Articles | Volume 8, issue 2
Research article
03 Mar 2014
Research article |  | 03 Mar 2014

Glacial areas, lake areas, and snow lines from 1975 to 2012: status of the Cordillera Vilcanota, including the Quelccaya Ice Cap, northern central Andes, Peru

M. N. Hanshaw and B. Bookhagen

Abstract. Glaciers in the tropical Andes of southern Peru have received limited attention compared to glaciers in other regions (both near and far), yet remain of vital importance to agriculture, fresh water, and hydropower supplies of downstream communities. Little is known about recent glacial-area changes and how the glaciers in this region respond to climate changes, and, ultimately, how these changes will affect lake and water supplies. To remedy this, we have used 158 multi-spectral satellite images spanning almost 4 decades, from 1975 to 2012, to obtain glacial- and lake-area outlines for the understudied Cordillera Vilcanota region, including the Quelccaya Ice Cap. Additionally, we have estimated the snow-line altitude of the Quelccaya Ice Cap using spectral unmixing methods. We have made the following four key observations: first, since 1988 glacial areas throughout the Cordillera Vilcanota (1988 glacial area: 361 km2) have been declining at a rate of 3.99 ± 1.15 km2 yr−1 (22 year average, 1988–2010, with 95% confidence interval (CI), n = 8 images). Since 1980, the Quelccaya Ice Cap (1980 glacial area: 63.1 km2) has been declining at a rate of 0.57 ± 0.10 km2 yr−1 (30 year average, 1980–2010, with 95% CI, n = 14). Second, decline rates for individual glacierized regions have been accelerating during the past decade (2000–2010) as compared to the preceding decade (1988–1999) with an average increase from 37.5 to 42.3 × 10−3 km2 yr−1 km−2 (13%). Third, glaciers with lower median elevations are declining at higher rates than those with higher median elevations. Specifically, glaciers with median elevations around 5200 m a.s.l. are retreating to higher elevations at a rate of ~1 m yr−1 faster than glaciers with median elevations around 5400 m a.s.l. Fourth, as glacial regions have decreased, 77% of lakes connected to glacial watersheds have either remained stable or shown a roughly synchronous increase in lake area, while 42% of lakes not connected to glacial watersheds have declined in area (58% have remained stable). Our new and detailed data on glacial and lake areas over 37 years provide an important spatiotemporal assessment of climate variability in this area. These data can be integrated into further studies to analyze inter-annual glacial and lake-area changes and assess hydrologic dependence and consequences for downstream populations.