Think Like a Mountain: glacier walk

Abraham knew exactly what the land was for: it was to drip milk and honey into Abraham’s mouth.

From the essay, The Land Ethic, Aldo Leopold, 1949

Quelccaya Icecap is a 50-odd square kilometer, domed ice cap, at 5500 m elevation, on a plateau in the remote, snow-capped Peruvian Andes. Located 120 km north of Lake Titicaca, it is only 40 km west of the lush Amazon rainforest. It is the largest tropical icecap.

Quelccaya Ice Cap, in the Southern Peruvian Andes

I was drawn to this area though its molecular links to a Spanish colonial mine in nearby Bolivia. In 2018 I had been following a line of research rippling out from Lachlan Macquarie’s holey dollar, Australia’ s first local colonial currency, made by counterpunching Spanish silver dollars, the global currency of the 18th century.

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Money Tree, detail, 2018, in DUMP

Between the 16th -18th centuries, the Spanish Empire forced countless indigenous people to work in the mountaintop mines of Potosí, Bolivia, then the largest source of silver in the world. The silver, minted to currency, funded Spanish expansionism for centuries. The local Inca already knew how to refine silver from the mine deep within the Cerro Rico Mountain, but in 1572 the Spanish introduced new improved extraction technology that boosted production and sent thick clouds of lead dust rising over the Andes for the first time in human history.

Winds carried some of that pollution 500 miles northwest into Peru, where tiny remnants of it settled on the Quelccaya Ice Cap.

In 2003, researchers found remnants of lead bearing the unique isotopic fingerprint of the Potosí silver and lead mineral load in ice core samples from Quelccaya, mapping the industrial output of mining across time, through the vertical columns of ice extracted from the icecap.

Dust for the Past, digital print, 2019

I read about this research last year, from a hot and dusty autumn in Broken Hill, Australia’s largest historic silver mine. As with Potosí, the silver-lead mineral load bears a lead isotopic fingerprint unique to its location, marked through its formation under intense geological pressures.

I was in Broken Hill to understand the extractive landscape of silver and lead mining, as part of a molecular level mapping of silver from Lachlan Macquarie’s holey dollar. Much of the silver in these coins originated from Potosí. While in Broken Hill I traced research articles about the contaminated landscape, and the detection of lead dust from mining at Broken Hill in ice-core samples in the Antarctic.

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The Colour of Snow (Flags for Amunsen), 2018

Windborn, it arrived at the South Pole 20 years before Scott unsuccessfully raced Amundsen’s Danish team across the icy landscape in 1913, to claim the last un-territorialised continent in the world, the Antarctic.

Lead from Potosí has also been found in South Pole icecore samples, located lower in the ice column, but uniting the extractive economics underpinning both country’s colonial histories and anthropogenic landscapes.

From the magical thinking of a colonial coin, to the dry heat of Broken Hill- to the claiming of the Antarctic, to mining the Cerro Rico Mountain (which has shrunk a few hundred meters shorter as a result of mining its interior), to this ice mass, located precariously at a tropical latitude, in the height of the Andes, since it was first formed.

The Quelccaya icecap is shrinking in size and thickness, and it is estimated that at current loss rates it will be gone within 50 years. It has retreated most rapidly in the last 30 years, losing 31% area across the window 1980–2010.

Because of its location and form, the icecap is an acutely sensitive measure of changes in regional mean air temperatures and related sea temperatures over time- and its ice captures data, in the form of snowfall and dissolved oxygen, documenting temperatures past. The icecap margins have changed overtime; retreating in the Medieval Warming Period and expanding in the Little Ice Age. However it has never retreated this far before. Its retreat has exposed frozen lands and plants that haven’t been uncovered for over 5000 years. It has exposed boulders, pushed slowly as the icecap’s glacier outlets expanded in the Little Ice Age. The rocks, dated by the rate of cosmogenic production of Beryllium-10 from rock-origin silicon, tells the story of the icecap’s maximum expansion 6000 years ago and it’s tidal increase and decrease since then, until now.

Future modelling indicates that as the air warms, precipitation will form as snow at increasingly higher elevations, such that in 50 years the freezing level will be above the Quelccaya dome and there will be no more snow or ice.

Quori Kalis outlet with proglacial lake and moraines in the foreground (courtesy Douglas Hardy)

I am planning to undertake staged walks along the accessible, western perimeter of the Quelccaya icecap, to walk an document this part of the diminishing cryosphere, with video, photography and conversation.

From data and discussions with the scientists who have spent years researching this ice mass, I plan to walk segments of two lines: the icecap margins as they existed at around 1797, a marker for the beginning of the Industrial revolution and also the time that silver used in Macquarie’s holey dollar was mined at Potosi, and 200 years later, 1997,

View across the Andes, image courtesy of Douglas Hardy

the year that the Kyoto protocol was signed.

The lands around Quelccaya have been inhabited by subsistence farmers for centuries. I hope to open conversations with these custodians of the local history, land and culture, to document vernacular oral histories of the ice cap.

I hope to have the opportunity to walk the 1797 line with some of these people- mapping with our moving bodies the pre-industrial shape of their mountain ice cap, before contemporary global economics impacted on the local climate, air temperature and icecap margins.

Collaborators, advisors:

Maxim Holland, producer, artist, HAWAPI founding member, Lima

Dr Christian Yarleque, Dr Douglas Hardy (The Ohio State University) and Dr Mathais Vuille (University of Massachusetts): Mapping the 1998 line, from LANDSAT data and images.

Projections of the future disappearance of the Quelccaya Ice Cap in the Central Andes. Christian Yarleque 1, Mathias Vuille1, Douglas R. Hardy2, Oliver Elison Timm, Jorge De la Cruz3, Hugo Ramos3,4 & Antoine Rabatel5 Sci Rep 2018 Oct 22;8(1):15564. Epub 2018 Oct 22.

Dr Justin Stroup, Oswego University, mapping the 1798 line from dated moraines in the glacier outlet valleys.

Stroup, J. S., Kelly, M. A., Lowell, T. V., Applegate, P. J., and Howley, J. A., 2014, Late Holocene fluctuations of Qori Kalis outlet glacier, Quelccaya Ice Cap, Peruvian Andes: Geology, v. 42, no. 4, p. 347-350.