Peru Monitors Melting Glaciers to Mitigate Effects on Farms, Grid

By Lucien O. Chauvin

A state research agency in Peru is betting on a low-cost monitoring system and use of a government satellite to keep an eye on glacier-fed lakes that could pose a threat to cities and the country’s infrastructure.

Peru could face billions of dollars in infrastructure loss if measures aren’t taken to mitigate the impact of climate change on the country’s glaciers.

“Glaciers are shrinking each year, but we are not preparing for what could happen,” Benjamin Morales, a geological engineer who has studied glacier changes and executive director at the National Institute for Research in Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, said. “This is not only about water sources in the future, but natural disasters that could strike at any time.”

Peru’s glaciers lost 49.2 percent in coverage between 1962 and 2016, translating to a loss of 1,078 square kilometers (416 square miles) of coverage, according to the institute. While that melted ice trickles down the mountain harmlessly on a daily basis, Morales said there are growing risks down the road related to the melting glaciers—and one of those is flooding.

A Growing Risk

The institute is monitoring eight highland lakes that have increased in volume over the past few decades as glaciers have melted—the most critical of which is Palcacocha, a lake sitting nearly 16,400 feet above sea level 14 miles east of Huaraz, a city of 150,000 people in the north-central state of Ancash.

Palcacocha’s volume jumped from 139 million cubic feet of water in 2003 to over 611 million cubic feet at the start of 2018. A flood following a landslide in 1941 sent water cascading toward Huaraz, killing close to 2,000 people in a city then filled with 25,000 people, according to the city’s municipal website.

A similar disaster would not only affect more people, but also the nearby 263-megawatt Canon del Pato hydroelectric power plant and tens of thousands of irrigated farmland producing crops for export.

“We calculate at $2.9 billion damage to infrastructure, including the power grid and irrigation projects, if Palcacocha were to rupture,” Ricardo Villanueva, an environmental engineer and director of the institute’s information and knowledge division, said.

Chile’s Orazaul, which took over the power plant from U.S.-based Duke Energy in late 2016, was unavailable to comment to Bloomberg Environment.

Monitoring from the Sky

The institute began testing its first real-time monitoring system for Palcacocha Dec. 29, 2017. It consists of three towers, including one at the lake, which use solar panels, storage batteries, wireless connections, and cameras generally used for home security to transmit information to its home base.

“We are now able to monitor Palcacocha remotely, which is important, and we did everything at a lost of less than $500 per tower,” Villanueva said. “We are going to test the system and replicate it at other lakes.”

The next step is more much high-tech and will involve images from Peru’s French-built and launched satellite that is orbiting more than 430 miles above the earth. The satellite, which began transmitting images a year ago, will play a major role in helping to monitor the impact of climate change on glaciers, Air Force General Carlos Caballero, the head of the Peruvian Space Agency, said.

“We are able to use images to determine what is happening with glacier lakes, most of which are remote and difficult to access,” Caballero said. “This is going to be a powerful tool as the state develops risk-management plans.”

The agency is currently providing images of glaciers to the National Water Authority and has a deal with the institute to supply it with data. Caballero said the goal is to have around 2,000 public and private entities using satellite images by 2019.

“Any kind of information and alliance that helps monitor what is taking place is a step in the right direction,” Villanueva said.