Venezuela Becomes First Modern Country to Lose All Its Glaciers

In an occasion both momentous and deeply disturbing, scientists downgraded a glacier in the Venezuelan Andes to just an “ice field.” This change in status of the Humboldt Glacier — also called La Corona — makes Venezuela the planet’s first contemporary nation to lose all its glaciers.

“Other countries lost their glaciers several decades ago after the end of the Little Ice Age, but Venezuela is arguably the first one to lose them in modern times,” Maximiliano Herrera, a climatologist and weather historian, told The Guardian. He added that Indonesia, Mexico, and Slovenia are likely next up for the dubious honor.

While the ice field formally known as the Humboldt Glacier is still two hectares in area, being a glacier isn’t about size — or at least not size alone.

“Glaciologists often use a criteria of 0.1 sq km [10 hectares] as a common definition, but any ice mass above that size still has to deform under its own weight [to count as a glacier],” glaciologists James Kirkham and Miriam Jackson explained to the BBC.

And that’s definitely no longer happening to La Corona.

Last man standing

The Humboldt Glacier was somewhat of the last man standing in Venezuela. Located above 5,000m in the Sierra Nevada de Mérida range, La Corona kept company with five other glaciers. By 2011, all five of its companions had already vanished.

the Humboldt glacier

A glacier has to flow downhill under its own weight. La Corona isn’t doing that anymore. Photo: Hendrick Sanchez/Wikimedia Commons


That prompted officials and scientists to keep a close eye on the Humboldt. The Venezuelan government even recently installed a thermal blanket over what was left of it in an attempt to halt or reverse the melting process. There was some optimism that the Humboldt might make it to 2030 or beyond.

El Niño

But a nasty El Niño combined with some political turmoil in Venezuela dashed those hopes. By the time the turmoil settled and scientists could resume monitoring the Humboldt, its inherent glacier-ness had vanished.

“In the Andean area of Venezuela, there have been some months with monthly anomalies of 3-4˚C above the 1991-2020 average,” Herrera noted

Mark Maslin, an earth scientist at University College London, says that the melting of small glaciers such as the Humboldt won’t contribute to sea-level rise. But such occurrences represent an ongoing trend. And there are wider implications as well.

“The loss of [the Humboldt Glacier] marks the loss of much more than the ice itself, it also marks the loss of the many ecosystem services that glaciers provide, from unique microbial habitats to environments of significant cultural value,” said Caroline Clason, a glaciologist at Durham University.

“That Venezuela has now lost all its glaciers really symbolizes the changes we can expect to see across our global cryosphere under continued climate change.”

ice field atop mountain

An ice field (or ice cap, if it’s on top of a mountain), like the one above on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic, just sits there, dwindling and eventually disappearing. It doesn’t flow like a glacier does. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
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