Venezuela Becomes the First Country to Lose its Glaciers

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

When we think of glaciers, most people think about the Arctic and Antarctic regions or the icy expanses of Greenland or high altitude locations like the Alps in Europe. However, glaciers are not confined to polar and subpolar latitudes.

Tropical glaciers, found within  30°N and 30°S of the Equator, present a fascinating paradox of ice and tropical climate. Tropical glaciers are found at high altitudes in regions such as the Andes in South America, the Rwenzori Mountains in Africa, and the peaks of Papua in Indonesia.

The Geography of Tropical Glaciers

Tropical glaciers exist at high altitudes where temperatures are cold enough to sustain ice year-round. In the Andes, the most prominent tropical glaciers are found in countries like Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. The highest of these is the Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru, which is one of the largest tropical ice caps in the world.

In Africa, glaciers are found on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Kenya in Kenya, and the Rwenzori Mountains, which straddle the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Indonesia, the Puncak Jaya (also known as Carstensz Pyramid) in Papua hosts the remnants of once extensive glaciers.


Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!
Email:  

How glaciers form in tropical climates

Tropical glaciers form in regions where snow accumulates faster than it melts. These glaciers are typically found above 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) in altitude, where temperatures remain cold enough to preserve ice year round. Despite being in tropical latitudes, these high altitudes provide a microclimate conducive to glacier formation.

Tropical glaciers are characterized by their sensitivity to climate variations. Unlike their polar counterparts, which experience a more stable, cold climate, tropical glaciers are subject to significant seasonal and diurnal temperature fluctuations. This makes them particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Venezuela becomes the first tropical country to lose its glaciers

Venezuela’s highest mountains, located at the northern end of the Andes, are much colder than the surrounding tropical areas. Historically, this area was home to some of Venezuela’s glaciers. Venezuela had several glaciers in the Sierra Nevada de Mérida, the highest part of the Andes Mountains in this country, covering approximately 4 square miles (10 square kilometers) around 1910.

These glaciers were part of the tropical Andean glaciers. However, due to rising temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns, these glaciers have been shrinking steadily.

Venezuela’s Last Glacier: Humboldt

The summit of Pico Humboldt, at 4,940 meters (16,207 feet), was home to the last remaining glacier in Venezuela. Known as the Humboldt glacier, this last remaining glacier in Venezuela has retreated significantly over the last few decades.

An annotated satellite image of a green covered mountain range with small glaciers.
The state of the Humboldt glacier in Venezuela on January 6, 2015. Nearby Pico Bolívar is the highest peak in Venezuela, standing at 4,978 meters (16,332 feet). Image: Landsat 8, NASA, public domain.

The shrinking Humboldt Glacier in Venezuela

The rapid retreat of Venezuela’s glaciers is largely attributed to rising temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns. Studies indicate that the average temperature in the Venezuelan Andes has increased significantly over the past century, leading to accelerated melting of the glaciers. Additionally, altered precipitation patterns, with more rain and less snow, have further contributed to the glaciers’ decline.

Until recently, Humboldt Glacier remained Venezuela’s last glacier since 2009 due to its high altitude and favorable topography. Located at the base of Pico Humboldt, scientists believed that the glacier’s position on a gentler slope allowed snow to accumulate and compact into ice, helping it survive longer than other glaciers in the region.

In 1910, the Humboldt Glacier measured 3 kilometers across. By 1988, this glacier had shrunk to a span of just 0.6 square kilometers. In 2015, Humboldt further shrank to just 0.1 square kilometers (25 acres).

Side by side satellite images of a glacier in 1988 and 2015 showing the glacier shrinking.
This image pair shows the dramatic changes to Humboldt Glacier from January 20, 1988 (left) and January 6, 2015 (right). The false-color images highlight snow and ice (blue), land (brown), and vegetation (green). In 1988, the glacier covered about 0.6 square kilometers; by 2015, it had shrunk to less than 0.1 square kilometers.

In 2020, researchers published the results of a study that used topographic data, aerial photos, satellite images, historical maps, panoramic photos, and field observations, to produce 1:5,000 scale maps of glacier cover from 1952 to 2019. The results of that study found that glacier area in Venezuela had decreased by 98% between 1952 and 2019, shrinking from 2.317 km² to 0.046 km².

By 2024, Humboldt Glacier had shrunk to an area of just two hectares, making it little more than an ice field by the definition of many glaciologists.

A satellite image of mountain area with mostly brown and green areas.
By 2024, Humboldt Glacier was only two hectares in size, making it an ice field. Image: May 14, 2024, Landsat 9, NASA, public domain.

As of 2024, Venezuela no longer has glaciers. The last glacier on Pico Humboldt is so small it longer fits the definition of a glacier held by scientists, highlighting the impacts of global climate change.

References

Braun, C., & Bezada, M. (2013). The history and disappearance of glaciers in VenezuelaJournal of Latin American Geography, 85-124.

Ramírez, N., Melfo, A., Resler, L. M., & Llambí, L. D. (2020). The end of the eternal snows: Integrative mapping of 100 years of glacier retreat in the Venezuelan AndesArctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research52(1), 563-581. DOI: 10.1080/15230430.2020.1822728

Thompson, L. G., Davis, M. E., Mosley-Thompson, E., Porter, S. E., Corrales, G. V., Shuman, C. A., & Tucker, C. J. (2021). The impacts of warming on rapidly retreating high-altitude, low-latitude glaciers and ice core-derived climate recordsGlobal and planetary change203, 103538. DOI: 10.1016/j.gloplacha.2021.103538

Photo of author
About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.