In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: IDRF Book Exchange

Mark Carey, Oxford University Press, 2010

Jessica O’Reilly

Mark Carey’s In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers shows us a region of the planet that is experiencing the effects of climate change—the Peruvian Andes—and writes a fascinating, nuanced history of people trying to cope with these changes. This book is about the intimate, chaotic experience of glacial disasters, and how people choose or are made to adapt to a rapidly changing environment.

In both implicit and explicit ways, Carey traces how the townspeople of Huaraz and its environs know the glaciers in the mountains above them. The lakes formed by the melting glaciers are seen as enchanted, populated with ghosts, and beckoning naïve wanderers. People traveling close to the meltwater lakes also provide the only firsthand accounts of meltwater accumulation (a puddle may become a lake in a human generation) and the processes by which an icefall triggers waves that weaken and break through the fragile alluvial dams that hold them in. Here, we see locals as observers, explaining specific glacial and hydrological mechanics to cosmopolitan scientists. 

Scientists have ways to know the glaciers as well. Under orders from Peru’s government, scientists undertake an airborne survey of all the nation’s Andean glacial lakes. As Carey points out, this survey is not only in the name of scientific research and disaster mitigation, but also reveals more of the Peruvian highlands to the national government. This literal oversight opens up the region to more central management, both of the glacial lakes and otherwise. Here, Carey writes in a nuanced manner about the complex relationship between people living in the mountain towns and villages, who have been or potentially could be devastated by a glacial outburst flood, and the bureaucrats, technocrats, and experts often based in Lima. The give-and-take of power and expertise is not simple and one-sided, and the vicissitudes of government funding, community will, labor, and nature make risk management in the Andes an uncertain experience itself.

In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers foreshadows the desperate attempts to manage communities and nature in the middle of a climate change disaster, and the ways in which local people, leaders, scientists, and engineers struggle with sudden and dramatic changes to their environment. While people in the Peruvian Andes pieced together a detection system and some technological fixes, each subsequent disaster still affected communities living downstream. The glaciers and the precarious lakes they formed in melting were treated as adversaries, whether technologically or as enchanted by spirits. At the same time, some measures meant to protect people from future outburst floods, such as rezoning outside of the high-risk areas, were treated as an affront to the town’s social identity. This close-up portrait of people grappling with trusting techno-fixes and refusing to change their lifestyles resounds in contemporary, international debates on how to respond to anthropogenic climate change.

In conclusion, I have two questions for Mark Carey:

  1. This book describes the enchanted lakes and glaciers and the technoscientific means for controlling them. Were there instances where people merged these concepts together? What is the relationship between enchanted glaciers and human feats of engineering? Are they always opposed to one another?
  2. There is valuable information in In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers in terms of policy responses to climate change. How do you think the ideas in this book could be introduced to policy makers? And more generally, do you see a role for the social sciences and humanities in climate assessments like those published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)?

Mark Carey responds:

1. The relationship between local perceptions of enchanted lakes and engineering projects that drained and dammed dangerous glacial lakes was complex and variable – and definitely not just oppositional.  Some Peruvians in the mountain regions believed powerful spirits inhabited particular lakes, and the spirits could suck people underwater or produce outburst floods by sending water out of the lakes.  Indigenous people in the past and most rural residents still today tend to stay away from such lakes.

Even if they stayed away, technoscience offered a way to contain enchanted lakes.  With the dozens of new glacial lakes created by glacier shrinking and climate change, engineering projects to partially drain these lakes and contain them with artificial dams relieved people in the valleys below, who then worried less about a recalcitrant lake bursting out of its bed.  Local residents have long taken measures to tame enchanted lakes, such as throwing salt in the water, providing offerings for lake spirits, or asking priests to say prayers and erect crosses along shorelines.  Engineering practices introduced after the 1950s provided another strategy for containing lakes.  Jobs at these so-called “lake security projects” also provided economic opportunities for people with little access to wages.  The money seemed to overshadow the risk of encountering an enchanted lake, though workers always went to glacial lakes in large groups and this, rather than visiting a lake as a lone shepherd, provided a degree of safety.

The book demonstrates throughout how a diversity of local views intersected with so-called Western science, sometimes generating conflicts but often merging in interesting ways to illustrate how science and technology are socially produced in specific places, by a range of social groups, and within distinct historical contexts.  In the 1940s and 1950s, for example, scientists and engineers depended on local residents in remote villages for information about glaciers, glacial lakes, and alpine hazards.

Local understandings of enchanted lakes were never simply an oppositional force countering technoscientific projects to prevent glacial lake floods.  Instead, local perceptions and behaviors varied over time and in each community, intersecting in fascinating ways with scientific studies and engineering projects that are all best understood through interdisciplinary research that uncovers both local knowledge and technoscientific activities.

