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Though it receives little attention on the global stage, the Andes region is full of surprises. This stunningly beautiful cradle of one of history’s greatest civilizations is now known for world-class cuisine and flourishing indigenous rights movements, and even contains the point on Earth that's closest to the sun (no, it's not Mount Everest).
It’s also on the front lines in the fight against climate change.
California native Courtney Cecale is a visual and environmental anthropologist whose research on climate change has brought her to work with local communities in the snow-capped peaks of the Peruvian Andes. A member of National Geographic’s Your Shot photography community, she captures firsthand accounts of those at the forefront of climate change—indigenous people, citizen scientists, and students. (See more Your Shot photos of the fight against climate change.)
Cecale took a break from fieldwork in Huaraz, a city in eastern Peru, to speak with National Geographic about mountain life, climate change, and what she’s learned from the people of the Andes.
How did this picture come about?
I took it in December 2016. Wilmer Sánchez Rodríguez [pictured above] and I actually go out to collect data about once a month together on different glaciers. I met him through the American Climber Science Program—they get together citizen scientists and students from all over the world, to come and climb to collect data.
Wilmer is building this incredible database—he's just an undergraduate [at the Universidad Nacional Santiago Antúnez de Mayolo] but he has probably the biggest database of black carbon data on glaciers of anyone in the world. Because he lives so close, he's able to go up to two glaciers every month.
People don’t know how precarious it is, it's really dangerous. But also a very interesting job. We're supposed to go out later this week and it's been snowing a lot, which makes me a little nervous. (Read more about the state of thawing glaciers around the world.)
This picture was taken on one of these expeditions, at about 17,000 feet. As we collect data, we start at the top of the peak and work our way down through different zones—this one was at the zone of accumulation, which is one of the higher altitude zones. Wilmer was collecting his samples, and I was taking my notes, and he'd call things out to me—“write down this number, writer down that number”—I just happened to take a picture at that moment. It was in the evening, so immediately afterwards we had to haul back down, with only one headlamp between us. We were in a rush.
How did you become interested in documenting the effects of climate change?
I was a climber for a long time, mostly a rock climber. I really enjoy the desert [laughs]. But once I found out about this issue of glaciers melting…a friend told me that she couldn't come climb her favorite glacier anymore because it's closed off to the public, because it's too dangerous. That to me sparks this question of “okay, so climate change is impacting climbers, and the climbing and mountaineering industry, but how is it affecting people that live here?” So I completely changed my PhD project to study this instead, to understand what's going on.
I'm working with different groups on a number of environmental projects. In my mind, it’s all connected. Here we are seeing the effects of climate change and mining contamination. One of the people that I work with was just diagnosed with cancer from dealing with so much arsenic, which was really heartbreaking. (Learn more about the consequences of mining in the Andes.)
How does climate change affect your daily life?
As climate change is happening here, there's less rain, on top of the glaciers melting. So there's this complete depletion of water resources in the region. With the already-small amount of water that’s available, the fact that mining contamination is affecting the water makes people more concerned about mines than they were previously.
What’s interesting is that California and the Andes have something in common in that we're both in desperate need of water. California's getting a tremendous amount of rain right now, but we were still in a drought for as long as I can remember living there. Here it's very similar, where all of the issues with climate change surround water, whether in the form of ice or rain.
But California also has a lot of infrastructure to deal with things like importing water from Colorado, or otherwise having a backup plan. I think we don't quite have that here in the Andes. It feels scarier here.
In what ways does your community take action against climate change?
I know some really wonderful people in California who participate in things like clean ups, who are active non-litterers, and who recycle and take the bus. But for the most part it's difficult to be ecologically conscious in Los Angeles, just because the city is so spread out, and everyone eats packaged food. Here, you go to the market, buy all your produce fresh, and you make everything from scratch with your wood fire. There’s almost no waste. So it's a little easier to be ecologically conscious here because you don't really have the option not to be.
Also, the government is trying to get people more involved. Wilmer just wrote a paper for a local journal about his work with glaciers, which was really exciting for him.
How did you become interested in photography?
My grandfather was a professional photographer, and I grew up with his work. The time I turn to photography is when I feel like my words would fail me—if I tried to talk about things like enormity, of glaciers or change over time. So when I say something has receded X kilometers, people can be like “Okay,” but when you show the pictures right next to each other it's a completely different story. For some reason, pictures do something differently than words, they can strike emotions more strongly.
If you could take the perfect picture in response to the #myclimateaction challenge, what would that look like?
This project is not about climate change; it's about responding to climate change. So for me, a photo that captures work and thoughtfulness and imagination—people coming together to do something creatively. Maybe a pretty mountain. I'm biased.
What final thoughts do you want to leave with readers?
I see how climate change is disproportionately impacting people who least have the resources to adapt to it, and are least responsible for causing it. And so I want to put that thought out into the world: the people I work with are dealing with this immense burden of their entire environment, even their cultural world, collapsing from climate change. And yet there's very little change that can happen here to stop these things.
So I want to honor and respect the fact that they're being so thoughtful and creative and inventive to come up with solutions to a problem they didn't cause. And that's really cool.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.