Far from the Arctic, Venezuela’s last glacier melts away

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Humboldt Glacier, near Merida, Venezuela. Data: Landsat-8 imagery acquired January 6, 2015. Image: Cryopolitics.

This weekend, I was reading The Economist in the tiny alpine country of Lichtenstein with a wide view over the mountains. Although snow had started to dust the peaks, a good amount had melted away. It was 70 degrees outside, 20 degrees higher than the average temperature for a mid-October day.

As the sun beamed down, an article entitled “The death of Venezuela’s Humboldt glacier” caught my eye. High in the Cordillera de Mérida, a series of mountain ranges that includes the Venezuelan Andes in the northwest of the country, the last Venezuelan glacier is melting away. It sits atop the 16,207-foot Pico Humboldt, a mountain named after the flamboyant Prussian geographer and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, who carried out groundbreaking scientific expeditions in South America in the early 1800s.

The article somberly notes that once the Humboldt glacier disappears, “Venezuela will then be the first country in the satellite age to have lost all its glaciers.” As recently as 1991, Venezuela had five glaciers. 20,000 years ago during the last ice age, glaciers covered 230 square miles of the country, which we now think of as a largely humid and tropical place – one that is also in a nationwide state of turmoil.

 

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The Humboldt glacier atop Pico Humboldt in Venezuela. Figure from Braun & Bezada (2013). Reproduced with permission from author. Original caption: “The Humboldt glacier viewed from Pico Espejo on 4 February 2009 with clouds obscuring the summit of Pico Humboldt (photograph by Carsten Braun). Note the remaining seasonal snow cover.”

Climate change is accelerating the rate of glacier retreat in the Andes, just like in the Arctic. Yet whereas scientists can generally reach most places near the top of the world without fear of political retribution, in Venezuela, economic destitution and social unrest are making it all but impossible for scientists to access the glacier in its last remaining years. Under normal conditions, the glacier should also be fairly easy to reach – easier than, say, the Greenland Ice Sheet or the remote interior of Antarctica. As the crow flies, Venezuela’s adventure sports and mountaineering hub, Merida, is less than ten miles from the Humboldt Glacier. The city boasts the world’s highest cable car (which is also one of the world’s longest, at nearly eight miles), reaching up to Pico Espejo, a mountain abutting the more remote Pico Humboldt. With Venezuela on edge, however, and travel warnings in effect from numerous foreign offices, this accessibility is moot to international scientists.

 

The world's highest, and one of the world's longest, cable cars, in Merida, Venezuela.

The world’s highest, and one of the world’s longest, cable cars, in Merida, Venezuela. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Scientists from Venezuela, too, probably have other priorities at the moment than leading expeditions up to the glacier, given that starvation has become a national crisis and the government is trying, unsuccessfully, to encourage people to eat bunnies to cope with food shortages. A survey last year revealed that 75% of Venezuelans have lost an average of 19 pounds. Venezuela, then, is shrinking in more ways than one.

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Venezuela: More things to worry about than losing the country’s last glacier. Photo: Voice of America, 2017. CC-BY-2.0.

Carsten Braun, a glaciologist who may have led one of the last scientific expeditions to the Andean peak in 2015, wrote with Dr. Maximiliano Bezada in The Journal of Latin American Geography“The lack of local glacier and climate data limits our ability to appreciate the history of glaciers in Venezuela and a comprehensive monitoring program is urgently needed before Venezuela becomes an ice-free country.” Writing in 2013, he predicted that would happen before the end of this decade. Now, that is a little over two years away. 

I asked Dr. Braun whether Venezuela-based scientists could do the research, and he responded they potentially could but face challenges known by scientists worldwide: obtaining grant money. Given Venezuela’s dire economic straits, winning funding to purchase expensive scientific equipment to monitor glaciers is likely all but impossible at the moment.

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Figure from Braun & Bezada (2013). Reproduced with permission from author. Original caption: “Glacier area in Venezuela 1910 to 2011. The solid line represents the retreat of the Humboldt glacier between 1985 and 2011 whereas the dashed line connects the 1910 and 1952 SNdM-wide values (Table 2). The black arrows indicate a more-likely scenario characterized by slowed recession between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s with acceleration thereafter.”

It is a scientific tragedy that politics are preventing fieldwork atop Pico Humboldt – a mountain, ironically, named in honor a scientist. Yet the one silver lining is that, as The Economist mentioned, we live in the satellite age. We can witness the retreat of the Humboldt glacier from space.

