Painting a mountain to save the planet

Painting a mountain to save the planet

While the report on climate change warned that Himalayan glaciers could melt to a fifth of current levels by 2035, some academics declared the date to be wildly inaccurate. The then Indian minister for environment accused the IPCC of being “alarmist” and released a study on Himalayan glaciers that suggested that they may be not melting as much.

Another study claimed that the black patches on the glaciers were soot deposits on the ice and that the glaciers were actually not melting at all.

So who does one believe? Do the various bodies have a vested interest in twisting facts to suit their case? The common man is often clueless about what the situation really is.
But those who have lived their entire life at the foot of the mountains do not read up reports and studies to know what was happening up there. The truth is there for them to see and experience.

The 900-strong population of Licapa, a village in West Peru, could see for themselves that the peak of Chalon Sombrero and others in the Peruvian Andes had clearly been denuded of snow and the river waters had receded. Less water meant less pasture and less pasture meant less livestock. For people of this village who lived entirely on their animals, things were getting critical.

Global warming is a complicated subject and even the scientists do not fully understand it, let alone succeed in reversing it. Surely there was nothing that individuals could do about the calamity that was about to befall them. Eduardo Gold, a 55-year-old resident of the village did not think so. This barefoot inventor was confident that it was still possible to bring back the glaciers.

He also realised that precious time would get wasted in waiting for outside intervention. Time was running out and so he decided to, literally, take up the matter in his own hands. With no scientific qualifications to do it, the optimistic inventor studiously read up on glaciology, and came up with an ingenious idea.

Changing albedo of rock surface
He decided to paint the mountain peaks, white! Gold’s idea was based on the simple scientific principle that when sunlight is reflected off a white or light-coloured surface, solar energy passed back through the atmosphere and out into space, rather than warming the earth’s surface.

Albedo or reflection coefficient is a measure of how strongly an object reflects light. Gold was convinced that changing the albedo of the rock surface would bring about a cooling of the peak’s surface, which in turn would generate a cold micro-climate around the peak. With cold generating cold, he believed it possible to re-grow glaciers. Gold has the entire village backing him in this unusual project. On the ground, or rather on the summit, he has four men to help.

They mix the paint from three simple and environmentally-friendly ingredients: lime, industrial egg white and water. There are no paint brushes, the workers use jugs to splash the whitewash onto the loose rocks around the summit. It is a slow and laborious project but the villagers feel it was already working. They say there was a some snow last year, something that had not happened in years.

While many scientists have dismissed the idea as eccentric, there are also some who think it could be a simple but brilliant solution, or at least one which should be put to the test. The World Bank clearly believes the idea and has declared Gold as one of the 26 winners in the ‘100 Ideas to Save the Planet’ competition, 2009. If Gold’s pilot project proves successful in pushing down the temperature, it would surely be expanded to Peru’s threatened glacial regions on a large scale.