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Cryoactivism

In 2006, a geologist from San Juan, Argentina named Juan Pablo Milana laid out a map on the desk of Argentina’s highest environmental authority. On the map, sprawled out on the large meeting room table, there was an outline of a polygon on the surface of a mountain at over 4,000 meters above sea level. Milana pointed at the shape on the map and said, “That is a rock glacier. You can’t see it but it has a massive ice core beneath the surface of the earth and it’s moving, just like a normal glacier. There are thousands of these rock glaciers in the Andes, and mining companies are blowing them up with dynamite and running bulldozers through them in search of gold”.

Wow! Dynamite and bulldozers taking out rock glaciers? How is this possible? Why would someone do that? As the director of an environmental policy organization who fought on the front lines in the international arena to establish the “right to water”, sitting in on that meeting as advisor to the environment minister, I thought, why didn’t I know about these invisible glaciers and the impacts caused to them by mining companies in their quest for minerals?

It was at that moment that I decided to embark on a quest to protect the cryosphere. I began to study everything about glaciers and permafrost. I found that for the most part, geologists, geographers, and hydrologists study glaciers, but that they weren’t at all the focus of public policy discussions, anywhere. So why couldn’t a political scientist engage on glacier protection? This was the start of my “cryoactivism”.

In my fight to protect the cryosphere, and particularly glaciers and permafrost at risk from anthropogenic activity, I learned something quite startling, and frightening at the same time: although only 2% of the Earth’s water is freshwater with 75% of it found in glaciers and ice sheets, no country on Earth had a law or even basic public policy in place to protect glaciers. Science and public policy (and legislation) had not merged on glacier protection, and with current climate change trends accelerating glacier melt, that needed to change!

Glaciers are a critical source of water storage and supply, especially once the snow has melted in the spring and summer and during drought years. They help slow water flow into rivers and streams, and keep it running for most of the year. As I learned more about how important glaciers are to local communities and to the ecosystem, and as I saw the mining industry advancing indiscriminately over the Central Andes destroying the cryosphere, I helped craft and pushed for the passage of the world’s very first glacier protection law.

Unfortunately, the first hydrologist-glaciologists I encountered were hired by mining companies as part of the effort to promote mining operations in glacier areas, and so they downplayed the hydrological relevance of small glaciers (which were more typical in the Central Andes) and of rock glaciers. Those glaciers would clearly have to be sacrificed if mining were to move forward. Glaciologists and hydrologists working for the multinational mining companies argued before large gatherings in Chile and Argentina of academics, public officials, and media that rock glaciers and more generally permafrost systems did not contribute relevant water supply to the environment. Science and politics were in the midst of a heated debate. Academics working for the mining companies were trying to quell the criticism from the environmental community that the extractive sector was destroying glacier resources. This was particularly significant in view of Argentina’s (and later Chile’s) congressional treatment of the contentious glacier protection bill that was having a tough time getting through the legislative process.

As I continued to fight for the passage of Argentina’s glacier protection bill, I found it remarkable that of the tens of thousands of glaciers in the country, most Argentines could only name one glacier and that was only because it was an extremely popular tourist destination (the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia). Similarly, in my home state of California residents are worried about drought and water supply and yet most Californians are unaware that there are rock glaciers and extensive permafrost regions in the high Sierra Nevada Mountains that provide water supply [M1] to rivers and streams. Permafrost provides particularly significant contributions to local ecosystems during times of prolonged drought. I found that there was an enormous gap and lack of communication between scientists studying glaciers and broadersociety that depended on glaciers for their steady water supply. It was because of this remarkable generalized lack of protection and nearly nonexistent awareness about glaciers and permafrost and their extreme vulnerability to climate change, that I decided to become a cryoactivist to help create laws and policies to protect glaciers and to raise social and political awareness about glaciers and frozen grounds and their role in ecological sustainability.

The ultimate objectives of science and public policy are fundamentally different and there can be tensions between science and academia on the one hand, and the public policy and environmental activism world on the other. Science generally strives to reveal information and scientists order observations they register in the natural world, collecting data while postulating about why things happen and how they happen, with the ultimate aim of trying to understand and explain our environment. Public policy officials may not care so much for explaining or understanding our environment, but instead they aim to protect natural resources for their inherent value to society and for the ecosystem services they provide. The two objectives don’t always align and can actually generate much conflict.

This tension has dominated my work as a cryoactivist, as we tried to reach out to the academic community and ensure the protection of glaciers and permafrost at risk from anthropogenic activity. For a scientist studying glaciology, data and evidence or proof of an affirmation is fundamental while for a policy person, proof is not always necessary to decide to protect a resource. As a scientist you might consider, for example, that the water contribution of a given rock glacier or group of rock glaciers to the ecosystem has not been determined and therefore you are unable to draw conclusions about the relevance of rock glacier hydrology (as many still fail to do). But as a political scientist, with a clear vision about the value of natural resources (in this case a critical hydrological resource), you will likely decide to design policy on lesser levels of certainty, and utilize for example, the precautionary principle, ensuring that policy protects an inherently valuable resource (as is the case of water), whether or not you have the absolute data to ascertain the hydrological volume of the resource and its precise contribution to the environmental hydrology. As such, the political scientist can develop policy that protects a resource based on the presumption of relevance, rather than on the certitude of its magnitude.

