The Andes: the Backbone of South America

As the effects of climate change resonate throughout the world, particular communities and regions will disproportionately feel the impacts of a varying climate. 

As a biodiversity hot spot, South America is one of these regions - the Andes (Ratcliffe, 2014).  This location claims one of the longest mountain ranges, and it is characterized by high species richness as well as many rare and endangered species (Reid, 1998). 

This ecologically important mountain range is one of the most susceptible areas to climate change (Fraser, 2009).  The mountain range spans 8,900 kilometers through seven countries; at its highest point, altitudes reach almost six and a half kilometers (Andes Mountains, 2017).  Because the Andes span such a wide range of territory, the climate also varies a great deal.  The sensitive ecosystems and microclimates that comprise the Andes are particularly at risk to climate changes because they are specifically adapted for certain small range of temperatures and precipitation (Russi et al., 2013).

Beyond terrestrial flora and fauna, the region also boasts some of the most diverse cultural and indigenous communities (Sánchez-Triana and Ahmed, 2007).  These communities depend on agriculture and farming for their livelihoods.  Without water or sufficient crops, these indigenous people will not be able to survive in the Andes economically or physically, and will be forced to migrate and seek refuge elsewhere (Fraser, 2009).

Australian Geographic

Hazards: Climate Change as a Driver of Cultural Change

Climate change and the resulting effects could reverse decades of progress made in the fight against ending world hunger and cause major displacement (Ratcliffe, 2014).  The most consequential hazard of climate change facing the biological communities in the Andean region, however, will be alterations to the hydrological cycle (Sánchez-Triana and Ahmed, 2007). 

  • There will be more intense downpours in wet regions while dry regions will see longer droughts; if average global temperatures reach 4 degrees Celsius droughts are expected to increase by 20% (Sánchez-Triana and Ahmed, 2007)
  • Other alterations to precipitation cycles include the loss of glaciers as well as degradation of key ecosystems and their related ecosystem services (Sánchez-Triana and Ahmed, 2007).  
  • The high probability of future droughts and floods will drastically affect the agricultural sector on which the indigenous communities of the Andes largely depend (Martinez, 1950).

The IPCC report summary for Central and South America states that the following impacts associated with changes in the hydrological cycle will be especially applicable to the Andes (IPCC, 2014):

  • Conversion of ecosystems is the main cause of biodiversity and ecosystem loss (high confidence)
  • Changes in agricultural productivity with consequences for food security (medium confidence)
  • Changes to stream flow and water availability will continue affecting already vulnerable regions (high confidence)
  • Poor indigenous communities particularly vulnerable to these impacts as well. (high confidence)

Scott Dunn

Photographer Gary Braasch holding a 1932 photo of Broggi glacier near Huascaran in the Peruvian Andes, while rephotographing this receding glacier in 1999.

World View of Global Warming, Gary Braasch

Exposure and Vulnerability

Tropical Glaciers

Melting of these glaciers will impact river flow characteristics (IPCC, 2014) such as:

  • Long-term average discharge, seasonality, and statistical high flows.
    • Biota is often adapted to specific flow levels, and is therefore critical to the survival of certain species.
  • Variable river flows are also likely to result in invasive or generalist species survival, because other species depend on a stable or predictable habitat.  Melting glaciers will also impact the important páramos (wetland ecosystems), contributing to soil erosion and decreasing the area that acts as a buffer zone (World Bank, 2014). 
    • The high Andean páramos ecosystem illustrates the importance of maintaining a stable climate; this area has vegetation specially adapted to the sponge-like soil, wet grasslands, and lagoons that provide fundamental ecosystem services (World Bank, 2014). 
    • In addition to sequestering carbon, it acts as flood buffer in the rainy season and then as a reliable water source during the dry season (Hofstede et al., 2014).



"If the snow disappears, the people will disappear, too. If the snow disappears, we will be left without water. The pastures and the animals will disappear. Everything is interconnected. The problem of the melting of the glaciers is that the source of life is drying up."

- Rev. Antonio Sánchez-Guardamino, the Catholic priest, who has also worked among remote Andean communities for decades




Indigenous Communities

The agriculture of Latin America is very dependent on rain-fed systems.  These variations have disrupted the farming process in its entirety; the indigenous farmers have lost their reference points among plants and animals that indicated the best time for harvesting or sowing seeds (World Bank, 2014).  The following examples illustrate the impact that climate change has on the Andes main crop: 

  • Early rain washes away seeds (World Bank, 2014)
  • Unexpected drought during the growing season hinders potato tubers from developing (World Bank, 2014)
  • Rain during the typical dry season rots the potatoes and other crops that have survived until this point (Fraser, 2013)

Over the past decade, the farmers have already started to see what the future of their landscape will look like as the climate continues to change (Ensor & Berger, 2009).  In the high altitudes where the indigenous population depends on crop yields, a reduction in water availability will inevitably culminate into displacement and migration, and ultimately the risk of loss of human lives, livelihood, and property (IPCC, 2014).

