Page last updated at 18:29 GMT, Tuesday, 12 May 2009 19:29 UK

Huge Bolivian glacier disappears

The Chacaltaya glacier in 1996 and today
These photos, although taken from different angles, indicate the change in the Chacaltaya glacier since 1996

By James Painter
Latin America analyst

Scientists in Bolivia say that one of the country's most famous glaciers has almost disappeared as a result of climate change.

The Chacaltaya glacier, 5,300m (17,400 ft) up in the Andes, used to be the world's highest ski run.

But it has been reduced to just a few small pieces of ice.

Many Bolivians on the highland plains, and in two cities, depend on the melting of the glaciers for their water supply during the dry season.

The team of Bolivian scientists started measuring the Chacaltaya glacier in the 1990s. Not long ago they were predicting that it would survive until 2015.

But now it seems, the glacier has melted at a much faster rate than they expected.

Photos taken in the last two weeks show that all that is left of the majestic glacier, which is thought to be 18,000 years old, are a few lumps of ice near the top.

Just 20 years ago skiers from all round the world would travel to Chacaltaya to say they had skied down the world's highest ski run.

Water fears

But Edson Ramirez, a scientist who has studied the region for years, says the significance of the melting glaciers goes way beyond tourism.

As well as those living on the highland plains, two of Bolivia's main cities, La Paz and El Alto, rely on the Andean glaciers for an important part of their drinking water.

The World Bank warned earlier this year that many of the Andes' tropical glaciers will disappear within 20 years.

This, the bank said, would both threaten the water supplies of nearly 80 million people living in the region, and jeopardise the future generation of hydropower.

Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru depend on that power for about half their electricity.

Mr Ramirez and his team are planning to hold a special ceremony this month to honour the loss of Chacaltaya. It is as if someone had died, he says.

Graphic showing glacial retreat

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