Summer Research in Ecuador

Taite Stevens AldrichStaff Writer

Seniors Cora Hentges and Maddie Banks traveled to Ecuador over the summer alongside Associate Professor in Geology and Program Director in Environmental Studies Jeff La Frenierre and University of Minnesota faculty and students to study the effects of climate change on glaciers. The group arrived in Quito at the end of May and planned on staying for a month to study watershed systems on two volcanoes: Chimborazo and Cayambe. 

“We were there collecting water samples to study what percent of the watersheds is glacial melt and how much of it is ground and rain water. From that data we can hypothesize how climate change and glacial retreat will affect accessibility to water in regions like the Andes,” Hentges said. 

This group also included Associate Professor and Chair of Art and Art History and Environmental Studies Betsy Byers and Gustie alum Emily Dzieweczynski (‘19), who, as artists, created a more interdisciplinary research experience. This was not their first time making the trip. They have been there previously and had their work featured at the Nobel Conference in 2019. Their piece focused on the impact of climate change on the Cayambe volcano in Ecuador. Byers and Dzieweczynski used drone footage taken by the research group of the glacier as well as their own watercolor paintings to create an immersive experience reflecting the path of water droplets through the hydrologic system. 

This research has been ongoing for 10 years, but this most recent trip made evident just how much the glaciers have receded in the past years. 

“We went up to this refuge at 15,000 feet elevation and we were just at the point where we could see the tongue of this glacier outside our window and I was totally in awe, it was so huge and beautiful, and Emily, who came with Betsy, started crying, and I thought it was the view, but she was crying because she realized how much it had shrunken since the last time she was there,” Hentges said. 

These shrinking glaciers are a concern for the communities that rely on glacial melt as a water source. Featured in a 2019 BBC web exclusive, La Freniere expressed concern with water insecurity caused by climate change. “Between 1986 and 2013 the ice surface area on Chimborazo decreased by 21 percent,” La Frenierre said. 

The issue of climate change and water scarcity have become deeply intertwined, and will need to be addressed simultaneously. 

Hentges has participated in research before in Idaho summer of 2021, studying structural geology but felt more connected to her time in Ecuador due to the impact this research can have on local communities. “I want the work that I do to mean something outside of academia, and getting information about how water accessibility will change and how it will affect these remote areas feels more important and relevant to those who are being affected by climate change,” Hentges said.

The research group experienced unpredictable changes to their project. What was originally meant to be a week and a half stay on Cayambe collecting water samples was cut short. The group was forced to drive back down to their hostel by a severe blizzard. Once there, they received news of protests organized by the Confederation of Indiginous Nationalities of Ecuador. “Protests organized by indigenous organization CONAIE erupted across Ecuador on June 13, with demonstrators’ demands including lower fuel prices and limits to further expansion of the mining and oil industries,” wrote Alexandra Valencia with Reuters. Due to the protests the research group did not leave their hostel for 10 days.

 “CONAIE didn’t want people traveling in and out of town, so it felt more appropriate for us to stay,” Hentges said. 

The team was eventually able to leave the hostel via helicopter, and they were flown to a landing strip in Quito.

 “We were standing in this field holding flares and jumping up and down trying to wave down the helicopter,” Hentges said. 

Then they boarded an airplane to be flown to Atlanta, Georgia, and then arrived back to Minnesota on June 27th.

 “Overall it was a pretty emotional experience, it made me want to go out and learn as much as I can about different people from around the world and know more experiences outside my own, in that was it was a broadening moment, and looking at things on the macro scale is a big part of geology research you have to look at these huge systems and see how they’ve changed over time,” Hentges said.