With forests and plantations covering nearly two-thirds of Venezuela, thick clouds often blanket the equatorial country. That makes it difficult for satellites to catch a clear view of the Cordillera de Mérida. Yet on a clear day in January 2015, it was possible to see the glacier in its final years.

Additionally, since the “satellite age” spans back to 1957, and satellite imagery from the storied, publicly available NASA Landsat program dates back to 1972 (although the earliest image I was able to find of the satellite is from 1988), it’s possible to capture the decline of the Humboldt Glacier over time: slow, at first, and now more rapid.

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Venezuela’s Humboldt Glacier shrinks over time. 1991 data: Landsat 4 TM. 1991 data: Landsat 5 TM. 2015 data: Landsat 8.

The Humboldt Glacier sits in a valley high above its former glacial area. This makes it a hanging glacier, so called because they often end abruptly at the edge of a cliff. There are several of these in South America. One of the most dramatic is the Queulat Glacier in Patagonia, which was shown briefly in Planet Earth 2. The glacier plunges off a cliff into a river that churns through a lush jungle below – a very different scene than in the Arctic, where glaciers typically calve into freezing, ice-filled waters. In some ways, the crashing of two biomes together in the Andes is perhaps even more spectacular.

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The hanging glacier in Parc Queulat, Patagonia (Chile). Photo: Orlando Contreras López (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Most of the world’s attention on retreating ice focuses on the Arctic. This year, for instance, six major libraries in the U.S., Greenland, and Scandinavia are holding a series of events and exhibitions on the region’s disappearing ice in a project called Arctic Imagination. Yet more attention needs to be paid to glaciers in the Global South, whose meltwater often supports communities in critical ways. Just as ice in the Arctic makes hunting and fishing possible for northern peoples, ice in the Andes provides fresh drinking water and irrigation for crops. Patagonia’s glaciers provide 70% of Argentina’s freshwater.

Thinking about the disappearance of the ice on a global scale – the loss of the planet’s cryosphere, effectively – will help prevent being boxed in by regional thinking that focuses only on the Arctic or only on South America. Cross-regional exchanges on melting ice may also spur more wide-ranging conversations about a range of topics, from climate change adaptation to strategies for undertaking scientific fieldwork in politically volatile places. Scientists still managed to carry out research in Russia in the “Wild Nineties” following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, for instance. Are any of these lessons applicable in Venezuela? Additionally, Argentina passed a glacier protection law preventing damage to the icy behemoths, which not only climate change jeopardizes, but also mining. Could such a law have any relevance in a place like Greenland, where mining is also on the rise?

For the moment, how glaciologists can continue to do work in Venezuela is unclear. But at the very least, bringing Arctic ice loss into dialogue with severe ice retreat in a continent that most people associate with the Amazon rather than glaciers would open up some new possibilities for future research – and, hopefully, future strategies to adapt and move forward in a rapidly changing environment.

Map of the world's glaciers.

Map of the world’s glaciers. Glacier data: GLIMS and NSIDC (2005, updated 2013): Global Land Ice Measurements from Space glacier database. Map: Cryopolitics.

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Companies ill-prepared to respect indigenous rights in Arctic, study finds

A former diamond mine in the Sakha Republic, Russia. Photo: Author.

A former diamond mine in Mirny City, Sakha Republic, Russia. Photo: Author.

With the temperature at the top of the world rising and demand for natural resources accelerating, the extractive industry is moving farther northward. As oil, gas, and mining companies begin to operate in the Arctic, they often encounter indigenous peoples. The Saami in northern Fennoscandia, Nenets reindeer herders in Russia, and Inuit peoples from Alaska to Greenland are just a few of the 40 different indigenous groups who inhabit the tundra and taiga of the Earth’s resource-rich northern lands.

In much of the Arctic, indigenous peoples still pursue traditional activities like hunting, fishing, and reindeer herding. Some are therefore understandably opposed to the arrival of the extractive industry, with its destructive open-pit mines and noisy drillships. At the same time, many groups like Canada’s Inuvialuit and Alaska’s Inupiat are also deeply engaged in extraction themselves, running their own oil and gas companies and operating mines. They also seek to attract outside investment to stimulate their local economies and enhance regional development.

Yet it is not clear that these companies, whether from inside or outside the Arctic, will pay heed to indigenous rights. A new report authored by Dr. Indra Overland of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs reveals that more than 60 percent of companies operating in the Arctic are unprepared to respect indigenous rights. Entitled Ranking Oil, Gas and Mining Companies on Indigenous Rights in the Arctic, the report assesses public commitments, formalized procedures, and institutional arrangements rather than companies’ actual behaviors and operations. 92 different companies were assessed for how well they adhere to 20 different criteria, which include having formal procedures for consulting with indigenous peoples and making commitments to international standards.