Another early problem I ran into was learning how to identify glaciers, rock glaciers and other periglacial features that were at risk (in this case) from industrial operations, specifically prospective and ongoing mega-mining projects that were a dime-a-dozen in the Central Andes above 3000-4000 meters. A gold, silver and copper rush was happening before our eyes at the time and the cryosphere was entirely unprotected. Like some of the hydrologists that I had met, many of the glaciologists that could have helped me identify glaciers and rock glaciers in need of protection were actually working for the mining companies that were carrying out mining exploration and extraction in glacier areas. Their income depended on mining companies contracting their academic and scientific services. In fact, a few of the glaciologists actually had investments in mining operations and hence the destruction of glaciers to get at gold was necessary if they were to make a profit from those investments, or if they wanted to keep getting consulting work with these mining companies. That made them reluctant to talk to an activist trying to stop mining that was harming the cryosphere. This is one of the tensions that exists between bringing science together with policy and activism. It doesn’t always go so smoothly, despite the fact that on the surface, it may seem to be a reasonable proposition.

Luckily many glaciologists, even some working for mining companies, did answer my inquiries, or even contacted me, albeit some anonymously and others off the record. They offered insight and reviewed our work, correcting the technique or the science in our rock glacier inventories and policy-focused papers to promote glacier protection. Those that asked to remain anonymous feared losing their employment or being scorned and ridiculed by their colleagues or reprimanded by their supervisors. I am indebted to these scientists willing to cross over the public policy and activist divide to help us with our cryoactivism, even if they were employed by companies that posed a threat to these resources. In the end we both wanted the same thing, to protect glaciers and permafrost.

The rising conflict over mining and glaciers became one of the most contested and debated environmental topics of the time in Argentina. It boiled down to a fight between those in favor of expanding mega mining operations in the high Central Andes vs. those who preferred to protect glaciers and periglacial zones and keep them off limits to industrial activity. There was very little middle ground. I made an effort at one point to develop a technical protocol for mining in areas that might have glacier and permafrost presence and even convinced the head of environment at a multinational mining company to work with me on the protocol project, but in the end, the legal team at the mining company decided it was not in their interest to develop a protocol. I think they realized that their project would invariably destroy extensive permafrost areas and that the situation would be irreconcilable with Argentina’s new glacier law. Recognizing glacier and permafrost presence in their mining concession was not in their interest.

Clearly science and policy need to go hand in hand, even if at times they can be on opposite sides of the same issue. Bridging environmental activism and the scientific community together is fundamental to obtain better outcomes, however, neither side does a very good job of engaging the other. Oftentimes, environmentalists or public policy makers fail to engage scientific actors to inform their work and therefore operate with poor scientific information which ultimately undermines their credibility, while scientists that fail to consider the social and political relevance of their profession can lead to missed opportunities to utilize our most advanced scientific knowledge to promote more sustainable development. What you study, who you work for, and what outcomes derive from your work can positively or negatively define our planetary future. That’s why building the bridge between these worlds is so fundamental to our sustainability.

The year was 2008 when the cryoactivism fight really got underway … by late 2010 the world’s first glacier law was passed and in was in full force, and is still alive today thanks to the bridges built at the time between the scientific, public policy and environmental activism worlds.

 

Jorge Daniel Taillant has over 2 decades working with and for government, intergovernmental organizations, civil society, and advocacy networks. His career focus is on Sustainable Development, Human Rights and Environmental Policy. He currently directs the globally prized non-profit organization (CHRE/CEDHA) and as Climate Policy Adviser for the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. He has devoted the last decade to exploring and advocating for glacier and permafrost conservation, coining the term “cryoactivism”—activism promoting the protection of our frozen environments. A self-taught glaciologist, Daniel has centered his advocacy on human activity that is affecting glacier health, including the social and environmental impacts of the Extractive Sector to glacier environments (which he calls “glaciosystems”—a term

that he has also coined). He has published extensively on glacier vulnerability, including “Glaciers: The Politics of Ice”, an educational book for a wide audience, specifically about glaciers and glaciosystems and the fight to get the world’s first Glacier Protection Law adopted in Argentina. He is also the author of an upcoming book Meltdown: The Earth without Glaciers, focused on the multiple global and local impacts of melting glaciers.

 

Acknowledgements:

Juan Pablo Milana, Chilean rock glacier specialist Cedomir Marangunic, and the Argentine Permafrost giant Dario Trombotto would, over the years, provide invaluable knowledge in my learning about rock glaciers, permafrost and geocryology generally. They have shared their valuable knowledge with me, and the environmental advocacy and policy community. Dario Trombotto participated in the initial drafting of Argentina’s Glacier Protection law. It was his idea to include the periglacial environment in the law, as a protected natural resource. Kudos to you Dario! The world is in debt to you!

A German geographer named Alexander Brenning assisted me with remote sensing techniques when I carried out my first rock glacier inventory at a mining site in the Central Andes, using Google Earth. Alexander Brenning was one of the very few recognized glaciologists in the academic community willing to stick his neck out to study mining impacts on glaciers with an article he published about rock glacier impacts at Chilean mining sites. Brenning’s publications on glaciers and mining are some of the most cited works in the evolution of the link between glaciology and public policy protecting glaciers. It was only a few people like Brenning, Milana and Martini (a young rock glacier specialist in Cordoba, Argentina) who agreed to have their names printed on some of our reports as professional reviewers of content. That took guts and exposed them to much criticism, but it fundamentally changed outcomes in very positive ways. Thank you! Your support was fundamental.

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