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Uphill and back in time: why make a Glacier

Updated: Apr 14, 2022

Melting glaciers threaten to raise sea levels, and modify oceanic currents. Physical landscapes and cultural ones are at risk: glaciers once used in cartography will no longer stand, snowcaps central to worldviews will vanish, and weather forecasting systems will no longer work. This is the case for Colombia, where traditions concerning living with glaciers will no longer make sense. These are ‘tropical glaciers’, rare specimens, very sensitive to climatic changes (Quintero et al. 2020). Once present in Colombia (Figure 1), Ecuador, Perú, Tanzania, Kenia, Uganda, Indonesia, and New Guinea (Baena 2014), these white-capped Equatorial mountains will be gone in decades.

Figure 1: Colombia’s Glaciers

Description: Map of Colombia’s Andes, which highlights all the remaining glacier peaks and ranges that make for 36 km2. From North to South you will find: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, Nevado del Ruiz, Nevado de Santa Isabel, Nevado del Tolima and Nevado del Huila.

Source: IDEAM (2020), “Informe del Estado de los Glaciares Colombianos 2019” pág. 8

Throughout the generations, these mountains have been a part of the life of Colombia’s indigenous peoples. The northern Sierra Nevada is the center of the worldview of its indigenous Koguis, Arhuacos, Wiwas, and Kankuamo inhabitants who believe the highlands, ‘Chundua’, to be sacred. This area is the ‘home of the spirit of the dead, a land that must not be disturbed; a place to be visited only by spiritual guides, the mamos (IDEAM 2012, p. 4, 276). Arhuaco men wear a white cap, the Tutusoma, over their heads in analogy to the glacier at the top of the mountain(IDEAM 2012, p. 271-276). Further south lies the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy is also known as Güicán, the place where the indigenous U’wa live. They believe all biomes around these mountains are integrated and mutually dependent. To them, the highlands are associated with knowledge and must be left alone. The snow-capes, the glaciers, are untouchable (IDEAM 2012, p. 260, 263). This community believes the glacier lakes to be their ancestral place of origin, and each clan is meant to inhabit a river that flows from them (IDEAM 2011, p. 263). Finally, the Nasa inhabits the area surrounding the Volcán del Huila, the southernmost glacier at the top of a volcano (Quintero 2008). Highlands, We’re, are not meant for human life, but for water spirits. This is a sacred place of protection and also of transition between spirits and the realm of their community (IDEAM 2012, p. 243-245).

Under a different worldview, scientists have been drawn to these glaciers too: Alexander Von Humboldt, Francisco José de Caldas, Jean-Baptiste Boussingault, Agustin Codazzi, Elisee Réclus, Alphons Stubel, Frederich Simonson in a Royal Geographical Society financed expedition, Alfred Hettner, expeditions from the London and Cambridge Universities (IDEAM 2012, p. 284-299), to name but a few. These scientific expeditions were indivisible from adventure until those in for the thrill kick-started Colombia’s mountaineering; their guide, Erwin Kraus (Sierra 1998, Viudes 2013). Together with Antonio Lampl, Guido Pichler, Enrico Praolini, Heriberto Hublitz, and Enrique Drees they were all immersed in a first-ascent race against the Augusto Gansser & Georges Cuenet duo (IDEAM 2012, p. 297; Viudes 2013). Today, highland farmers grow potatoes, corn, wheat, and onions and raise cattle. They also double as tourist guides, and governmental agencies sometimes hire them for support and guidance.

Although some tried to make skiing an activity to be carried out in Colombia’s glaciers (IDEAM 2012, p. 299), hiking prevailed as the main pastime. The reward is seeing different worlds: flora changes with temperature, and so does the fauna that lives within. I had learnt that for exams, long ago in primary school, where I had to color a sketch of a peak sliced by horizontal lines dividing ‘thermal floors’ (‘pisos térmicos’) (see Figure 2). This learning tool explains the different climates of Colombia and is inspired by von Humboldt's drawings (see Figure 3). The ground floor, ‘cálido’, is warm, ranging from 24 to 35 degrees. The first floor, ‘templado’, has springlike weather of 16 to 24 Celsius. Next, ‘frío’, cold for us tropical people, from 10 to 16 C. ‘Páramo’, where frosts can happen, temperatures from 0 to 10. Finally, the penthouse, ‘nieves perpetuas’: glacial.

