In 1986, at the age of 21, Alejandra Melfo moved to Mérida, Venezuela, “the city of eternal snow,” to study science at the University of Andes. There, in a mountainous city, they often gazed upon the vast expanse of the Sierra Nevada de Mérida: a huge, powerful, towering, two-mile-long[3 km]layer covered with snow and ice. Shortly after arriving in Uruguay, a mountainous country, they fell in love.
As the years went by, Melfo saw a morph shape. Two of the glaciers that seemed to emerge from the city were receding. Larger cracks arose, breaking the ice into smaller particles. All the glaciers fell off, revealing a rock beneath it. By 1990, another mountain, Pico La Concha, had lost all its ice. In 2017, Pico Bolivar, Venezuela’s top scorer, followed suit. Today, only one glacier remains in Venezuela: the second largest peak, the Pico Humboldt.
“It’s that time [almost] it’s over now, ”says Melfo, a scientist at the Andes University, who has recently been working on biological and environmental issues, including research on the last watershed.
Pico Humboldt’s ice cream has survived in some ways because it is protected by the shadow of its tip – but only slightly. In 1910, glaciers covered about 1.5 miles[1.3 km]. The final measure, in 2019, showing that the glaciers have shrunk to 0.02 square miles[0.02 sq km]or about the size of the Mérida soccer field, by less than 2 percent of its original size. If the glaciers run out, Venezuela may be the first country in the world to have an iceberg and lose them all.
This is inevitable, experts say, since no climate change could be delayed or stopped. Venezuelan glaciers — like many others, in places like Colombia, Peru, Kenya, or Uganda — are particularly sensitive to climate change, since they often already have a warm climate. By the end of the decade, the last one will be gone. “Going back, you can’t put it out, it’s impossible,” says Maximiliano Bezada, a geologist at the University of Minnesota who is not involved in modern research on the glacier.
But instead of giving up, a team of scientists in Venezuela is looking for a missing opportunity. This glacier has been around for thousands of years, and now the tips of the previously covered ice sheet are not covered with snow and ice for thousands of years. These mutations, says Melfo, provide a unique picture of how life is in a nonliving environment, a process called “the first sequence.”
“[We’re] witnessing exactly when these things are changing from one culture to another. This is very special, ”he says. “It’s not that you can’t see things at the geological level happening in front of you.”
Scientific work began with long, steep slopes. In 2019, Melfo and a diverse group of people, including a botanist, naturalist, lichenologist, and others, made three trips to Pico Humboldt. Over a distance of over two miles[3 km]with heavy transport equipment, and without much knowledge of such conditions, it took the team two or three days to reach the base of the Pico Humboldt glacier.