2. As Jessica O’Reilly observes, the historical analysis of this Andean region “resounds in contemporary, international debates on how to respond to anthropogenic climate change.”  Indeed, the last decades of climate change impacts and responses in the Peruvian Andes offers a rare glimpse at what worked, and what did not.  Most climate change research, on the contrary, offers projections about the future and speculates about potential programs that might alleviate climatic impacts.  This Peru case, however, allows us to learn from an ongoing process that has been unfolding for decades.  In this way, the research clearly demonstrates the importance of social science assessments for the IPCC.

For one, economic motives often overshadowed concerns about climatic or glacial hazards.  In Peru it was never simply about jobs versus climate change adaptation projects, as the debate is often framed in the present-day United States.  The economics were far more diverse and complicated.  But economic concerns did nonetheless shape climate change responses.  Bankrupt state agencies, political decisions favoring coast-focused development plans, profound desires to preserve existing socio-economic hierarchies, and narratives of glaciers as vanishing “water towers” that discursively favored industrial irrigation and hydroelectricity generation for coastal cities all affected adaptation agendas and glacier hazard mitigation programs.  Responses to real and potential glacier hazards also brought in a host of new stakeholders who tried to open up fresh economic opportunities in the Andes and solidify political control – a process the book defines as “disaster economics.” Global climate change not only alters ecological relations; it also rearranges power structures and changes economies. Understanding the social landscape is also critical for the successful implementation of governmental disaster prevention and climate adaptation programs.  Residents in Peru historically fought against some disaster prevention programs, such as hazard zoning, because they saw them as imposed by the central government.  Many believed the zoning laws infringed on local political autonomy and disrupted regional social relations.  Policy makers who authorize millions of dollars for science need also to invest in studies that illuminate the dynamic social landscape.  Science and technology are often inadequate without corresponding knowledge of culture, political power, economic priorities, and social relations that, in the end, dictate whether a society will or will not adapt.

Sandra Moog

Mark Carey’s In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society is a fascinating study of a half-century of social and political struggle and institutional and scientific innovation in the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca. While most of us have only recently become aware of the effects of climate change on the planet’s ice-caps and mountain glaciers, the populations of the high Andes have been witnessing the effects of retreating glaciers for decades. Subject to occasional glacial avalanches, the populations of many Andean villages and cities have also found themselves under continual threat by glacial lakes, new bodies of water that appear overnight and proceed to rapidly pool glacial run-off, often at alarming rates. Rising, swelling, and periodically bursting through their natural rock “moraine” dams, these lakes have, throughout the twentieth century, periodically produced catastrophic floods in the region, which have destroyed entire towns and levelled the centers of major cities.

Mark Carey’s analysis traces the responses of local populations, the Peruvian state, and various international interests (scientists, mountaineers, development agencies, and energy companies) to this dynamic mountain landscape. Beginning with the catastrophic outburst flood which levelled a third of the city of Huaraz, killing 5,000 residents one terrible morning in 1941, Carey traces the progressive nationalization and globalization of disaster in the Cordillera Blanca. As socially powerful local residents succeeded in entreating the state to help them rebuild their cities in the floodplains, and to monitor and occasionally drain the glacial lakes that threatened them from on high, social and institutional dynamics were set in place that would lead to new forms of political economy and power dynamics in the region. The interplay of national ambitions and local desires played an important role in shaping the particular form of hydroelectric development which came to dominate in this part of Peru in the twentieth century, as well as helping to construct unique landscapes of risk in the region. An important contribution to recent studies of neo-liberal “disaster capitalism,” the historical dimension of Carey’s book provides a broader lens on how various different historical forms of state interest and intervention (state projects aimed at import-substituting industrialization, for example, or revolutionary socialist populism) have, in different ways, shaped processes of economic integration and environmental security and vulnerability for the region’s local populations.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the 21st century will be an era of social upheaval, as societies around the globe face growing resource scarcities and the challenges of climate change. We have grown accustomed, in recent decades, to looking to scientists, not only for assessments of the pace of ecological change, but for recommendations regarding the technological adaptations we will need to make in order to avert the worst effects of environmental crisis.  The voices of social scientists, however, have been less prominent in public discussion of the coming environmental challenges. But clearly, the tumult and adaptation will be political and institutional, cultural and economic, not just “ecological.” Social and political desires and concrete developmental projects shape the responses of populations to various environmental threats. They influence the particular shape that preventative measures take, and they help dictate which measures are perceived as socially or politically “impossible.”  They determine how natural processes can present terrifying threats for some populations, while simultaneously providing concrete economic “opportunities” for various interests.  Mark Carey’s detailed historical study of the intertwined evolution of glacier science, hydroelectric development, disaster prevention, and the creation of touristic “landscapes of consumption” in the high Andes provides a nuanced account of how social institutions, economic ambitions, national politics, and processes of globalization have played out in one of the world’s first regions to face the disruptions of climate change events over a series of decades, and in a variety of different political contexts – both authoritarian and democratic, protectionist and neo-liberal. As such, it presents an important contribution to early efforts to begin to think about the social, political, and economic dimensions of climate change as an institutional challenge for societies in the decades to come.