Geographically, companies in the U.S. (Alaska) and Canada performed the best. This may speak to the fairly strong legal system that protects indigenous rights in both countries, along with norms of corporate social responsibility that increasingly demand respect for indigenous peoples. While there were quite a few companies in Russia that fell towards the bottom, a number of Russian companies performed well, too.

A Danish disappointment

The country with the biggest proportion of poorly performing countries was Denmark/Greenland: in fact, all of the companies operating in Greenland fell into the bottom two-thirds of the ranking. Norway, too, had a high degree of overrepresentation in this unenviable category, with 88% of its companies in this category. Ironically, Denmark and Norway are the only two Arctic countries that have ratified International Labor Organisation (ILO) 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, one of the most important international laws protecting the rights of indigenous peoples, while the U.S. and Canada have not. This suggests that actions speak louder than words, or, in this case, treaty ratifications. Simply because the Danish and Norwegian governments have signed onto global standards does not mean that they are creating legal environments where companies operating within their borders are respecting indigenous peoples.

By sector, oil and gas companies scored higher than mining companies on average. The report suggests that the higher performance of fossil fuel corporations like Total, which came in second place out of 92 companies, and Statoil may be due to their bigger public profiles. Whereas an often harsh media spotlight shines on multinational oil and gas companies, smaller-scale mining companies can operate more under the radar. A campaign against coal mining on Evenki lands simply isn’t as compelling to general audiences as a blanket campaign against Arctic oil.

The fact that mining companies perform poorly in general, and companies in Greenland especially so, bodes ill for future relations between Greenlandic people and the mining companies that seek to extract minerals like uranium, rubies, and rare earths from the massive Arctic island. When I was in Greenland last month, I sailed by the potential site for the Kvanefjeld uranium and rare earth minerals mine near Narsaq. One Greenlander told me that many locals were opposed to the mine because even though it might bring jobs, it would ruin the land around it, which is vital for sheep. Tailings could also pollute the glacial water.

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Narsaq, the Greenlandic town near the proposed site of the Kvanefjeld uranium and rare earth minerals mine. Photo: Mia Bennett

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Greenlandic sheep, which graze on the grassy tundra.

I wrote to Dr. Overland to ask about why companies in Greenland performed so poorly, especially since the country’s population is close to 90% indigenous – far more than any other Arctic country. He responded,

“I am not sure. As with most social issues there are probably multiple factors involved. I can only propose some possible factors at a hypothetical level: perhaps there is a colonial attitude towards Greenland, since it is more remote from Denmark than the indigenous territories of the other polar states; perhaps there is a sense that nobody lives there, so rights don’t matter; perhaps the Danes have come to rest on the laurels of their ratification of ILO 169; perhaps the companies operating on Greenland are not so bad, just not very explicit about how they relate to indigenous rights.”

Indeed, this last point about companies not being particularly explicit about how they relate to indigenous rights is a possibility. After all, while Alaska Native Regional Corporations, which Alaska Native peoples own, generally performed quite highly, some were lower down the list than one might expect such as NANA Development Corporation, which owns the Red Dog Mine in Alaska. Dr. Overland suggested,

“I noticed with some companies that are closely connected with indigenous peoples they scored lowly because they took their position on indigenous rights for granted. For example, if a company is owned or partly owned by an indigenous people, it may not feel there is a great need to talk about how it is going to uphold the rights of indigenous peoples. This could be that case with some of these corporations.”

To clarify how companies actually engage with indigenous peoples in the places they are operating whether or not they are owned by indigenous peoples, future research could assess the actual practices of the extractive industry at large. This would entail a massive research effort, as Dr. Overland pointed out, with visits to various extraction sites around the Arctic and discussions with both indigenous peoples and corporate representatives. Yet he is not very optimistic about the potential results of such a study. He noted, “Since it is easier for a company to say that it will uphold a standard than to actually do it, I guess the picture would be even bleaker.”

