been in situ mass-balance studies performed on Ritacuba Blanco since 2008 (the only other mountain in Colombia with in situ studies is Santa Isabel volcano). Monthly measurements of accumulation and ablation are taken and analyzed. With nearly a decade of analysis, a clear “unbalanced situation” has been uncovered, where the mean altitude of the glaciers of El Cocuy (4,910 meters, or 16,109 feet) are 120 meters (394 feet) below the balanced-budget equilibrium-line altitude of 5,030 meters (16,503 feet) determined by the in situ mass balance measurements on Ritacuba Blanco glacier. This mass-balance disparity is growing annually. Combining these mass-balance studies with observed glaciated surface area decreases from satellite imagery (that showed a 4.8% decrease in glaciated surface area between 2016-2017 alone) allows for more concrete conclusions to be made concerning glacial volume loss, and the trends are clear; most, if not all, of El Cocuy’s glaciers will be gone by 2050.

The glacial melt of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy augments two of Colombia’s most important rivers that flow through unique ecosystems and zones of intensive agriculture; the Orinoco river to the Southeast and the mighty Magdalena river basin that flows through Colombia’s central heartland, to the West of El Cocuy. Glacial melt from El Cocuy also feeds many smaller rivers and streams that flow through the paramos and cloud forests along its slopes. It is in the cloud forests where the majority of the local U’Wa tribe lives.

The U’Wa indigenous people are extremely spiritual and renowned for being active conservationists. They gained international notoriety for dramatic threats of mass suicide in the 1990’s, in a successful protest against the exploitation of their territory in the Andean cloud forests by multinational oil company Occidental petroleum, which formed a partnership with Colombian state-owned Ecopetrol.

In their world view, the U’Wa believe in a supreme creator of the world, called “Siria,” who is also the guardian of the “mother earth,” which itself is represented by numerous deities (“Kanuar’a” is the creator of mountains, “Yaksowa” is the creator of water, “Busana” is the father of the U’wa people and other indigenous peoples, for example). According to the U’wa. when humans destroy the mother earth, through resource extraction or other forms of blatant disrespect, Siria punishes people through events like earthquakes and volcano eruptions, so preserving the natural world is critical spiritually and for survival. The U’wa consider the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy to be extremely sacred, and have battled government authorities, multinational corporations and disrespectful tourists alike, to protect the integrity of the mountains and their glaciers. In the U’Wa language, U’wa Ajka, El Cocuy is called “Zizuma.”

“Recession” – Vannessa Circe – Oil on Canvas – 2017

The impacts of losing the glaciers of Mount Zizuma for the U’wa will be profound, beyond the extensive environmental and agricultural consequences that will come from the diminished water supply in their cloud forest territory. In a 1997 letter to the Colombian public, the U’wa explained the spiritual importance of the rivers in their territories, most of which originate or are fed by the glaciers of Mount Zizuma: “Our rivers are not just rivers. Through them we communicate with our deities. They are the messengers and the messages flow in both directions. If they are polluted or if they die, we will no longer know what the gods want, and neither will the gods hear our cries nor our thanks.”

Los Nevados National Park and Nevado del Huila

Santa Isabel and Tolima Volcanoes

Two glaciated volcanoes within Los Nevados national park in the Tolima department of Colombia, Santa Isabel (4,950 meters, or 16,240 feet) and Nevado del Tolima (5,215 meters, or 17,110 feet), will be the first two of the six remaining Colombian glaciers to completely lose their ice mass.

Santa Isabel has already seen its ice mass decrease from 27.8 square kilometers(10.7 square miles) in 1850 to 0.63 square kilometers (0.24 square miles) in 2018. The past few years have seen an especially dramatic recession in Santa Isabel’s glaciers. According to IDEAM, between January 2016 and February 2018, Santa Isabel lost an incredible 37% of its glaciated surface area. This rapid loss is attributed mainly to the lower altitude and smaller size of Santa Isabel and rising atmospheric temperatures (it is generally accepted that small tropical glaciers below 5,000 meters, or 16,400 feet, are especially sensitive to warming temperatures due to climate change). Recent (2015-2016) strong El Nino events which resulted in stronger solar radiation and reduced snowfall due to less precipitation and cloud cover, increased melting that exposed volcanic ash that absorbs more heat than ice (lower reflectivity, or albedo), and possibly decreased regional precipitation over the past decade, may also have contributed to the rapid glacial recession on Santa Isabel.

The “La Conejeras” glacier on Santa Isabel has been the most extensively studied of all of Colombia’s glaciers, with analysis not only of surface area loss rate through satellite imagery, but also in situ measurements of ice thickness and surface mass balance, being collected over the past 10-13 years. Combining these measurements portends that all glacial ice mass on Santa Isabel could be gone within the next five years.

