Every morning, 13-year old Nelson Crispin takes a short walk from his home at 13,800 feet through frosty fields to record climate data collected by instruments installed in the Cordillera Vilcanota mountain range in Peru.
Crispin is one of several "citizen scientists" that Dr. Baker Perry has trained to record precipitation and snowfall data in the Andes. "He takes it so seriously," Perry said of the young climate observer. "The first thing he does when he gets up is check the gauge and write down measurements."
Perry, an assistant professor of geography at Appalachian State University, has spent his academic career conducting research to better understand climate variability and change—both in the Southern Appalachians and in the Andes.
Another citizen scientist helping Perry is alpaca farmer Don Pedro Godfredo, who has a manual precipitation gauge and automatic weather station on his land located at an elevation of 16,700 feet. He has been recording weather data for Perry since 2010.
Several donor organizations are supporting Perry's and others' work to understand climate changes occurring in the region.
"They are interested in climate change from an ecological perspective because the whole biosphere is rising in elevation, which has agricultural implications and implications to the species in the area," Perry said. "And as the glaciers retreat, the water sources are impacted, especially in the dry season."
The Quelccaya Ice Cap, the largest glacier in the tropics, is located in the Cordillera Vilcanota in southern Peru. By some estimates, the entire area of Cordillera Vilcanota has lost 33 percent of its ice since 1985. Godfredo and others living in the Andean Mountains depend on the glacial water for their livestock and crops.
Water flowing from the glaciers during the dry season also is critical for hydroelectric operations, irrigation and drinking water for the major cities of La Paz, Cusco and other areas.
"We have outstanding local support for this work," Perry said of the members of the indigenous Quechua population with whom he collaborates. "It's a fascinating place to see changes that are occurring in the cryosphere—Earth's ice and snow covered realms—and also in the biosphere as life and agriculture is moving up the slopes in the Andes."
Perry's work builds on a decade-long interdisciplinary project led by his research partner, Dr. Anton Seimon of the Wildlife Conservation Society, that has established the first Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments (GLORIA) site in South America. The new data being recorded by the citizen scientists and automatic weather stations enable researchers to track the impact of climate changes in ecosystems, survey plants and animals and see how distribution and species composition is changing over time.
Perry and a team of Bolivian, Peruvian and U.S. scientists recently collaborated on an interdisciplinary research expedition to the Cordillera Vilcanota in April 2012.
The weather station located on Godfredo's alpaca farm provides information about snow depth, solar radiation, temperature, relative humidity, and precipitation type and intensity.
"Those are data that have never been measured in that area before," Perry said. "There is some indication that we are starting to see more rain at this elevation," Perry said.
More rain and less snow mean it is much more difficult for the glaciers to maintain equilibrium or grow. "If the ratio of rain vs. snow is changing, that is something we obviously want to look at more closely," he said.
Last year, students from Appalachian joined Perry and Seimon on a study abroad trip to Peru to help map the retreating glacier margins, survey amphibian populations, and make a variety of other atmospheric measurements. They also witnessed the conservation challenges and opportunities associated with climate change.
"It's a fantastic way to integrate research interests and teaching," Perry said. "We take students into the field where they can see climate changes first hand.
"That's one of the real strengths of what we do at Appalachian. We take a lot of students abroad and we involve a lot of students in field work. And we are building on the great work our colleagues and local citizen scientists Nelson Crispin and Don Pedro Godfredo have initiated in the Cordillera Vilcanota."