A mountainous country loses its last glacier

CARACAS, Venezuela - The last of Venezuela’s glaciers has disappeared, scientists say, despite an unusual government effort to save it.

The demise of La Corona, downgraded to an ice field after shrinking from more than 1,100 acres to less than five, makes this South American nation the only one in the Andes range without a glacier - but it’s unlikely to be the last. Scientists, who long predicted the end of La Corona, say warming temperatures will render the entire Northern Andes, which snakes through Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, glacier-free by 2050.

“Our tropical glaciers are disappearing quickly since the Seventies,” said Alejandra Melfo, an astrophysicist at the University of the Andes in Mérida. “Now people are feeling the absence.”

As recently as 40 years ago, Venezuela boasted at least three glaciers, slow-moving masses of ice seen by scientists as sentinels of climate change. Although the country lies in the tropics, its southernmost point less than 50 miles from the equator, it contains the northeastern end of the Andes, with 11 peaks rising past 15,000 feet above sea level.

The trio presided over Sierra Nevada national park in northwestern Venezuela, visible from Mérida. But as climate change caused temperatures to rise, scientists say, La Concha (The Conch) disappeared in 1990, and La Columna (The Column) followed in 2017. That left La Corona (The Crown), clinging to Humboldt Peak three miles up, the lone holdout.

In 2020, Melfo and three colleagues reported that La Corona, too, would soon go extinct.

“It is difficult to predict how much longer it will be,” they wrote in a research paper. “However, we can be certain that Venezuela will be the first Andean country to lose all of its glaciers in the next few years.”


The disappearance of the glaciers will not have a direct impact on the fresh water capacity of nearby rivers, Melfo said. The Venezuelan remnants stored far less water than the larger masses found farther north or south.

The government of President Nicolás Maduro announced in December it was purchasing some 83,000 square feet of geothermal cover to safeguard what was left of La Corona. Mérida governor Jehyson Guzmán described the effort as “a grain of sand to provide protection to the last glacier in Venezuela” by reducing “the incidence of the sun’s rays on the rock that surrounds the glacier to prevent its heating.”

The government said the polypropylene mesh, used to keep ski slopes cool, had been deployed in Switzerland to protect glaciers. But researchers at the University of Fribourg concluded in 2021 that the method was unfeasible. “A hypothetical application to the larger scale shows that saving Alpine glaciers by technological solutions is neither achievable nor affordable,” they wrote.

Scientists in Venezuela, meanwhile, warned that the cover would do more harm than good. “It is an illusory thing, a hallucination, it is completely absurd,” Julio Cesar Centeno, an adviser to the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, told Agence France-Presse in March. He warned it would release harmful microplastics into the environment, and said he and others planned to ask Venezuela’s supreme court to stop the effort.

Neither the governor of Mérida nor the Ministry of Ecosocialism responded to requests for comment.

The International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, a network of researchers and policymakers focused on the Earth’s glaciers, ice sheets, sea ice and snow, says it’s not too late to take meaningful action against future degradation.

“Humanity’s failure to cut CO2 emissions means that more eventual glacier loss is already locked in,” the organization posted last week on X. “But we can still save many if emissions are rapidly cut, which will have huge benefits for livelihoods and energy, water and food security across the world.”

In Mérida, the disappearance of La Corona was not unexpected.

“We had said goodbye to him a long time ago,” said Jayme Bautista, a mountaineer and environmental consultant. “It’s sad, but inevitable.”

“We stopped seeing ice on Bolívar Peak from Mérida in 2020,” said Luis Daniel Llambi, an ecologist at the University of the Andes and one of Melfo’s co-authors. “At this speed, we could have no ice left in just five years.”

Tourist guide Alfredo Autierio has been hiking the region since the 1970s. Over time, he’s measured their transformation against his own: “The mountain loses its white, and my beard gets whiter.”

He worries current generations will be the last to see ice in the Andes.

“The big problem we have is that we feel alien to the environment in which we live,” he said. “When do we realize? When we have to buy plastic to cover a glacier.”

Melfo, Llambi and their colleagues noted a silver lining, of sorts: The retreat of the ice has given scientists an opportunity to study wildlife that was previously inaccessible. They’ve identified at least seven previously unknown species of lichen and noted the growth of an ecosystem of flora and fauna at unusually high altitudes.

But that’s small consolation. The researchers described the glaciers of the tropical Andes as “intimately linked with cultural identity.” Melfo said this relationship compounded the loss felt at the death of La Corona.

“This is a sad moment for all of us in Mérida,” she said. “It’s not a small thing to see how a glacier disappears.”


Brown reported from Washington.