Melting Away in the Andes: how melting tropical glaciers and other impacts of climate change are affecting indigenous communities that rely on the land

Sacred Land Film Project

Adaptation Case Study: Peruvian High Andes

Jim Richardson


At 3,500 meters above sea level, indigenous communities in the high Peruvian Andes have been able to withstand millennia of extreme weather.  However, climate change makes weather patterns more erratic and intense and is a threat to the existence of both people living in the Andes as well as their culture (Ensor & Berger, 2009).

This area is an internationally important source of biodiversity for alpacas and potatoes, and has already implemented projects that help the communities of the high Andes adapt to climate change (Ensor & Berger, 2009).

Impacts of Climate Change


  • Erratic rainfall
  • Severe weather (cold spells, droughts, high winds, fog)

Exposure & Vulnerability

  • Isolated, indigenous communities
  • Biodiversity
    • Potato crops
    • Alpacas
  • Dependent on agriculture
  • Lack of access to economic markets



Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)

The high Peruvian Andes have a strong tradition of living with climate variability relying on biological and physical characteristics to predict weather over short periods of time.

The survival of communities and successful agriculture practices in the Andes for centuries can be attributed TEK.  Incorporating this source of resilience with modern technology has the potential to significantly help indigenous communities throughout, as well as beyond, the Andes adapt to climate change.

Source: (Ensor & Berger, 2009)


Successes of the project

  • Providing support for previously isolate, local institutions enabled interaction with outside stakeholders, which increased access to resources and knowledge

Lessons learned

  • TEK should be better incorporated into new technologies or recover local traditional technologies 

Source: (Ensor & Berger, 2009)

Adaptation & Mitigation Plans

Knowledge sharing and training networks between isolated communities - Soluciones Prácticas

The cornerstone of this adaptation plan was using approaches that complemented the cultural and social context of local farmers (Ensor & Berger, 2009).

  • Social networks focused on being practical, culturally sensitive, and decentralized in different locations
    • Raising awareness of the impacts of climate change through workshops, exchange visits, discussions and conferences
    • Training to build capacities of community members, especially women
    • Creation of new organizations that focus on prevention and recovery from extreme weather events
  • Technology development led to:
    • Pasture improvement
    • Development of animal health technologies
    • Water conservation technologies
    • Improved potato harvests
    • Conservation of agricultural biodiversity


Source: (Ensor & Berger, 2009)

Anna Travers, the author of this website, graduated from St. Lawrence University in the spring of 2017 with a combined degree in environmental studies and economics. Her true passion is sustainability; from a social, environmental, and economic context her goal is to help to make the world a more livable place. The creation of this website was part of a project for a Climate Change and Adaptation class to illustrate the linkage between human and environmental systems.

Works Cited

Andes Mountains. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2017, from Brittanica 

Ensor, J., & Berger, R. (2009). Understanding climate change adaptation lessons from community-based approaches. Rugby, England: Practical Action Publishing.

Fraser, B. (2009, October 05). Climate Change Equals Culture Change in the Andes. 

Hofstede, Robert et. al (2014). Los Páramos Andinos ¿Qué sabemos? Estado de conocimiento sobre el impacto del cambio climático en el ecosistema páramo. UICN, Quito, Ecuador. 

IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Summaries, Frequently Asked Questions, and Cross-Chapter Boxes. A Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea. T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 190 pp. (in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish) 

Magrin, G. O., Marengo, J. A., Boulanger, J., Buckeridge, M.S., Catellanos, E., Poveda, G., . . . Vicuña, S.  (2014). Working Group II Report: "Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability" (pp. 1504-1544) (Central and South America, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). 

Martinez, G. (1950, April 27). The Economic Development of Latin America and its ...  United Nations Department of Economics 

Oritz, F. (2014, December 29). Climate Change Threatens Quechua and Their Crops in Peru's Andes.  

Ratcliffe, A. (2014, March). Hambre y calentamiento global: cómo impedir que el cambio climático haga fracasar la lucha contra el hambre. 

Russi D., ten Brink P., Farmer A., Badura T., Coates D., Förster J., Kumar R. and Davidson N. (2013)

Sánchez-Triana, E., & Ahmed, K. (2007). Environmental priorities and poverty reduction: a country environmental analysis for Colombia. Washington, DC: World Bank. 



Australian Geographic

Jim Richardson

Scott Dunn

World View of Global Warming, Gary Braasch