In comparison, between 2016-2017, Nevado del Tolima lost 7.1% of its glaciated surface area, but Tolima’s glaciated surface area was already the smallest of Colombia’s remaining glaciers, down from 8.6 square kilometers (3.3 square miles) in 1850 to 0.58 square kilometers (0.22 square miles) in 2017.

These two glaciers are close to densely populated regions with intensive agriculture, mining and hydroelectric dams. Since the glaciers are already so small compared to historical levels, their disappearance will have a relatively small impact on local practices that have been growing alongside the rapid recession of the glaciers. These urban and agricultural regions are likely to suffer much more from issues related to land degradation from unsustainable land-use and extractive industries, and future extended droughts and overall decreases in precipitation as global climate change advances.

Nevado del Ruiz

From the active crater on the summit of Nevado del Ruiz

Nevado del Ruiz is Colombia’s second highest volcano at 5,321 meters (17,457 feet), but historically the most active and damaging to human settlement. Nevado del Ruiz erupted in 1985 after 69 years of dormancy, and buried the town of Armero, killing more than 20,000 people out of a population of 29,000, in what came to be known as the “Armero tragedy.” There had been some advance warning through detected seismic activity between 1984 and 1985, but unfortunately not enough was done to evacuate the populace of Armero in time. Many still blame government inaction and incompetence for the tragedy.

While not the largest driver of glacial loss over decadal time scales, the eruptions and geothermal activity on the four glaciated and active volcanoes of Colombia (Santa Isabel, Tolima, Ruiz and Huila) also have the potential to contribute to glacial ice loss in the future, as they have done so in the past. The 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz caused an increased glacial surface loss rate between 1985 and the late 1990’s (an estimated 1.5 times the glacial loss caused by climatic changes alone), including an immediate melting of parts of the glacier due to “pyroclastic flows” (hot gas and volcanic debris from the crater), and ensuing “lahars” (landslides and mudflows), which are what buried Armero. Since 2010, Nevado del Ruiz has shown increased volcanic activity, with volcanic ash having mixed effects of potentially reducing solar radiation near the peak and increasing absorption of radiation within the ash, while also isolating some of the glacier from radiation when the ash level is thick enough.

At the end of the LIA in 1850, Nevado del Ruiz had 47.5 square kilometers (18.3 square miles) of glacial surface area. From 2016-2017, Nevado del Ruiz lost 7% of its glaciated area, or 0.63 square kilometers (0.24 square miles), leaving it with 8.7 square kilometers (3.36 square miles) of glacierized surface area.

Nevado del Huila

Nevado del Huila is Colombia’s highest volcano at 5,364 meters (17,598 feet), and recently its most active. The volcano was dormant for nearly half a millenia, but in 2007 started to come to life again. Since 2007, the glacier covering the summit of Nevado del Huila has been fragmented into two parts due to the ash and heat from this volcanic activity, and in 2008 there were multiple eruptions on the volcano. Since 2018 there has been further increased volcanic activity on Nevado del Huila, and a heightened alert of eruptions and earthquakes. The volcanic activity on Nevado del Huila was responsible for recent seismic events, with earthquakes and aftershocks being felt as far away as Bogota (more than 250 kilometers, or 155 miles) in January 2019. As of writing (May 2019), Nevado del Huila remains under level yellow alert.

Nevado del Huila is Colombia’s southernmost glacier, and its melt is an important water source for the entire Paez river basin, which drains into Colombia’s largest Andean river basin, the Magdalena. Due to its higher altitude and an ice mass that was only recently fragmented into two pieces, Nevado del Huila has the lowest glacial surface area loss rate of all Colombian glaciers. From 2016-2017, 2.7% of Nevado del Huila’s total glaciated area was lost, leaving it with 7.1 square kilometers (2.74 square miles) of glacierized surface area. At the end of the LIA in 1850, Nevado del Huila had 33.7 square kilometers (13 square miles) of glacierized surface area, so overall 79% of glacierized surface area on Nevado del Huila has been lost.

Nevado del Huila sits in the current and ancestral territory of the Nasa indigenous people, who are also referred to as “Paez.” For the Nasa, Nevado del Huila holds special significance, for creation myths, symbolism and traditional medicine ceremonies that use melt-water that comes directly from the glacier. In the Nasa language, “nasa yuwe,” Nevado del Huila is called “Yändy,” with the name specifically referencing the glaciated peak. The Nasa are a proud and very activist tribe that is constantly fighting to preserve their land and culture, often in the face of violence. The eventual disappearance of the glaciers on their sacred snow-capped volcano will be another blow to their pride and tradition.

