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Global warming hits the Andes: Researchers discover shrinking glaciers

A newly published report finds glaciers in the Andes mountains are melting at an alarming rate, the latest sign that global warming may be accelerating its grip on the region.

Writing in the journal Cryosphere of the European Geosciences Union, a team of researchers warn the increasing rate of warming could have a major impact on the region’s freshwater sources, possibly depleting the area of key resources over the next fifty years.

The report notes that melt rates in the region have increased dramatically since the 1970s. According to the international team of scientists, the region has experience warming of 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past fifty years, making it one of the fastest warming areas in the region. Glaciers in the Southern Hemisphere has reportedly shrunk by an astounding average of thirty to fifty percent, and the melting of glaciers below 17,000 feet is even more dramatic. Researchers say of the 18 currently existing mountain glaciers in Peru, 22 percent of the surface has been lost over the past 27 to 35 years. Meanwhile, a large majority of the region smaller glaciers are expected to shrink within a generation.

According to Antoine Rabatel, a researcher at the Laboratory for Glaciology and Environmental Geophysics in Grenoble, France, and lead author of the study, the increasing rate of warming is nothing new. Rabatel notes that the retreat of glaciers in the Andes is well documented, but it is now far more pronounced than scientists previously predicted at this point in time.

“Because the maximum thickness of these small, low-altitude glaciers rarely exceeds 40 meters [131 feet], with such an annual loss they will probably completely disappear within the coming decades,” says Rabatel.

Researchers said the source of the warming is likely directly linked to climate change. The team noted that it took into consideration the possibility of a reduce rate of rainfall, a possibility that some climate change skeptics have pointed to in the past. Rabatel noted that the study found no change in the region’s rate of rainfall.

The disturbing warming trend is especially concerning due to the fact the Andes holds 99 percent of all the worlds tropical glaciers. Even more disconcerting  researchers estimate the loss of the glaciers could force upwards of 30 million to find other sources of freshwater — a major issue considering many of the current sources of freshwater are already considered over capacity. The research is also widely seen as an important step towards determining the best path for saving many of the glaciers. Researchers say their analysis of the region’s glaciers could serve to predict future behavior of the Andean glaciers and the impact of their accelerated melting on the region.

The report comes in the wake of the latest report of the U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change  (IPCC). The international organization’s report is widely seen as the most definitive source on climate change and its impact. The report identifies Latin America, in particular, as one of the most vulnerable areas to climate change, warning a shift in just a few degrees could lead to widespread changes that affect millions of people.