Figure 2: Two-dimensional sketch of a ‘typical’ Andean Mountain

Description: A commonly used tool that has changed a few through the years. This one colorfully shows the different agricultural produce and animals present at changing heights. Three imagined snowy peaks in the background.

Source: Vargas, K. (08.06.2020). “Los Pisos Térmicos”. Web Colegios, extracted from:

Figure 3: Alexander Von Humboldt’s Drawing of El Chimborazo

Description: Von Humboldt traveled extensively alongside Aime Bonpland through modern Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Perú. This, one of his most recognized drawings, shows Equatorial volcano El Chimborazo, summarizing his observations on flora, climate, precipitation, etc. His expeditions are carefully presented in the best-seller The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf.

Source: Miller, G. (15.10.2019). “The Pioneering Maps of Alexander Von Humboldt”. In: Smithsonian Magazine, extracted from:

One thing was to learn about the different climates in a classroom, and another to go on a hike and see them for me. Colombia has a lot to offer for those with itchy feet. My favorite place for hiking is Los Nevados National Park (see Figure 4). The snowy peaks park and tropical glaciers make for challenging summits. Let me take you there: we start on the lowlands (where avocados grow) on a trail through a pasture that enters a rainforest. We dive in to be surrounded by hummingbirds and orchids. Some hours later, as the temperature drops, we walk through the mist of the andean cloud forest (‘Bosque Nublado’). Moss is everywhere. The higher we go, the colder it gets. Trees are shorter. After a turn, we reach the tundra-like Páramo. We are 3,500 meters above sea level (masl). Here we are beyond the tree line, yet there is still a way to go as we want to meet the ice. Feeling dizzy? That’s soroché, quechua for mountain sickness.

Figure 4: Wooden Map of The Snow Mountains National Park

Description: Wooden map of the PNN de los Nevados -its area in light yellow-, found at the final bus stop in Risaralda. Here, I point to our final destination: la Laguna del Otún -a 2-day hike. Seen on the board, in white, are the glaciers that give the park its name: Ruiz (up and roundish), Santa Isabel (slim, slightly above my hand), and Tolima (a small circle below my wrist).

Source: Photo taken the 3rd of July 2018. Property of the author.

The high mountain tops of the park still keep three mountains covered with ice. To refer to them, many of us use indigenous names interchangeably with Spanish ones: ‘Kumanday’ for Ruiz (sometimes ‘Tamá’); for Santa Isabel ‘Poleka kasue’ (‘snow princess’, or ‘mountain maiden’), or ‘Tataquí’; and ‘Dulima’ for Tolima (IDEAM 2022). With nostalgia, we use an ancient word, from a time when snow and glaciers covered the heights of our tallest peaks. Today, to reach the ice we will have to hike further than some years ago, and at some peaks, we will no longer find glaciers.

Maps, drawings, and photographs attest that a lifetime ago snow was common as low as 4000 to 4200 masl (Ochoa 2020). Nowadays, according to government agencies, glaciers occur at 4,850 (IDEAM 2022). According to my last hike, the number should be at least 100 meters higher. If glaciers are found under 5,000 m, some sources consider them to be “too low” and therefore “especially vulnerable” (Pardo 2018). This upward shift in snowlines means that glacier coverage has shrunk: from 349 km2 in 1850 to 109 km2 a century later, and a mere 34,85 km2 in 2019 (IDEAM 2020, p. 7, IDEAM 2022). An area the size of Malta has melted: 92% of Colombia’s glaciers are gone (IDEAM 2020, p. 25, IDEAM 2022).

Figure 5: Colombia’s Lost Glaciers

Description: Image with detail of the tropical glaciers that have disappeared in Colombia. Cisne and Quindío are still part of the Parque de los Nevados -the Snowy Mountains Park. They no longer host permanent snow.

Source: Florez, (2002) “Glaciares Extintos en el Siglo XX.” In: IDEAM (2022). “Glaciares en Colombia” . In: Official Website of the Instituto de Hidrología, Meteorología y Estudios Ambientales (IDEAM), extracted from:

The disappearance of Colombia’s tropical glaciers has been unceremonious: Puracé in 1940, Sotará and Galeras in 1948, Chiles in 1950, Cisne, Quindío and Pan de Azúcar all in 1960, last one to go was Cumbal in 1985 (see Figure 5). Today, there is only red paint being sprayed on the rocks where glaciers once stood by Jorge Luis Ceballos. He is known as the ‘country’s single glaciologist’, who lonesomely tracks the glaciers’ retreat (Baena 2014, Janetsky 2020). In a ‘chronicle of a death foretold’ fashion, the path that leads to El Tolima peak has now been named ‘The Climate Change Trail’: posts along the volcanic slope tell where the ice used to be in 1850, 1960, 1990, 2010 and 2020. Colombia’s glaciers are expected to vanish by 2050 (IDEAM 2020, Janetsky 2020).