A Glacierless Future for Colombia

There is some uncertainty as to exactly when the remainder of Colombia’s glaciers will disappear, due to insufficient data. Satellite imagery showing rapid and accelerating recession of glacierized surface area on all of Colombia’s remaining glaciers can only concretely say so much about future speed of glacial recession. Without in situ measurements of mass balance, ice thickness and total glacial volume, it is impossible for scientists to fully understand the internal scale and mechanisms that will lead to full ice mass loss. Nonetheless, without drastic mitigation strategies for climate change that help level off warming temperatures by the mid 21st century, there is little doubt in the eyes of experts that all of Colombia’s remaining glaciers will go the way of well-studied Nevado del Santa Isabel in the near future. According to Antoine Rabatel and colleagues, “Considering the imbalance of the glaciers in Colombia with the current climate conditions, the relatively low altitude of the Colombian glaciers and the expected changes in air temperature for the twenty-first century, most of them will most likely disappear in the coming decades and only the largest ones located on the highest summits will persist until the second half of the twenty first century…glaciers on the Nevado del Tolima will likely disappear before 2030, and most of the glaciers in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and Sierra Nevada de El Cocuy before 2050.”

Colombia is certainly not the only country at risk of losing most or all of its glacial ice mass in the coming decades of advancing climate change, and in certain other parts of the world the water scarcity and impacts on agricultural systems will be more profound than in Colombia. Peru and Bolivia in the Andes, and the densely-populated countries that depend on the glacial melt from the Tibetan plateau for their water and food supplies (such as Nepal, Bhutan, Northern India and Pakistan, with Pakistan being particularly vulnerable due to its arid climate and dependence on the glacial runoff feeding the Indus river), will be profoundly impacted. As nations battle over scarce resources, melting mountain glaciers could certainly lead to an international crisis.

In Colombia, high Andean wetland ecosystems known as “paramos,” have been helping and will continue to help buffer against some of the worst impacts of Colombia’s disappearing glaciers, as long as these paramos are properly preserved. Paramos, however, are also at risk due to climate change and anthropogenic land use like mining and agriculture.

The disappearance of Colombia’s glaciers will nonetheless have impacts on the health and productivity of many thousands of Colombians, who depend on these glaciers to some degree for drinking water, agriculture, mining and hydroelectricity. Colombia’s Tropical Glaciers are also important indicators of both regional and global climate change, so their loss, especially before rigorous study, is a strategic loss for better understanding past, present and future climate change.

The recession and disappearance of Colombia’s glaciers in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the Sierra Nevada de El Cocuy and atop Nevado del Huila, will also have profound cultural and spiritual impacts that run far deeper than the quantifiable losses of partially replaceable water resources.  Glaciers and their meltwater are sacred for the indigenous people of these territories, and their disappearance will lead to the further recession of these cultures, at a time when the world most needs to hear their voices.

References and Further Reading

Favier, V., Wagnon, P., and Ribstein, P. “Glaciers of the outer and inner tropics: A different behaviour but a common response to climatic forcing.” Geophysical Research Letters. August 2004.

Hide, Stephen. “El Cocuy: Trouble on the mountain, resolution on the horizon?” The City Paper. Bogota. February 2017.

IDEAM. “Informe del Estado de los Glaciares Colombianos.” 2018.

Izquierdo, Rebeca. “The Thinking People: The U’Wa Battle Oxy.” Cultural Survival. 2001.

“Manifiesto del Pueblo U’Wa.” 1997.

New Scientist. “The History of Ice on Earth.” May 2010.

Rabatel, A., Francou, B., Wagnon, P., et al.. “Current state of glaciers in the tropical Andes: a multi-century perspective on glacier evolution and climate change.” The Cryosphere. January 2013.

Rabatel, A., Ceballos, J.L., Zemp, M., et al..“Toward an imminent extinction of Colombian glaciers?” Geografiska Annaler. 2017.

Romo, Vanessa. “Peru: A Decade-Long Quest to Protect the World’s Largest Tropical Glacier.” Mongabay. July 2018.

Saout, S.L., Hoffmann, M., Rodrigues, A., et al.. “Protected Areas and Effective Biodiversity Conservation.” Science. November 2013.

Thompson, L., Mosley-Thompson, E., Davis, M.E., Brecher, H.H., “Tropical glaciers, recorders and indicators of climate change, are disappearing globally.” Annals of Glaciology. 2011.

University of Chicago. “The Energy Budget of Glaciers.”

Vuille, M., Rabatel, A., Sicart, J.E., et al.. “Rapid decline of snow and ice in the tropical Andes – Impacts, uncertainties and challenges ahead.” Earth Science Reviews. January 2018.

Vuille, M. “Climate Change and Water Resources in the Tropical Andes.” Inter-American Development Bank. 2013.

Wilkinson, Allie. “Expanding tropics will play greater global role, report predicts.” Science. June 2014.

Zemp, M., Cogley, J.G., et al..Global glacier mass changes and their contributions to sea-level rise from 1961 to 2016. Nature. April 2019.