The Andes provide water resources to some 90 million people along their entire length. The food and water security of these people depends on the stores of water held in the snow and glacier ice in these mountains.
Climate change is affecting these stores of water. Snowfall events are increasingly fewer in number, but bring more extreme precipitation. Global heating is melting this snow, depleting snowpacks and causing glaciers to recede. As the mountain glaciers of the Andes recede, the ability of these glaciers to buffer downstream water flow, and protect people living in these catchments, is decreased.
Deplete and Retreat: the future of the Andean Water Towers
This large (£2.5 million) NERC Highlights Project (called ‘Deplete and Retreat: the Future of Andean Water Towers‘) brings together experts in glaciology, climate and hydrology and aims to assess the sensitivity of water resources across the Andes to the changing supplies of snow and ice.
We will integrate observations with combined climate, ice-flow and hydrology models, improving our ability to predict water resource availability at ten key river catchments along the Andes, from Peru to Chilean Patagonia. Our experiments and observations cover the entire industrial era forwards to 2100 AD under a range of possible future warming scenarios, enabling us to study catchment sensitivity to past, ongoing and projected future climate change.
This four-year project runs from December 2022 to December 2026.
Fieldwork and remote sensing
The team will conduct four field campaigns to install monitoring equipment, use satellite imagery to detect change from space, and simulate the water tower system using state-of-the-art computer models. These techniques will be used to investigate how human-induced climate change has altered water storage.
Combining numerical models
Jeremy Ely, project lead, said: “Our project aims to improve our understanding of how snow and glacial ice are stored at high altitudes in the Andes, to help manage water resources as our climate continues to change. We will test our computer models by going back in time, studying records of past climate and previous glacier extent. This will help us get a clearer picture of the future of water across the Andes”.
This project is funded by NERC (Natural Environment Research Council).
Find out more about our other work in Patagonia here.