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Glaciers mexico
Amecameca with the Iztaccihuatl volcano in the background in 2010. Photo: Alejandro Linares Garcia / Wikimedia Commons.

Droughts increase in Mexico as last remaining glaciers decline

The villagers of Amecameca —a town in Central Mexico near the Iztaccihuatl volcano— know perfectly how it is to lose a glacier. In a matter of decades, climate change erased some of their main water sources, increased drought and drastically changed their traditions.

At the top of the volcano, the Ayoloco glacier completely melted this year, after years of gradually losing ice. Unusually high temperatures and changes in precipitation caused the ice loss. In a ceremony in April, scientists declared it officially extinct.

The glacier’s disappearance left even harder conditions for Amecameca’s residents, many of them farmers working nearby. “Droughts are now longer. They used to be 6 months, but we gained one more month without our precious water,” said Jaime Ariza, a local farmer.

“The glaciers are melting, the climate is changing, rain is changing, and we can observe it in our corn farm,” he added. Without the glacier, water has become more expensive in this town, passing from 0.8 pesos per liter in 2015 to 1,2 pesos per liter in 2021.

Like the Ayoloco glacier, most of Mexico’s glacial masses disappeared in the last six decades. In the Iztaccihuatl volcano, 11 glaciers formed in 1958, covering more than 6.000 km. Now, after Ayoloco’s extinction, only 3 remain, which only cover around 0,2 km.

At a national level, only 5 glaciers remain in Mexico, but they’re also expected to disappear in the coming decades, said Hugo Delgado, researcher at the Geophysics Institute of Mexico’s National Autonomous University.

Climate change has been the main driver of the glacier’s extinction, Delgado added. “We are in a climate emergency. If we don’t understand this, future generations are the ones who will pay a high price,” said the scientist.

Because of the altitude needed for a glacier to exist, only two regions in Mexico offer these characteristics: Pico de Orizaba and Iztaccíhuatl. The first site, Pico de Orizaba, is the tallest Mexican mountain (5675 meters above sea level) and still has two surviving glaciers. 

The fate of Iztazihuatl’s glaciers is more concerning. With an altitude of 5230 meters, the 3 glaciers left just don ‘t have the temperature needed to avoid melting.

Warmer conditions fueled by climate change are affecting glaciers all around the world, according to a 2020 report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Data from the European Alps, Scandinavia and Rocky Mountains shows a one-metre water loss per year, the report says. Water stress is expected in surrounding cities and rural communities, if this tendency continues, the WMO added.

Drought in the farms

In the urban side of Amecameca, water has grown more expensive during months of drought. As glaciers gradually disappear, local communities that depend on them economically and culturally face new impacts.

Neighbors in the urban part of Amecameca pay up to 600 pesos por 500 liters of water during longer droughts. This water comes from a nearby place called Tlachique, located around 200 meters from Amecameca. Once the water reaches the city, all is sold quickly.

Not only is water more expensive, but drought is also more intense. In rural areas outside the city, farmers have noticed how their crops are being directly affected. Their corn just doesn’t look as healthy as it used to.

Inside his warehouse, don Jaime Ariza dries corn cobs to obtain seeds that will be used next season. “Look at this red corn, it has spirit; it gives life, it cures”, he said while grabbing the cob of an intense red carmine. “Now look at this [other] cob, look how it did not develop well. The corn grains just never developed totally. It’s not normal”.

glaciers mexico
Don Jaime’s corns have grown weaker as water has become more scarce in Amecameca. Photo: Dalila Anzueto Vazquez.

Don Jaime has felt a rise in temperature during the last couple of years, which has forced him to start the corn plantation later than usual. As temperatures go up, he has also faced new plagues and invasive species. 

“We now have magpies, birds that came with the heat. They like eating corn sprouts. Now we have to learn how to deal with the birds. That’s also why we know the climate is changing,” he said.

As drought hits the area, locals also face cultural shocks. For generations, the people of Amecameca have considered the Iztaccihuatl volcano a holy mountain, and have incorporated this into their religious beliefs. 

The “tiemperos”, or rainmakers, are believed to be able to talk with Tlaloc, an ancient god of water whose house is built inside the Iztaccihuatl. From the top of the volcano, the god distributes water to the rest of the world, local belief goes.

Reverence to water and to the mountain is fundamental in this local culture. Their rituals take place in the higher altitudes of the Iztaccihuatl,” said Dr. Mauricio Ramsés Hernández, history and ethnohistory expert working at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

“Their religious belief in water and the mountain is strong for a simple reason: it’s what provides their food,” he adds.

One of Amecameca’s rainmakers is Gerardo Paez. He is believed to translate the language of the mountains to the rest of the community. He has also noticed a change in weather patterns.

“Weather is not certain anymore. The sky is being altered. Warming is just a cleaning process, the earth is cleaning itself from anything that doesn’t work. Land will prevail. The question is if we, humans, will be part of this new ecosystem”, he said.

Science of the mountain

Upon the imminent extinction of Ayoloco glacier, Hugo Delgado, a scientist from Mexico’s National Autonomous University, held a ritual at the top of the Iztaccihuatl volcano back in April.

There, he installed a small plaque that reads: “To future generations: here existed the Ayaloco glacier, which retroceded until disappearing in 2021”.

“In the next decades, Mexican glaciers will irremediably disappear. This plaque leaves certainty that we knew what was happening and what we needed to do. Only you will know if we did it,” the message says.

glaciers mexico
Researchers Hugo Delgado and Anel Pérez held a ceremony at the melting Ayoloco glacier in April, 2021. Photo: María Paula Martínez / UNAM.

As Delgado explains, greenhouse gas emissions from human activity were the main cause of the glaciers’ disappearance. A drastic reduction in emissions is needed for the remaining glaciers to keep their ice sheets, he says.

Human influence in the Iztaccihuatl region is clear, especially when looking at the geography of the place: on one side lies the heavily urbanized Mexican Valley —where Mexico City is located— and on the other side the industrial city of Puebla.

Without the Ayoloco glacier, only three more glaciers are left in the top of the Iztaccihuatl and one more at Pico de Orizaba, Veracruz. Their future is, unfortunately, clear: they will soon disappear, Delgado says. 

The three remaining in the Iztaccihuatl —Pecho, Panza and South Oriental— have already lost a condition for their existence, a line of equilibrium in which temperature, precipitation and gravity are indispensable for a glacier. 

“Unfortunately, like the story of the frog that dies inside a hot bowl never noticing the rising temperature, we won’t notice the effects of the glaciers lost in the beginning”, Delgado says. 

Currently, water is still relatively available in the Amecameca region. However, eventually, water runoff will diminish, and people will notice longer periods of drought, the scientist said.

For the region to adapt, environmental education, efficient water use and better public policies are crucial, the scientist added.

“Tiemperos” like Gerardo know that change is irreversible, no way to hide from it. But, as he says, one possible solution is to “hear” the mountains a little better, honoring it, respecting it just like their culture has done. 

If we don’t manage to do this, he says, in a worst case scenario, the mountains will certainly just abandon us to our luck.