Figure 6: Sign indicating the beginning of the ‘Climate Change Trail’ which leads to El Tolima

Description: This placard, at the beginning of the trail that leads to the Tolima peak reads: “This trail witness a part of the Colombian mountains' recent history. Starting at 4,500 masl you will be able to witness the glacier’s retreat over the past 170 years. It is in our hands to secure the permanence of high mountain ecosystems.” (Translation by the author)

Source: Photograph taken by the author on the 12th of March, 2022. The post belongs to the National Park Service of Colombia -Parques Nacionales de Colombia-, attached to the Ministry of Environment, and the Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies Institute, a government office attached to the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development

Figure 7: Close up of the graph showing the ascent of the ice through the years.

Description: Detail of the image to the left. The graph shows the retreat of the glacier through the last two centuries. Following up the trail to the summit, a hiker will be able to find posts signaling the edge of the glacier through the years. These were planted by the government in 2020 with the assistance of local guides. They start at 4,500 (the limit in 1850) and the last one is at 5,000 masl, the edge in 2020. Today, in 2022, the post can be seen 50 meters below the glacier’s limit.

Source: Photograph taken by the author on the 12th of March, 2022. The post belongs to the National Park Service of Colombia -Parques Nacionales de Colombia-, attached to the Ministry of Environment, and the Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies Institute, a government office attached to the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development.

We are not alone! Across the globe livelihoods and worldviews are under threat from the changes in the once icy landscapes. In Canada, local knowledge, such as ways to predict weather patterns, words, and food preservation techniques, becomes useless (Baraniuk 2021). Religious places in Uganda are threatened by melting ice from the Rwenzori (‘place of snow’) mountains (Uchoa 2021). Alpinism and skiing will not be the same once the glaciers are gone in France, Switzerland, and Austria (BBC 2020). Miles away, the Icelandic Okjokull glacier was pronounced dead in 2019. Locals, politicians, and celebrities placed a commemorative plate with a letter to the future (Luckhurst 2019). That same year the Swiss Association for Climate Protection held a funeral for the Pizol glacier, to which locals, hikers, and environmental campaigners attended to “pay their respects to the glacier remnants” (BBC 2019).

According to scientists, Icelandic glaciers might last another 200 years (Luckhurst 2019). In contrast, the peaks in Los Nevados will lose all snow by 2030 (see Figure 6). The most likely one to disappear next is Santa Isabel, whose glacier area decreased by 48% from 2016 to 2019 (IDEAM 2020, p. 6). What will remain is a lunar, wind-blasted landscape of sand and rock debris: ruins of nature (Ochoa 2020, IDEAM 2022). Once those mountains become barren we will call them ‘superpáramo’, or ‘paramillo’ (Figure 7). Páramo is a tundra-like grassland covered with flowers and shrubs, filled with ponds and wildlife. Whereas ‘paramillo’ and ‘super-páramo’ are euphemisms that hope that frailejones (funky plants present in figs. 8 & 9) cover up our mess. ‘Super-páramo’, too high to sponsor the life of the páramo, not cold enough to have glaciers.

Figure 8: Peaks in Los Nevados

Description: A ‘frailejón’ (Espeletia sp.) stands tall, the background showing the slope towards Santa Isabel’s Central Peak. From this perspective, in a photo taken at 4,100 masl, snow can’t be seen. Today the glacier consists of 8 fragmented pieces and is absent from the Southernmost peak (IDEAM 2022).

Source: Photo courtesy of Colmenares, C.F. (19. Feb.2022). The photo was taken with an iPhone 12 Pro Max

Figure 9: Paramillo del Quindio

Description: Photograph of the Paramillo del Quindío (4,760 masl), a snowy peak that lost its glacier in 1960, but can still be seen with snow after heavy storms. This, the northern slope, contains nothing but sand.

