THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

For Disappearing Glaciers, How About a Whitewashed Solution?

Nobody at the Copenhagen summit is painting a very rosy picture right now when it comes to climate change. One man in Peru, however, would like to paint things a very different color: white. Literally.

With a $100,000 grant from the World Bank, Eduardo Gold plans to use white paint to cover the bare ridges of rock left behind in the wake of Peru's melting glaciers. Since the dark rocks absorb more heat, he argues, painting them white would reflect more sunlight and could drop the surface temperature by up to fifteen degrees Celsius.

"You can't beat the laws of physics," Gold said to me. "And if it works, we'll have a great tool to help recuperate the glaciers."

There are some 200 glaciers in Peru, and most of them are turning into puddles. The Qolqepunku Glacier in the Andes, a holy site for some indigenous groups, has lost more than a mile in surface. Now, instead of breaking off a chunk of ice intended for use during Corpus Christi processions, pilgrims must adapt to a new tradition: buying giant plastic jugs of the glacier's runoff water. Peru's Natural Institute of Natural Resources has predicted that by 2025, all of the country's glaciers will be gone--meaning 90 percent of the country's water supplies will also disappear.

Case-in-point: the Razuhuillaca glacier, which at 17,000 feet overlooks the nearby city of Ayacucho...or at least, it used to.

"Thirty, forty years ago, back when you still had a glacier, there was about one hundred million cubic meters of water available at the foot of these mountains," Gold laments. "Now there's zero ice, and only about five million cubic meters of water remaining."

"You have a local population of about 90,000 people who effectively lost their best source of water."

Glacier melt is an important source of freshwater for populations from the Andes to the Himalayas. In Ayacucho, less water means less farmers can eke out a living. Consequently, migrants are increasingly abandoning the mountains and heading to Peru's jungle regions, where they resort to slash-and-burn agriculture in order to survive.

"It's a vicious cycle," said Gold. "You have these migrants from the mountains who have no idea what it means to live sustainably in the tropics." Whitewashing Razuhuillaca could help create up to 15,000 jobs for locals and help decrease migration rates, he added.

The paint, a mixture of lime, clay and marble, would be made without harmful chemicals and would not wash away after rain or snow storms, says Gold (who started out in the cement-mixing business). One of the paint's byproducts, carbonic gas, would be liquefied and sold to local soda pop factories as a source of extra income. Along with cash from selling carbon offsets, Gold hopes to scrounge together enough funds to continue painting other mountains in Peru, as the World Bank grant is just enough to cover about 500 acres of land.

Glacier melt makes for some depressing statistics from across the globe. The Khumbu glacier near Mount Everest has shrunk five kilometers since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first struggled up the peak. The Chacaltaya glacier in Bolivia went from being one of Latin America's most popular ski runs to Latin America's most miserable pile of rocks. Chile has been afflicted not only by disappearing glaciers in Patagonia, but also mysteriously disappearing lakes.

Gold is the first to admit that his paint scheme sounds quirky.

"I'm a skeptical person, always have been," he said. "But...losing the glaciers would be a tremendous thing. And we have to do whatever it takes to avoid that."