Creating a new race in the Arctic

The ultimate aim with the report’s ranking is not just to create yet another list. It’s to generate real, substantive change in the way companies engage with indigenous peoples by harnessing the forces companies know best: competition. If a company sees that it falls towards the bottom of this list – a title which currently falls to Yamalzoloto, a gold mining company in Russia – it may seek to move up a few rungs. Overland offered:

“In this way a ranking goes further than a law. A law is fulfilled or it is not fulfilled. In a ranking, there are also winners and losers and the losers can always try to improve their position. The aim to create a never-ending race to improve standards on indigenous rights.”


In short, if ILO 169 is not really working to improve respect towards indigenous rights in the Arctic, creating a race for rankings may be worth a shot.

In Greenland, Thai cuisine reigns supreme

A Chinese icebreaker sailing across the Arctic Ocean. Japanese scientists on Svalbard. Korean liquefied natural gas tankers plying the icy waters north of Russia. These are probably the leitmotifs of “Asia in the Arctic” that you may have come across if you’ve been following the Far East’s northward turn.

Yet unfolding at a scale below these geopolitical currents is the unlikely proliferation of Thai restaurants in communities across the Arctic. In Fairbanks, Alaska, at least three Thai restaurants compete for the title of “northernmost Thai restaurant in the U.S.” – and let’s not forget the Korean-run Chinese restaurant 500 miles to the north in Utqiagvik (Barrow),  which serves up steaming plates of shrimp with lobster sauce alongside Denver omelettes and pancakes the size of a catcher’s mitt. I haven’t been to Svalbard, but scientists who have traveled there have fondly recounted the Thai food on the Norwegian archipelago. You want pad thai close to 80 degrees north, you got it. It’s likely going to be cooked by one of the many Thai residents there, who make up a plurality of the foreign-born population. Under the rules of the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, visas aren’t required to live and work on Svalbard.

greenland-thai-foodTo the west across the Greenland Sea, even more Thai restaurants can be found on Greenland. The capital of this frigid island, Nuuk, has approximately 17,000 residents. The top-rated restaurant in town on TripAdvisor is Charoen Porn, which serves up classic dishes like chicken satay alongside local specialties like “Greenlandic sushi:” whale meat, whale fat (mattaq) and smoked salmon wrapped over rice. In a way, Thai food is to Greenland what pizza is to America. It’s ubiquitous in the bigger settlements, and you can never really go wrong with whatever you order.

Lest you find yourself in Ilulissat, Greenland’s tourist hub and UNESCO world heritage site where massive icebergs calve right off the ice sheet into the blue-green waters of the sea below, you can also savor the sweet and spicy cuisine of Southeast Asia. One of the poshest hotels in the stunningly situated town, Hotel Icefiord, has a few different menus including a Thai one – serving dishes like pad thai with either chicken or, naturally, Greenlandic shrimps and vegetables, just in case you wanted to get a taste of the local seafood with some fish sauce, sugar, and peanuts on top.

Until my trip to Greenland last month, the only place I’d sampled Thai food on the island was Kangerlussuaq back in 2014. Even that tiny town, if you can call it that – it’s more of a science outpost and international airport than an organic settlement – used to serve up stick-to-your-ribs Thai-Greenlandic fusion dishes like muskox curry at the now-renamed Polar Bear Inn. Muskox is a real novelty for tourists in Greenland. As one reviewer of the Polar Bear Inn wrote on TripAdvisor:

“Where in the world are you asked: Sorry, we are out of beef. Do you want musk-ox instead? Very nice pizza – and musk-ox is very tasty.”

On my second trip to Greenland, I wanted to see what Thai chefs did with seafood. I spent most of time in Qaqortoq, a coastal town near the southern tip of Greenland. The country stretches so far south that it reaches well past the bottom of Iceland, lining up with the the Shetland Islands and Helsinki on a map. I was stunned to see people growing sun-loving plants like tomatoes and chili peppers here. Here, the weather is about the closest you can get in Greenland to Thailand’s balmy beachside breezes.

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Vegetables growing in every single window of a house in Qaqortoq, Greenland.

The waters around Qaqortoq are some of the world, thick with cod, haddock, and shrimp. The fish species are changing, too, as the waters warm and cold-loving creatures move north. Fishermen sell their hauls at the local market each day, and they also sell directly to the handful of restaurants in town including “In Box – A Little Thai Corner” – Qaqortoq’s Thai restaurant that is very, very easy to miss.

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I didn’t see a Thai restaurant immediately upon docking in Qaqortoq. But being in a decent-sized settlement in Greenland, I knew there had to be a Thai restaurant somewhere among the brightly painted houses. A quick Google turned up In Box, which is aptly located inside an uninviting metal warehouse at the small port.