Source: Photo courtesy of Colmenares, C.F. (19. Feb.2022). The photo was taken with an iPhone 12 Pro Max

The Volcán Nevado del Ruiz, the tallest peak in the National Park, is among those melting the fastest (IDEAM 2020, p. 6) (see Figures 10 and 11). An active volcano back in 1985 had an eruption that melted part of the ice, leading to an avalanche that buried the town of Armero, killing over 20,000 (Arcila Perdomo 2020). It still sputters clouds of gasses and ashes which speed the melting of its own glacier and of other glaciers in the vicinity (see Figure12). Meager cloud coverage, higher sun radiation, and volcanic ash are speeding the glacier loss of El Ruiz (Pardo 2018, Ochoa 2020, Janetsky 2020). For the remaining glaciers, stronger climatic events are impacting them in opposing ways: warmer temperatures (El Niño) thawing them, heavier rainfall bringing snowfall (La Niña). The sixth mass extinction is also taking the glaciers with it.

Figure 10: Snowfall at dawn in El Volcán Nevado del Ruiz

Description: Heavy rainfall through the night and early morning summoned snow on the slopes of El Nevado del Ruiz. The white cover invited us, hikers, to imagine the historical reach of the glacier. Before noon snow had melted away.

Source: Photo courtesy of Colmenares, C.F. (19.Feb.2022); presented here with authorization from the owner. The photo was taken with an iPhone 12 Pro Max

Figure 11: Historical evolution of the glacier in the Snowed Volcano El Ruiz: 1850-2016

Description: Map of the Nevado del Ruiz from the National Institute on Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM). Different color shadings show the evolution of the glacier through the years: 1850, 1959, 1997, 2010, and 2016.

Source: IDEAM (2018). “Evolución Multitemporal del Área del Glaciar del Volcán Nevado del Ruiz”. Extracted from:

Figure 12: A column of gas and ash rises from El Ruiz

Description: In my most recent hike (12.03.2022), all through the night a permanent tower of gasses was rising out of El Ruiz. Once descent started, a blast of dark ashes surprised us from within the slopes of Tolima.

Source: Photograph taken by the author on the 12th of March, 2022.

As a child, I used to look up the Andes to try to get a glimpse of that grand ‘Nevado’: El Tolima (Figure 13). As I waited for the bus I would wonder “how can someone climb up?” Decades from now I expect to remember, as García Márquez’s colonel Aureliano Buendía, that morning when I met ice: in December 2018 (Figure 12). An experience that linked my life to the histories that make this landscape: colonial viceroys getting people to bring down glacier ice for cold drinks; or Simón Bolívar the general of the independence, having sweetened glacier-ice shavings in Popayán (Quintero et al 2020, Vallejo et al. 2020).

Figure 13: Watercolor of El Tolima Snow-capped volcano

Description: Watercolor of Tolima depicted from the Magdalena river; its snow getting lost in between the clouds, descending a considerable distance, and covering some of its most prominent features of today.

Source: Gutiérrez de Alba, J.M. (1871). “Nevado del Tolima, vista desde las orillas del Magdalena. Maravillas geológicas de Colombia” Tomo VI. Fiestas Viaje al Tolima, Extracted from:

Figure 14: A group of friends descends after a successful summit of El Tolima

Description: Towering higher than all other surrounding mountains this conic volcano, Tolima, can be seen from afar. In the middle, in blue, I descend with friends while enjoying visibility of over 150 Km.

Source: Photo taken with the author’s phone (26.12.2018).

Glaciers will be gone from Colombia. My childhood landscape will no longer exist. Personal anecdotes like those cold mornings waiting for the school bus and watching the ice from afar will take place in imaginary landscapes. A decade from now El Tolima will be another ‘paramillo’: an ice-less sandy mountain. I want to think that this big loss does not mean everything is ‘said and done! We are young and we need experience. We are only now facing the repercussions of climate change, and failure can be a grand teacher. This shows how high stakes are: worldviews, knowledge systems, livelihoods, religious ceremonies, and sports challenges, are at risk. Now, just like when hiking up, we all have to breathe, carry on, and hope. Imagining our summit: icier landscapes for our grandchildren and their own grandchildren. We have to think deeper about time: a spiritual act of faith, of trust in the future, a recognition of our impact.

