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ALERT: Millions of Bolivian Residents at Risk Due to Receding Glaciers from Climate Change

Oct 21, 2016 05:21 AM EDT
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A new study revealed that 2.3 million living in La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia is at risk due to the receding glaciers caused by the increasing temperature in the region.
(Photo : Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

A new study revealed that 2.3 million living in La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia is at risk due to the receding glaciers caused by the increasing temperature in the region.

The study, published in the journal The Cryosphere, showed that glaciers in Bolivia have shrink by 43 percent between 1986 and 2014. The shrinking of glaciers could leave behind lakes typically dammed by bedrock or glacial debris prone to avalanches, rockfalls and earthquakes. These lakes could overflow resulting to catastrophic floods that could wash away villages or infrastructures downstreams.

"We mapped hundreds of lakes," said Simon Cook, a lecturer at the Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK and lead author of the study, in a press release. "Some lakes are very small and pose little risk. Others are very large, but there's little or no possibility that they would drain catastrophically. Others are both large enough to create a big flood, and sit beneath steep slopes or steep glaciers, and could be dangerous."

For the study, the researchers used satellite images from Landsat, the U.S. Geological Survey's and NASA's Earth observation program, to measure change in glacier area from 1986 to 2014. The researchers discovered that the glaciers covering the Bolivian Andres have shrunk from 530 square kilometers in 1986 to 300 square kilometers in 2014.

By factoring in the presence of settlements and infrastructures near lakes and glaciers around lakes, the researchers were able to identify 25 glacial lakes across Bolivian Andres to be potentially dangerous to communities and infrastructures. The researchers noted that if the smallest lake was to drain completely, it will result to flood with a peak discharge of 600 cubic meters per second, while the largest lake could yield over 125,000 cubic meters of water.

Severe flooding is not the only problem to be faced by Bolivians if their glaciers continue to shrink. Glacial meltwater is considered be very important for irrigation, drinking water and hydropower in the region. About 2.3 million people living in La Paz and El Alto, together with several others living in mountain villages, get about 15 percent of their water supply from the glaciers. If the trend of glacial retreat continues, less water will be supplied in the rivers and lakes, resulting to lesser water supply during dry seasons.

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