Painting the Andes white

Painting the Andes white

If you’re the kind of interior decorator who spends weeks agonizing between "white zinfandel" and "baby’s breath" for the dining room walls (two hues indistinguishable to anyone who hasn’t poured over the Benjamin Moore catalogue), you might consider enlisting in Eduardo Gold’s latest project to combat the effects of climate change in the Peruvian Andes.

As one of 26 winners in last year’s "100 Ideas to Save the Planet" competition, sponsored by the World Bank, Gold proposed an alternately ingenious and implausible plan to stall — and perhaps even reverse — the steady melting of Andean Glaciers: paint them white. Now, though Gold has yet to recieve his prize money, the wheels on this project are already turning in Peru. By coating the increasingly bare (and increasingly brown) rocks at the summits of the once-snowy mountain range, Gold hopes to simulate the eco-saving powers of a true glacial surface: the white veneer, if all goes according to plan, should reflect the sun’s rays, sending them back out into the atmosphere and preventing warming effects at the Earth’s surface. (If you’re already clamoring against using chemical-laden paint in  a pristine natural setting, rest assured: Gold’s hue of white — unlike Benjamin Moore’s — will be 100 percent environmentally friendly, composed of lime, egg white, and water.)

Gold "has no scientific qualifications" — and it sometimes shows. At one point, he summarizes the science behind his proposal with a simple, and perhaps simplistic, formulation: "cold generates more cold, just as heat generates more heat." He also aspires to eventually "re-grow" the ebbing glacier — an example, it’s hard not to think, of ambitious entrepreneurship getting the best of realistic science.

Nevertheless, Gold "has studiously read up on glaciology," and his idea has won as many supporters as it has skeptics. The white-washing project appeals for obvious reasons to environmentalists: 22 percent of the glaciers in Peru have already disappeared in just three decades and doomsday forecasts predict the remaining 78 may be gone in twenty years. But Gold’s biggest fans may be the Peruvians themselves.

Painting, after all, calls for painters: the venture is predicted to create 15,000 jobs over five years. Those who live in the glaciers’ shadows (or, more aptly these days, their puddles) have experienced the dramatic shifts in climate in recent year, and — for the sake of a return to normalcy — seem to be willing to hear out even the most unusual proposals for change.

The work will be slow-going: Gold has set his sights on completing one summit, Chalon Sombrero, this summer, and then gradually moving on to other peaks. But with a page from Tom Sawyer’s book, he just might be able to pick up the white-washing pace…