Observing Glacier Retreat through Indigenous Perspectives

Observing Glacier Retreat through Indigenous Perspectives


Columbia University, USA

USA Glaciers have been retreating around the world since the 1970s. This change is one of the most directly visible and widespread consequences of climate change. It is also one of the effects most directly linked to rising temperatures alone, rather than being mediated by ecological and human processes. Moreover, it has significant economic, social and cultural impacts, since it alters water resource availability (there are brief periods of peak water with increased runoff, though these are soon followed by reduced flows), it creates hazards such as glacier lake outburst floods and landslides, and it alters culturally significant landscapes. Much of the knowledge of glacier retreat in the international scientific and policy community comes from a limited number of sources, most of them of short temporal length and uneven spatial coverage.  A small number of glaciers, largely in Europe and North America, have been measured since the late nineteenth century. Aerial photography from the mid-twentieth century and remote sensing from satellites since the late twentieth century have added data, though this provides less detail. Indigenous observation of glaciers, by contrast, goes back much earlier in time, including, travel across glaciers and ice-covered passes, and regular visits for rituals and for resource use such as grazing. These observations provides detailed information from around the world, including the major groupings of glaciers in South and Central Asia (Himalayas, Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Tien Shan) and in the Andes of South America, as well as many smaller areas in Africa, Southwestern Asia and New Zealand. Indigenous peoples have long observed glacier areas, ice characteristics such as color (related to the density of dust and soot) and glacier hazards. They note glacier hazards, including outburst floods, landslides, and other events such rapid advances in earlier, cooler periods. This knowledge complements scientific knowledge in its temporal and spatial range and in its rich detail. Moreover, indigenous peoples have long-established traditions of treating glaciers as sentient beings to be respected and honored; in the contemporary context, these traditions can serve to promote preservation of high mountain regions and adaptation activities.  These complementarities between indigenous and scientific knowledge—for research and for action—remain at an early stage of their development.


Ben Orlove is a Professor in the School of International and Public Affairs and a member of the faculty of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, where he also directs the Master’s Program in Climate and Society, and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. He is a Senior Research Scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. He is the Managing Editor of GlacierHub, www.glacierhub.org, a website that covers the scientific, cultural and policy aspects of glacier retreat. Trained as a sociocultural anthropologist, he has conducted field work in the Peruvian Andes since the 1970s and also carried out research in other areas, including the Himalayas and Central Asia. His early work focused on agriculture, fisheries and rangelands. More recently he has studied climate change and glacier retreat, with an emphasis on water, natural hazards and the loss of iconic landscapes. In addition to writing a number of research papers and books and editing two journals (Current Anthropology and Weather, Climate and Society), he is also the author of a memoir and a book of nature writing.

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