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Climate change will leave Colombia without Andean tundras or glaciers

By the year 2040 snow and the Andean tundras could disappear completely from the Colombian territory. The accelerated pace of climate change facing the planet could cause these ecosystems to lose their adaptation capability and therefore die out.

Furthermore, by the end of the century, the optimal climate conditions for the formation of deserts will be in place, as well as a notable increase in dry tropical forests leaving the territory exposed to forest fires.

The favorable weather for crops would be reduced, leaving only 21% of the total water available in the territory for agricultural use. By then the temperatures will be soaring and the rain scarce.

This is not science fiction. These are the conclusions of applying a mathematical model which allows a space-time quantification of the impacts the country may endure in future climate change scenarios, which were presented during the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for 2011-2040 and 2071-2100.

The model is now a useful tool for people who take decisions related to territorial development, as climate change is evident and demands a redesign of current regulations.

“The country needs to have an adaptation strategy in place that considers the limitations and potentials of every region, particularly when we are closer –both in time as in distance– to the devastating consequences of climate change; therefore we should make ourselves less vulnerable, said Juan Carlos Alarcón Hincapié, Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal) Geography Ph.D. and author of the model.

The model connects basic climatological variables such as temperature, rainfall, and relative humidity, among others and also allows observing:

  • How normal rainfall distribution will be altered 
  • How areas prone to landslides and floods could be increased
  • Which areas of the country could have optimal conditions for the spread of diseases such as malaria
  • And how the amount of water available for agricultural use could be impacted

This is the current status

To make the model they took into consideration the variables and the climate between 1980 and 2010. For this Dr. Alarcón used information from the Colombian Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies Institute (IDEAM, for its Spanish acronym) and also data from satellite technologies such as rain sensors to pin down rainfall information. This is how he achieved a detailed spatial precision of 900 m x 900 m for all the Colombian territory.

According to IDEAM data, some Andean lakes and lagoons have disappeared, the polar caps are also being lost; sea levels have increased by 0.3 and 0.4 milliliters per decade; rainfall has been altered and the most temperate zones, such as the inter-Andean valleys of the Magdalena, the Caribbean area, and the Cauca region, the temperature has risen between 2 to 4º C (35.6 – 39.2º F).

The projection evidenced that in water terms, Colombia has an average water runoff (water in a hydrographic basin available for different uses) of 1,644 mm a year.

Due to the climate conditions of the country, only 20% of the country has lands apt for crops and of these lands, only 18% has optimal water availability conditions.

Another indicator is the dryness index which determines the amount of water available on the land. This indicator has an average of 0.23, meaning moderate conditions and water surpluses.

The Guajira peninsula and the north of the Provinces of Magdalena and Atlántico were identified as areas with high water deficit.

“Close to 80% of the inhabitants are located in basins with natural water deficit; additionally approximately 9.5% of the territory has a high landslide susceptibility, especially the northeast sector of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, south of the Province of Bolívar, and northeast of the Provinces of Boyacá and Cundinamarca,” said Alarcón.

What will come

After verifying that the model was useful for analyzing current climate detail, Dr. Alarcón modified the data using IPCC data: In an optimistic scenario, the country will finally be an environmentally conscious and will also establish birth control to diminish pressure over natural resources such as gas emissions and in the more pessimistic scenario, the current trend of the same consumption and resource exploitation levels are maintained.

In both scenarios the future is discouraging, as in terms of plant life, the model suggests that for the mid-century the Andean tundras and snowy areas will tend to completely disappear, which is concerning as these ecosystems are essential for water production.

The subhumid tropical forest will be most impacted by a loss of 11% of its original area (close to 125,000 sq. km), which would turn into tropical dry forest.

High temperatures and low rainfall would favor the appearance of dry environment plant life, such as deserts and desert shrubbery which could take almost 6% of the country.

The areas optimal for cropping would be reduced by almost 50% and the dry areas in land with agricultural potential will drastically fall, instigating a great environmental cost to make these lands productive again.

The areas with high water deficit of the Caribbean coast, the Magdalena River valley, and the Orinoquía regions will increase. The areas prone to landslides would also increase by 7 %, malaria cases would increase by 44 %, mostly in the Provinces of Vichada, Amazonas, the Caquetá foothills, Meta, Western Guainía, the Chocó and Antioquia areas of Urabá and the valleys of the Cauca and Magdalena Rivers.

Adaptation and territorial development

Up to now, the country did not have a model linked to the geographic or physical conditions of its territory, which may also be duplicated in other areas to analyze the conditions of a municipality or specific rural settlement.

To use the model, current and future data (obtained from climate change scenarios) should be inputted and it will provide detailed cartography of the present and possible future spatial distribution of the aspects modeled, specifying where and when environmental transformations will take place.

After the research project Dr. Alarcón is still optimistic, therefore he hopes that this tool  and the information it can provide will transcend the academic scope and reach the authorities who will ultimately take decisions regarding the country with the purpose of proposing and providing long-term planning actions (environmental management, basis management, and disaster risk management, among others), directed towards territorial development plans to strengthen this actions to face the upcoming foreseen changes.


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