Whitewashing Mountains to Save Glaciers

A Peruvian inventor, Eduardo Gold, has come up with an innovative approach for protecting disappearing Andean glaciers — painting exposed mountain rockfaces with whitewash. Just as painting roofs white helps increase the albedo effect and reflects heat back into the atmosphere, whitewashing rockfaces near glaciers may help cool the local micro-climate, keeping the fragile snow and ice in place. While some view the idea as a bit absurd, the World Bank’s Development Marketplace, a global development competition, recently gave the project $200,000 (see earlier post).

According to BBC News, Gold’s pilot project is being implemented on Chalon Sombrero peak, which is some 4,756 metres above sea level. Men working with Gold wear boiler suits and mix paint from lime, industrial egg white, and water, three highly environmentally-sustainable ingredients. Using jugs, the workers took two weeks to splash whitewash on two hectares of rocks around the summit. The idea is to cover 70 hectares in total. 

Gold says “cold generates more cold, just as heat generates more heat.” Using this theory, he adds: “I am hopeful that we could re-grow a glacier here because we would be recreating all the climatic conditions necessary for a glacier to form.”

Licapa, the local village, supports the plan, not only for the work the proposal will bring, but because they’ve seen the glacier disappear over the years. Pablo Parco, a 65-year old resident told BBC News: “When I was around 15-20 years old, Chalon Sombrero was a big glacier, all white, then little by little it started to melt. Forty years on and the river’s never been lower, the nights are very cold and the days are unbearably hot. It wasn’t like this when I was growing up… it was always bearable. So we’re happy to see this project to paint the mountain. I can tell you this morning there was snow on the ground, something we rarely see.”

Peru is home to 70 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers. A World Bank report argues that more than 22 percent have melted in the last 30 years. If there is no climate change mitigation, the glaciers could completely disappear in 20 years, creating havoc for Peru’s water supply. 

One glaciologist, Thomas Condom, said the project could have an impact, but it will remain local. Condom told The Independent (UK): “It might be possible to slow down a little the melting, to gain a drop of a few tenths of a Celsius, or maybe one or two degrees Celsius, on a local scale.” He added that it would be very difficult to do this on a large scale, say across the Andes mountains. (While difficult, it could also be a major green jobs creator though). 

Critics within the Peruvian government want funds put towards other climate change mitigation activities. Peru’s environment minister, Antonio Brack, who argues that Peru needs $400 million in climate change mitigation aid, said: “I think there are much more interesting projects which would have more impact in mitigating climate change and that’s where this money should be invested.” Still, the ministry’s climate change chief gave the project the go-ahead.

Read the article and watch a brief video. Check out the organization.

Also, read an Environment 360 article on new satellite technology that enables scientists to “measure the extent, thickness, and height of ice” in changing glaciers. 

Image credit: BBC News

3 thoughts on “Whitewashing Mountains to Save Glaciers

  1. baxter 07/13/2010 / 12:19 pm

    WPA for a new century. I have no idea what people are thinking when at the bottom of the white painted hill people are starving, living in shacks. Even the glaciologist notes that it will make little or no difference. Might I suggest that Peru and its citizens make the necessary changes in their lifestyle and location to insure their success. What would you tell their ancestors when the egg wash is a faded memory and there still isn’t any water. Well at least you had green jobs for a while. The WPA was the worst thing for the nation because it created un-sustainable jobs in the guise of doing good.

  2. Steve Trudnak 07/14/2010 / 10:32 am

    I can not think of a better, more eloquently worded response to this idiocy then that by baxter!
    Let’s see how many ways we can waste money and time.

  3. Andrew 02/23/2012 / 5:06 pm

    This is not a good idea at all. For one glacial growth depends on much more than albedo at its base. Regional precipitation regimes and temperatures must be altered to really affect glacial growth. Also, unless the rocks they’re painting are carbonates (e.g. limestone) then painting the rocks with lime will alter the chemistry in and around the rocks, which could be toxic for local flora and fauna. Painting rocks white will not stop climate change.

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