Polo in Ecuador: the giant sponge effect!

by | Mar 10, 2020

Dear followers,Welcome to Ecuador! I’m here visiting my biographer, Alan Hesse, the author of the comic book I star in. Today we’re visiting the Antisana volcano, which has the biggest glacier in Ecuador and is 5,790 metres high: that’s more than 5 times higher than Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in Britain!

The day of my visit to Antisana the weather was pretty awful: cold, rainy and windy, but Alan’s a bit crazy you see, so we made a video anyway. You can check it out right here. 


I thought it was quite funny how Alan was shouting against the wind, soaking wet and freezing, going on about global warming! But here’s the thing: global warming doesn’t just mean it’s getting warmer everywhere; it’s a lot more complicated than that!

In the case of the Ecuadorian Andes things get even more complicated because of the geography: Ecuador has three main regions – the Andes in the middle, the Amazon rainforest to the east, and the Pacific coast to the west. What basically happens is that the Andes get hit by a whole lot of clouds and mist coming from the Pacific ocean on one side, AND the Amazon forest on the other. This means that the mountains capture A LOT of humidity, and as a result they hold the water that the whole country depends upon

Have you thought about this where you live? Ok the water you use comes out of the tap, but that’s not where it comes from originally! Where does YOUR water come from? See the end of this blog for my challenge

In the video and on these photos you can see I’m sitting on this springy grass. This ecosystem is typical at this high altitude, and it’s called ‘páramo – similar to the moorland you get in parts of Britain. The main ecological function of páramo is to soak up and store water. Think of it as a giant sponge

Try this at home: get a really dry sponge and gradually wet it, drop by drop. It will start to swell with humidity, until it gets too wet and starts to trickle out water. The páramo does exactly that, on a massive scale!

This sponge effect is important, because it means all that water is stored for slow release. Slow release is what you want: if you suddenly squeeze your sodden sponge, two things happen:

  1. the water all comes out at once;
  2. the sponge is left dry. 

Bottom line: you are left with NO WATER – not good! 

Remember, below the páramo are cities with millions of people just like you who need the water it holds. That water trickles slowly, all year round, from the páramo into lakes and rivers, and from there the city authorities channel it into water pipes so that everyone can get any amount they want, any time they want, just by turning the tap on.  

What would happen if that giant sponge dried out?

Photo: Juan David Utreras
Polo by the Mica Lake, fed by the Antisana glacier in the Ecuadorian Andes

As global warming affects the entire planet through changes in the atmosphere, creating an artificial sort of ‘blanket’ that traps the Earth’s heat, local weather patterns creating the clouds from the Amazon and Pacific get disrupted, water-laden clouds no longer hit the Andes and páramo ‘sponges’ are in danger of drying out. If they do dry out, all those cities that depend on the ‘sponge effect’ will run out of water. 

And as we all know, no-one can live without water. 


Polo’s monthly challenge

Find out where YOUR water comes from and what needs to keep on happening for that source to always have water. For example, if your water comes from a lake or reservoir fed by a river, what needs to stay the same so that the river always has enough water to feed the lake? What would happen if it stopped raining, or if it rained too much?

I’d love to read your answers – post them here! I promise I’ll answer you back!


p.s. If you’re not sure what global warming means or how it happens, check out the special classroom section at the end of my book for a quick explanation that’s easy to understand.