The Quelccaya ice cap of Peru sits at an average altitude of 5,500 metres and is the largest piece of ice in the tropics, but it has been melting at an accelerating pace.
A team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts has been working at a satellite-linked weather station since 2003. They are documenting the impact of El Nino on the ice cap.
“El Nino is driven by Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures, which we know are very closely correlated or related to temperatures throughout the Andes, through Bolivia up through Peru,” explained Douglas Hardy, Senior Research Fellow University of Massachusetts.
The world is currently being affected by an El Nino in the Pacific, which is expected to reach its peak by the end of 2015. The weather station operates at the summit of the ice cap measuring a range of temperatures, radiation, sapped and wind direction. There has not been an El Nino in the Andes since 1997 and the scientists don’t know what the impact could be on the ice cap.
“Here we can make continues measurements at that same elevation halfway through the atmosphere and we can use that to correct and calibrate the satellite record, we can use that to relate to the balloon record and then of course we can look at trends and see whether we have got warming at that particular elevation or cooling, just what kind of thing is going on with temperature and humidity,” commented Douglas Hardy.
It is a tough task to maintain the weather station and its not all science. Hard physical work is called for as each year the team makes a trip to the Quelccaya Ice Cap to dig the weather station out of the snow that accumulates every year at the summit.
Thanks to this work, scientists hope to understand better if the effects of El Nino cycles speed up the loss of tropical ice caps such as the one in Peru.