DUGS Talk: Glacier Change in Bolivia

By Sally Benjamin

Dr Laura Edwards, from the University of Manchester, was the third guest speaker for DUGS on Tuesday 22nd November. Her talk was entitled ‘Glacier change and glacial lake outburst flood risk in the Bolivian Andes’. It achieved the highest turn out of members yet.
Dr Edwards began by giving a contextual overview of the research area. The tropical Andes constitute 99% of all tropical glaciers in the world. These are different to non-tropical glaciers as they accumulate mass in the dry, not the wet, season.
Today, increasing temperatures are having a significant impact on the ability of the glaciers to accumulate mass and thus they are shrinking.
An area closely studied by Dr Edwards is Glacial Lake Outburst Flooding (GLOF). This is when dammed ice shifts and retreats cause the glacial lake to surge. The deposition of moraine material and movement of water in a downstream direction wreaks havoc.
Keara village suffered a GLOF in 2009, with the almost complete drainage of a glacial lake causing devastation to agriculture and transport infrastructure. Dr Edwards explained that despite significant impacts, this area is lacking in research and documentation of incidents which is one of the reasons why her research has focused on this area.
More research is planned for 2017/18 using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
As well as GLOF’s there has been substantial loss of ice over time which has not been steady and has varied between rapid and modest shrinkage. As glacial lakes recede, growing numbers of proglacial lakes are being recorded.
Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America. So, research into GLOFs and glacial lakes is important for preventing and monitoring incidents that impact on the residing population when they burst. Infrastructure and agriculture can be lost but it can also mean higher water security and levels of irrigation due to the increase in meltwater. It is very difficult, financially, for poorer countries to mitigate and adapt to the problems caused by climate change.
The final section of the lecture was on fieldwork, a very exciting and important area of geography. Dr Edwards talked enthusiastically of her experiences in Greenland and Canada, interspersed with personal anecdotes.


Photograph: Luke Andrews, Bolivia

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