Emily Yeh

The recent annual Association of American Geographers meeting in Washington D.C. featured an eight-part panel on “climate adaptation, landscapes and institutions,” a key premise of which was a call for more research attention to historical adaptations to climate phenomena as they were experienced in concrete and particular social settings.  Mark Carey’s account of Peruvian responses to glacier lake outburst floods and other catastrophes caused by the melting of glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range provides exactly the type of corrective that the geographers were calling for to the often highly abstract and sometimes reductionist discussions of climate adaptation  One of the key lessons from his engaging and highly readable narrative is that the success of future adaptation programs will depend as much on understanding social relations and power dynamics as on water flows and melt rates.  After a glacier disaster in Huaraz in 1941, and again after a glacial avalanche destroyed the town of Ranrahirca in 1962, residents rejected attempts to reduce their vulnerability to future climate-induced disasters through hazard zoning.  Carey argues that residents opted to rebuild their cities rather than move out of harm’s way in order to recreate the race and class hierarchies that were embedded within the destroyed urban spaces.  They also rejected zoning as state interference, yet Carey shows that this ironically made them more dependent upon state-funded science and technology to continually drain glacial lakes.  When Fujimori’s neoliberal reforms privatized the hydroelectric industry, dismantling the Glaciology and Hydrological Resources Unit that had monitored and drained glacial lakes, residents became much more vulnerable than they would have been had they moved.  Thus, vulnerability to climate change is not only a function of poverty, marginalization, or lack of knowledge, but is also produced by the sedimented effects of residents’ own past decisions, driven more by racial hierarchy, cultural politics, and social conflicts than by any direct calculation of risk from future hazards. This is a difficult but crucial lesson for climate change adaptation programs currently proliferating around the world.

The book discusses how the shift in narrative from glaciers as hazards to glaciers as vanishing water towers seemingly involved apolitical word choices but actually reflected and further enabled a shift to the exploitation of hydropower resources. The Tibetan Plateau, where I do research, is routinely referred to in China’s “Asia’s water tower,” a term that embeds within it an overriding concern with water resources for those living downstream, rather than the conditions of life for those living closest to the glaciers. Indeed, the “water tower” narrative is currently being used to justify a program of large-scale Tibetan nomadic resettlement into towns – a darker example of resettlement than the failed attempts that Carey discusses. His observation that authoritarian regimes in Peru have had greater capacity to respond to catastrophes (but have also generated more public opposition – as when President Velasco tried to use disaster mitigation to dismantle class-race hierarchies) is important, though I think it needs to be tempered with the obvious statement that authoritarian regimes are no guarantee of effective response, let alone accountability – think only of China’s handling of the parents of schoolchildren killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

One fascinating section of the book was the discussion of how an alarmist, and incorrect, NASA press release about an imminent flood danger from a crack in the Mt. Cupi glacier – apparently released mainly as an advertisement for ASTER satellite images – unleashed a debate about globalization and a backlash against an American energy company operating in the region.  It provoked me to think about how a similar incident in Tibet might play out differently, leading not to critiques of neoliberal globalization but more likely to a nationalist response couched in the language of Chinese territorial sovereignty over Tibet.  Of course, in bringing up these comparative notes from Tibet, I am only illustrating one of the strong points of Carey’s book: political, cultural, historical, and social contexts matter a great deal in understanding both climate vulnerability and adaptation, and we would do well to pay more attention to them.

Mark Carey responds:

Both Emily Yeh and Sandra Moog make a point I agree with deeply: we need to reach across disciplinary boundaries and bring social science perspectives to bear on climate change discussions today.  Emily Yeh relays a recent call by the Association of American Geographers for more social and historical research on climate change adaptation.  Sociologist Sandra Moog notes an important point about climate change worldwide, not just in the Andes: that “the tumult and adaptation will be political and institutional, cultural and economic, not just ‘ecological.’”  Yeh and Moog exhibit a growing consensus among climate change researchers in general that climate-related policies and adaptation agendas need significantly more input from social scientists and interdisciplinary scholarship.

Yet, I hope that as a history of scientific and engineering advances that evolved in Peru over more than a half century, this book also reveals just how important science and technology are for climate change adaptation.  Peruvian scientists hiked into remote canyons, scaled dangerous peaks over 20,000 feet high, spent frozen nights on crumbling glaciers, and fought with icebergs that smashed against their rubber boats on glacial lakes.  A few even learned to scuba dive in a high-elevation lake, where the lack of oxygen nearly collapsed their lungs.  Over several decades, Peruvian specialists produced some of the world’s most innovative and advanced methods for identifying glacier hazards and preventing glacier-related disasters.  Today those achievements are helping people in other glaciated mountains – from Canada to Nepal – who increasingly grapple with glacier hazards.

Without those engineering breakthroughs in the Andes, thousands more Peruvians would have perished in glacial lake outburst floods. The importance of social science research is brought up by the commentators, and rightfully so – but we also cannot lose sight of the critical role that science and technology play in climate change adaptation.  I hope my book makes this clear and that this is why glaciologist Georg Kaser wrote in his back-cover blurb that “In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers is important reading for scientists of all kinds.”