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The face of climate change in South America

Climate change continues to creep up on us. Floods and droughts plague the land; food crops can’t adapt to rapidly changing conditions; and increased risk of species' extinction threatens our planet's biodiversity.

Established in 1970 to bring attention to environmental issues and the need for protection, Earth Day 2013 is dedicated to examining the people, animals, and places affected by climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, consisting of over 1,300 scientists from across the globe, predicts that in the next century temperatures will rise between 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. In comparison, global temperatures increased 1 degree in the 20th century. Small changes make a difference: During the last ice age, the northeastern United States was covered by thousands of feet of ice—during that time average temperatures were only 5 to 9 degrees cooler than today.

Like nearly every region in the world, South America faces dire threats from climate change. Several places are already showing symptoms. Here are several places vulnerable to climate change in South America.


As South America’s most “water-stressed” country, any interruption to Peru’s water supply will be devastating. Over 70% of Peru’s population lives along the coast, a stretch of desert trapped between the Pacific Ocean and the Andean Mountains. This area contains Lima, the capital of Peru, which is the second largest desert city in the world. The problem? Only 2% of Peru’s fresh water is found in this coastal region.

For irrigation and drinking water, Peruvians turn to the Andes, home to the largest number of tropical glaciers in the world—including the Quelccaya Ice Cap. At 18,600 feet above sea level and covering 17 square miles, this is the world’s largest tropical ice sheet. Too bad it’s melting. Rapidly.

In the past 25 years the icecap has lost nearly 20% of its area—an expanse that took 1,600 years to freeze over. Since scientists first began observing the glacier, melt has increased 10%. Plants once deeply frozen are now exposed and dating methods show the ice sheet is the smallest it has been in over six thousand years.

Many rivers in Peru originate in the Andes and rely partially on gradual glacial melt. This water is vital for the existence of many Andean towns, as well as security along the Pacific coast. Though high melt rates now create a surplus, if the rate of glacial retreat does not slow, a water deficit looms. Water shortages would also hurt power supply as nearly 80% of Peru’s power comes from hydro-electricity.


The Amazon

Everyone knows the Amazon Rainforest is important to the general well-being of the planet, but it’s worth revisiting the numbers. The Amazon Basin provides one-fifth of all fresh water on the planet, making it Earth’s largest fresh water reserve. It’s responsible for absorbing 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually to create 20% of our planet’s oxygen. More than 5 million species of plants, animals and insects—half of the world’s estimated total—live in the Amazon, including numerous endemic species.

Though the Amazon helps us now, its loss could be devastating. Already roughly 20% of annual global greenhouse emissions come from the destruction of tropical forests. If the combination of drought and deforestation continues, the Amazon may begin emitting much more carbon dioxide than it takes in, contributing to the warming of the planet in a vicious cycle.

Thought we can’t know for sure what the effects will be, a study of a “one-in-100” year drought in 2005 gives us a few clues. During that year 270,000 square miles of old-growth forest were harmed by a drought that experts believe was caused by long-term rising temperature in parts of the Atlantic Ocean—a weather system also blamed for Hurricane Katrina that hit the USA. The drought spurred the release of an estimated 5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere due to rotting vegetation and the forest’s reduced absorption ability.

Beyond the “tipping point” where the Amazon begins producing more greenhouses gases than it takes in, climate change in the Amazon currently threatens our plant’s biodiversity. As tropical forests turn into savannah, many species will lose their habitat. Many medicinal plants both found and yet to be discovered originate in the Amazon as well. Overall, the Amazon has been named the most vulnerable area in the world to climate change, second only to the Arctic.



Global melting of glaciers and ice fields is one of the main warning signs of a warming planet. Excluding Antarctica, Patagonia contains the largest amount of ice in the southern hemisphere, making it an important place to study glacial melt. Though not every glacier is receding (famously the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina is actually growing), some studies show that the melting ice in South America is an increasing contributor to rising sea levels. Satellite images show the ice fields in Southern Patagonia have thinned six feet from 2000 to 2012.


The Face of Climate Change

Part of combating climate change is realizing that it affects real people and real places, and that real individuals can make a difference. The Earth Day Network is putting a face on climate change by asking people to submit photos of people, animals, and places affected by climate change—as well as those stepping up to do something about it. You can learn more about the project and submit your photos here.

Below is the fun photo we submitted of the SA Expeditions team.

SA Expeditions Face of Climate Change

Our team at SA Expeditions is on the front lines of climate change. With two offices in Peru, one in Lima and one in Cuzco, we can see the glacier-covered mountain tops and we rely on their melt water. We’ve walked through the Amazon Rainforest and tip-toed across the glaciers in Patagonia. Climate change is happening whether you see it or not, but seeing can help believing. As a travel company, we strive to connect people and places using sustainable tour practices and local resources. This is one reason we use digital pre-trip itineraries to reduce paper waste and have partnered with local social enterprises.

If you’ve traveled with us, you’ve helped support environmental education in Peruvian communities. Our specially-designed bags are made from recycled plastic, collected from communities and beaches in Peru. The bag is made by L.O.O.P (Life out of Plastic) which sells bags made from recycled plastic to fund environmental projects and educational events in Peru. Some of our team members have attended LOOP events, such as beach clean ups (our marketing manager Laura is picture below right); your bag may be made out of a piece of plastic picked up by one of us!


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