Friday, July 25, 2014

Climate Change and Machu Picchu

After a month of high altitude living, Jeff and I finally packed up our bags and headed to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley in preparation for the early morning train ride up to Machu Picchu. While Jeff had been there a decade prior, I had seen little more of the site than llama-photo bomb pics and a tiny replica at the Harvard museum, hardly a just and thorough introduction. I was worried about my lungs ( explains this further) and the state of my once-grand, now-horribly-atrophied quadriceps.

The Apus were looking out for me that day, however, and Jeff and I bombed down the mountain from Sun Gate, terrifying onlookers and leaving me with one of the happiest and most profoundly peaceful memories I have from my three months in Peru. As my gift back to the Apus and Pachamama, I owe them a post about the impacts of climate change on Machu Picchu—and it turns out they have a long and sordid history together.

Nikolas Kozloff writes in his 2010 article "Climate Summit, Machu Picchu, and El Niño: Destroyer of Civilizations" (, April 23, 2010) that El Niño has long wrought havoc on the populations of Peru, causing mass migrations, flooding, and erosion. Coupled with humankind's knack for desecrating nature's resistance to erratic weather events, the results were at times catastrophic, possibly wiping out entire civilizations, like the Nazca and Chimú. And the behavior of El Niño is changing.

A few nights ago, Jeff and I were speaking with a young man from Lima, living in Tarapoto to manage the lodge we were staying at in the jungle. 

"You know, I've noticed the seasons shift here. The summers happen months off, the winters too. But why is that?" He rubbed the bridge of his nose and looked down at his feet. 

At the time I felt hesitant to answer, lacking the confidence — and the heart — to tell someone from Peru about what I've been learning. But when I told him 'El Niño,' he slowly nodded. 

"Yes, of course. That makes sense."

The seasons are shifting, and as summers grow longer and water warms on the Pacific, El Niño has been more frequent, more unpredictable, and much harsher. Kozloff reported that in 1998, the Salkantay glacier near Machu Picchu collapsed, causing a glacial flood burst that triggered a massive landslide and buried a hydroelectric power station and the valley below:
Water gushed through the valley below Machu Picchu and flooded the area. Fleeing inhabitants, with nowhere else to go, climbed up on the slope of a mountain while others perished. Rescuers from Machu Picchu, using antiquated Russian helicopters, helped to gather up the traumatized local Quechua Indians and campesino peasants. The survivors had lost everything including their homes and possessions.

Below the rescue site the whole area had become flooded, creating a gigantic lake. Relief workers helped to evacuate the survivors to Aguas Calientes, a nearby town. The hydroelectric power station was shuttered for a year and reconstruction cost the government $400 million.
(Nikolas Kozloff, No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet, Palgrave Macmillan Trade: 2010)
Paired with the rapidly melting glaciers in the High Andes, El Niño could spell disaster for many of the towns that are at risk of future massive, glacier-induced landslides, or aluvión. When Jeff and I were in Aguas Calientes, the town where you catch the final, quick bus up to Machu Picchu, we noticed a huge sign in the city center—an emergency city evacuation plan. After reading about the widespread destruction there in 2010, it appears more signs may be needed:
In a peak year Aguas Calientes could be inundated by an aluvión, and yet local residents stubbornly refuse to move. Despite warnings from local and national officials as well as the World Bank, townspeople are reluctant to give up their livelihoods. Hotel and restaurant owners are aware of the risk of an aluvíon. But, in the short term they figure they’re making a lot of money as a result of the tourist boom at Machu Picchu.  
Ultimately, people may regret that type of risk taking: over the past few months Machu Picchu has again been hit by El Niño. The Urubamba River, which runs past the archaeological site, swelled to an unprecedented 39,000 cubic feet per second. Flooding brought disaster in its wake, with at least 26 people killed. Meanwhile, the homes and livelihood of some 20,000 people were destroyed.  
The weather devastated the local economy, with the Urubamba River undermining various stretches of the railway line that leads to Machu Picchu. Indeed, the situation became so bad that the authorities at one point had to borrow helicopters from as far away as Brazil to airlift almost 4,000 tourists stranded in Aguas Calientes. The authorities estimate that thousands of people were thrown out of work in the tourist industry as a result of the weather.  
(Nikolas Kozloff, "Climate Summit, Machu Picchu, and El Niño: Destroyer of Civilizations,", April 23, 2010)

The fate of entire towns are wrapped up in the wealth and will of people who will spend little more than a few days and $100 on their city before hopping on a tourist bus to the next destination on their To Do list. When those sites are no longer accessible, when the risk is no longer worth the few stunning snapshots, bragging rights and a cool profile picture, when the streets are filled with water and the hotels/buses/restaurants/massage parlors/parks/souvenir shops are emptied of guests, Peru will begin to see a mass of climate refugees that it is woefully unprepared for. The population shift has already begun.

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