There are many reasons why glaciers melt. Some, are external to our planet, like orbital variations (Milankovitch cycles) and solar cycles. Others are internal to our planet: drifting continents, volcanic activity, changes in albedo, atmospheric changes, and oceanic current changes (IDEAM 2012, p. 20). However, the current glacier retreat is of anthropogenic origin: although the glaciers had been at the top of the mountains since the beginning of the holocene, in the last 200 years their melting has sped up (IDEAM 2012, p. 26). The science of climate change, and climate solutions, is complicated, and daunting. Answers seem to be expensive and out of reach. Some ‘solutions’ to the melting ice, like throwing giant white blankets on them, replenishing the glaciers with seawater through giant pumps, particle liberation in the atmosphere, creating tunnels under glaciers, or underwater barriers built by robots (Cox 2018), sounds insane and so out of grasp!

A broad glance of reports on the state of tropical glaciers indicates that there is not enough snow and that there is too much heat. Snow still falls, yet it melts through the day: it does not stay, nor pile up. But, it still snows! That is hope. The question now is how to keep snow falling and temperatures cool enough for those flakes to grow 40 to 50 meters thick, in order to reach enough pressure for the ice to move and become a glacier (Luckhurst 2019). I would like to keep it simple and accessible: “less heat for snow to sit”. But: how? And, more importantly: a simple-understandable-and-not-so-expensive how?

If you find yourself in the top 1%, please work harder; remember Greta who said “The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty” (Thunberg 2019). The wealthiest have been emitting way more carbon and for way longer (Paddison 2021). Besides, not everyone is equally powerful: “The bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility” (Thunberg 2019). Access to public services, proximity to government services, communication channels, and information are unequally distributed worldwide. Democracy, civil liberties, law protection, and human rights are tools to change the world.

Why does visualizing melting tropical glaciers matter? Bringing awareness to the cultural ties anthropogenic climate change currently threatens: transgenerational cultural landscapes and knowledges that will be lost. I consider it to be a right to be able to share experiences of our surroundings with our parents, grandparents, and children. Yet, already so many things have gone with the ice: no one will ever hear the sound of the ice in the ‘laguna de los témpanos’, (the ‘iceberg lagoon’ today called ‘the Big Lagoon’). The flavor of glacier ice shavings I will never get to taste.

As you have noted, there is definitively a romantic aspect: these glaciers are breathtaking. Just to witness them, either from the sea or from Bogotá, to be in awe, leads to a feeling of fulfillment, joy, and wonder with life that is hard to describe. Soon, the snow mountains and ranges will become imposing sandy peaks. To those, like me, who live close to Los Nevados National Park, we will have to change the name of this place to ‘The Volcanoes’; most of these mountains are in fact volcanoes which snow adorns: Tolima, Ruiz, Santa Isabel, Quindío, Santa Rosa, Cerro Bravo, Cerro Machín and El Cisne. I am not saying that with climate change their activity will increase, but knowing and seeing that you live besides 8 volcanoes, which have erupted, one in recent history, is kind of scary. From my corner of South America, I invite all of you to act! Let’s together bring back the snow from the past.

Figure 15: Nevado del Quindío

Description: Watercolor over paper depicting the peak of Quindío in the late XIXth century. Snow can be seen in all rim of the crater. The blue shadings invite to think it might be a glacier, but determining this is complicated with the available information.

Source: Gutiérrez de Alba, J. M. (1895). “Nevado del Quindío por la parte del Cauca. Nevados de Colombia N° 5”, In Tomo XII. Apéndice. Maravillas y Curiosidades de Colombia extracted from:

Figure 16: Nevado de Santa Isabel

Description: Watercolor depicting the scope of snow and the glacier in ‘Poleka Kasue’, Santa Isabel. In this image all of the volcano’s peaks -North, Central and South- have continuos snow cover.

Source: Henry, R. (1852). “Páramo de Santa Isabel -Estado del Tolima. 5100 ms”. Tomo XII. Apéndice. Maravillas y Curiosidades de Colombia, extracted from:


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An article written by Sergio Acosta Obando

Hi there! My name is Sergio, Colombian, from the foothills of the Andes, where I ascended volcanoes wondering what lies beyond the horizon. This curiosity about the world nudged me into an undergraduate in International Relations, after which I underwent a Master's education in Sustainable Heritage Management. I wanted to learn about nature, history, culture, and sustainability. Through the years I have had the delight of seeing the world while studying; I'll save you the effort: South America is the most beautiful one. I have worked in the fields of conventional and outdoor education. On a chill day, I'll be hanging out with my dogs or, if it rains, reading a book.

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