One night, after trying not to eat too much at the nightly group dinner (where the waiter was Thai), I headed down with a friend to the port try out the Thai food on offer. We passed a sign that warned of heavy machinery and moving vehicles, and then entered the warehouse through a thin metal door. Another series of doors led to what looked like it might be an office for tracking shipping containers, but had a golden Buddha statue outside. Mouthwatering smells and uproarious laughter flowed out of the restaurant even though it was close to 9pm on a weekday.

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We opened the door and a group of well-heeled American and French tourists were celebrating a birthday. We took a table in the snug yet lavishly decorated restaurant. There were more posters, trinkets, and artifacts then one would find in a Thai restaurant in the States, even though I imagine it’s easier to procure such things there.

redfish-stamp-greenlandI’d met the owner the day before when I was checking out the restaurant, and he had recommended that I try one of their specials, “Red fish choo chee:” redfish in a coconut curry sauce. Redfish is a sweet, white fish native to the waters around Greenland, prized enough that it has made it onto a postage stamp. The owner informed me that the fish would come whole, bone-in and deep fried. My companion ordered pad thai, and we were on our way.

As the food was being prepared, I asked the owner a question that, I apologized, I was sure he’d heard a million times before: “So exactly how did you get from Thailand to Greenland?”

The owner, Suriya Paprajong, said it all started over a decade ago when he was working as a bartender in Pattaya, a beachside resort town 60 miles southeast of Bangkok. He had won a contest as Asia’s best bartender and was showing off his tricks to a businessman who’d come in. On that fortuitous day, the businessman asked Paprajong, “Do you want to work in Greenland?” and Asia’s best bartender replied yes.

For years, he worked in Nuuk at a restaurant. I’m not sure which one, but it could have been the long-running Thai restaurant there, which employs some 16 Thai people. The bartender was never able to bring his wife and children, though, which visibly pained him. He was able go home for two months a year, which perhaps helped make the decision to stay in Greenland for most of the year easier given the relatively high wages he could earn.

Eventually, an opportunity opened for Paprajong to work at a Thai restaurant called Ban Thai in Qaqortoq. Importantly, the owner would allow him to bring his family. For the former bartender originally from a town close to Laos, this was the start of something bigger. He brought over his wife and children and they worked contentedly in the Thai restaurant until one day, the owner decided to pack up his bags and move back to Thailand. Paprajong, however, felt at home in Greenland, now that his family was with him. They decided to stay and go it alone.

With his family, Paprajong started their own Thai restaurant, called In Box, down at the port and began serving up all sorts of Thai dishes to locals and tourists alike. They managed to save enough to buy a nice house close to the helicopter pad, right near the sea. The restaurant clearly is doing well: a job posting I came across for a Thai cook assistant at In Box pays 18,000 DKK a month ($2,800). Paprajong and his family still go home two months out of the year in January and February, after the busy Christmas holiday season when Greenlanders have spent a lot of their money, and when most of the tourists are gone.

Paprajong seems remarkably integrated into Qaqortoq – so much so that he doesn’t really wish to return to Thailand. When the Thai restaurateur walks down the street, locals greet him with “Hello, Thai Eskimo!” and “Hello, aatak!” – Greenlandic for grandfather. He now has a granddaughter here, who goes to the local nursery school and is learning to speak Greenlandic. When Bumibol, the beloved Thai king, passed away last year, the mayor of Qaqortoq lowered the flag to half mast. Paprajong was so moved, he recollected with his hand on his heart, that he walked directly over to the mayor’s house to say thank you.

“Greenlandic people, they’re very warm,” Paprajong said, smiling. It may be cold here, but perhaps the similarly sunny, welcoming dispositions both Thai and Greenlandic people can have make Thai migrants feel remarkably at home at this polar outpost. And for me, having spent eight years living in Los Angeles, which has the largest population of Thais outside of Thailand and an extraordinary number of restaurants serving everything from boat noodles to pineapple rice at all hours of the day, I also felt at home here in the Arctic.


A few minutes after our conversation with the owner, the food arrived. The sweet and flaky redfish paired excellently with the creamy, coconutty sauce. There were lots of vegetables elegantly placed on top, too, which was a welcome addition given the meat-and-potatoes-heavy Greenlandic-Danish cuisine I’d been eating for the past few nights. My friend’s pad thai was also a winning dish.

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Long story short? If you’re ever in Greenland, be sure to try the Thai food – and chat with the owner while you’re at it.

Qaqortoq

Qaqortoq: an unlikely place for a Thai restaurant.