Andes Research

Glaciers in Human History

Huaraz flood art

This Peruvian artwork portrays the infamous 1941 glacial lake outburst flood in Huaraz, Peru. One-third of the city was destroyed and 5,000 people killed by water and debris from the GLOF.

Hualcan 1940s

The summit of Mount Hualcán is four miles above sea level and looms over the city of Carhuaz in the Callejón de Huaylas. The glaciers on Hualcán have retreated considerably and created many hazards since this photograph was taken more than a half century ago.

Glaciers have been central to human development, beliefs, values, and livelihoods for millennia—and on every continent. 

Recognizing the importance of these historical human-glacier interactions, Carey argues in a prize-winning article in the journal Environmental History that the recent focus on glaciers in global warming discourse has occurred only in part because the shrinking glaciers offer a clear physical emblem of climate change.  To understand why glaciers are so inexorably tied to global warming, he contends, it is necessary to look beyond climate science and glacier melting—to turn additionally to culture, history, and power relations.

Carey's analysis of historical views of glaciers demonstrates that the recent emergence of an "endangered glacier" narrative stemmed from various glacier perspectives dating to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or earlier.  The point is not just to understand glaciers and global warming, but to see the "endangered glaciers narrative" as representative of broader climate change narratives and global warming discourse.

Carey is also currently writing a global environmental history of human-glacier interactions.  The book is broadly conceived to introduce readers not only to the important role of glaciers, but also to demonstrate the importance and opportunities in environmental history, the history of science, and climate history.

Related Publications

Carey, Mark. "Commodities, Colonial Science, and Environmental Change in Latin American History," Radical History Review 107 (Spring 2010): 185-194.

Carey, Mark. "Latin American Environmental History: Current Trends, Interdisciplinary Insights, and Future Directions," Environmental History 14, no. 2 (April 2009): 221-252.

Carey, Mark. "The History of Ice: How Glaciers Became an Endangered Species," Environmental History 12, no. 3 (July 2007): 497-527. Winner of Leopold-Hidy Prize for best article published in the journal in 2007.