Climate Witness: Octavio Mancilla, Mexico

Posted on 30 mayo 2008

Octavio Mancilla’s grandfather once trudged across glaciers and snow on the Iztaccihuatl volcano.  Walking in his footsteps some 40 years later, Octavio says that little of this remains, with the area covered by snow gradually decreasing. Down in the valley, rivers are almost dry. And that's just the beginning of the story...
I am 31 years old and was born in Mexico City, where I have lived my whole life. From an early age, my parents taught me about nature’s value, so it was easy for me to grow up aware of the environment and how we impact it.

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Later on, I became involved in outdoor activities, thus increasing my love for all kinds of natural life. Now, after a short career in the IT industry, I took a step into photography. Currently I am working my way in nature and outdoor photography.

Away from the city, closer to the mountains

I have been practicing mountaineering for the last 10 years. I went into this because I needed to be closer to the mountains I always watched from my house.

At first it was very difficult because of the physical demands, but after a while this exactly became the most satisfying reward I could ever find: watching a sunset from the top of a mountain, very far away from the stressful and noisy environment of one of the most crowded cities in the world.

Those trips, two or three times a month, became like a therapy that got me closer and closer to the feeling that we were doing something wrong and that the real world was not what I was born into, but it was right here, between the trees and the rocks that had existed for quite a longer time than us.

Some of the daily activities for us Mexico City residents happen in the area between the two volcanoes: Iztaccihuatl (aprox 5,200 meters) and the active Popocatepetl (aprox 5,400m). This last one is closed to ascents because it is currently active.

Early memories of two volcanoes

As far as I remember, whenever I could I observed these two mountains from the roof of my parents’ house, so I have very vivid images of both of them fully covered with snow about three or four months a year, beginning from early autumn to early spring.

Less snow, and only 1 month per year

My first observation is that the time during which the mountains are covered by snow is getting shorter and shorter, and is now reduced to almost only one month per year.

My second observation is that although there is still snow at the mountain top throughout the year, it's easy to see that the area covered by snow is gradually decreasing.

Two generations ago, glaciers and thick snow

Recalling one of my grand-father's stories about him spending time in a hut located at about 4,000 meters, the first time I got up there with my mountaineering group I was surprised, and disappointed. There was no glacier to walk on, let alone any crevasse to avoid, as I remember in one picture I saw from the same area.

People of my grand-father’s age always talked about how making progress across this area was very difficult because of the thick snow and ice cover. As for me, I could now walk across the bare ground with no snow boots. I even remember having a member of my group reaching this altitude just by using plain tennis shoes, since no specialized climbing shoes were needed.

I am talking of a 30-40 year delay between my own experiences and those of my grandfather's.

Milder conditions up in the mountain

In the course of the last 10 years, I have been able to experience the lack of ice myself. My early climbing experiences required plastic boots, Goretex-like clothes to avoid getting wet, thick layers to protect me from the cold and even the common crampons.

Just about two years ago I got to the mountain summit with my hiking boots (plain leather), long-sleeve underwear, hiking pants and just a sweatshirt to protect me from the wind.

Impacts from reduced snow

One of the noticeable impacts from the loss of snow is that the surrounding rivers are almost dry. At first, the towns closer to the mountains used the water for their own purposes, but even from my first trips I could notice that the water these rivers were supposed to deliver would never be enough for the population's needs. I could only guess they rely on rain and alternative sources of water.

Groundwater reserves drying up, Mexico City sinking

My own city relies on one side on this mountain range, because part of the water is taken from the underground, where it flows from the humidity that is captured up the mountain. It's important to note that Mexico City is located in a valley surrounded by mountains.

Specialists have been announcing that groundwater reserves are being drained but no natural process is refilling them, at least not fast enough.

As a result, large areas in the city are literally sinking, a phenomenon anyone can see at any given time in the old buildings downtown.

Deforestation adds to local problems

As for the forests, tree felling is not helping either. Authorities have tried to control deforestation, but it has proven to be a better business than any other for the locals, so large areas are now bare.

While trekking up there I have never seen any animal naturally found in a forest other than cows and dogs, which are obviously introduced by humans. Wild cats, pumas, coyotes, deer, even snakes, are now all just nice pictures in the text books.

I am sure the water cycle is being deeply altered because of the changes I have described. Between increasing temperatures and deforestation, one can expect something will have to give eventually.

It’s easy to see that we are the ones who will eventually pay for this.


Scientific review

Reviewed by: Prof Ana Rosa Moreno, National University of Mexico, Mexico

The observation Octavio describes supports scientific evidence from the National University of Mexico regarding the impact of global warming on glaciers. The report identified climate change impacts in the Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl mountains of Mexico City: “As climate change evolved during the last century, glacier recession increased. Today (February 2006) the snout of Ayoloco Glacier is at 5069 m.”

There are also reports that describe many changes in Andean glaciers due to climate change that threatens drinking water availability for local communities.

I like the way Octavio describes how since he was a child has developed the sensibility to environmental problems. He has been close to his grandfather and has received information regarding local changes in the environment. Old people are very aware about how changes are noticed. This information is very important to everyday people, who are not able to understand scientific information.

  • IPCC 4th Assessment Report, Working Group 2, Chapter 13: Latin America (Describes impacts in Andean glaciers in Peru and Bolivia) link
  • Permafrost Distribution in Tropical Stratovolcanoes:Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl Volcanoes (Mexico).Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 9, 05615. Palacios D., Zamorano J.J. and Andres N. 2007. link June 3rd, 2008
  • Glacier monitoring at Popocatépetl volcano, Mexico: glacier shrinkage and possible causes
  • Christian Huggel1 and Hugo Delgado, Geograpisches Institut, Universität Zürich-Irchel, Instituto de Geofísica, U.N.A.M., Circuito Exterior, C.U., Coyoacán, 04510, México, D.F., link 
All articles are subject to scientific review by a member of the Climate Witness Science Advisory Panel.
Climate Witness Octavio Mancilla, Mexico
© Octavio Mancilla
Iztaccihuatl mountain, Mexico.
Iztaccihuatl mountain, Mexico.
© Octavio Mancilla
© Sony Japan