Peru’s Pastoruri Glacier, one of the few remaining ice formations of the kind in the tropical areas of South America, has for decades been a popular destination for skiers, ice climbers and tourists coming to gawk at the bluish ice rising up into the Andes.
In recent years, however, global climate change has decimated the size of the glacier, melting it to half its size in the last 20 years to about a third of a square mile. Where mounds of thick ice once stood are heaps of hard rock and Peruvian officials have banned ice climbing due to the glacier’s instability.
Besides the devastating environmental impact, the shrinking glacier has also seen shrinkage in tourist visits – down from 100,000 tourists in the 1990s to only 34,000 in 2012.
As the Pastoruri is expected to disappear in the next decade, locals are rushing to capitalize on its last days by promoting – instead of fighting – climate change. Peruvians have rebranded the glacier as a place to watch climate change in real time.
The winter wonderland is now being marketed as a place where tourists can see lakes formed by the glacial melt, find fossils hidden for centuries under the Pastoruri and gaze upon the newly exposed slabs of black rock.
Opening next March, the so-called “climate change route” is Peru’s answer to the loss of the Andean glaciers, which have been depleted by between 30 and 50 since 1970s, according to Antoine Rabatel, researcher at the Laboratory for Glaciology and Environmental Geophysics in Grenoble, France.
The move to turn the decaying glacier into a new tourist destination comes after a variety of attempts to slow the melt, including coating the surface of the glacier in 15 cm thick sawdust, which managed to save about five meters of the glacier when applied.
Experts, however, claim that these efforts won’t help bring back the retreating glacier, as a combination of the end to the so-called Little Ice Age around 1850 and an increased CO2 in the atmosphere among other factors has led to a warming of the planet.
"It's irreversible at this point," Selwyn Valverde with the Huascarán National Park, home to Pastoruri and more than 700 other shrinking Peruvian glaciers told Reuters. "It's just loss, loss, loss now. It doesn't accumulate anymore."
Tourism is a huge market in Peru – from hikers visiting Machu Picchu to foodies sampling Lima’s new gastronomic wonders – and locals are hoping that the new campaign will attract more interest to the area.
But to some people, the idea of visiting a vanishing glacier has been met with icy skepticism.
"I prefer visiting nice things," Korbinian Munster, a German tourist, who skipped the day trip to Pastoruri and instead opted for rock climbing on an iceless mountain nearby, told Reuters. "Seeing something that once was a glacier sounds quite boring and sad."