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Can painting mountains restore a glacier?

By Matthew Knight, for CNN
  • Peruvian inventor Eduardo Gold is whitewashing an extinct glacier
  • Gold hopes that by cooling the rock surface he can bring it back to life
  • Project backed by the World Bank who named it one of "100 Ideas to Save the Planet"
  • Albedo effect -- reflecting sun's rays away from the Earth -- a proven scientific principle

(CNN) -- High up in the Peruvian Andes an experiment has begun to revitalize an extinct glacier.

The Chalon Sombrero glacier dried up many years ago, but Eduardo Gold thinks he can create the conditions that will allow ice to form once again.

Armed with a boiler suits, some white paint and a few llamas to carry equipment, Gold and a team of four helpers make the daily trek up to nearly 5,000 meters above sea-level to paint rocks on a mountainside.

So far Gold and his team have covered three hectares. Their aim is to paint three peaks in the Andean region of Ayacucho in southern Peru totaling 70 hectares (around 170 acres).

Gold, who lives in Licapa, a town at the foot of the mountain, founded Glaciares Peru in 2008, and in 2009 the project was selected as one of 26 winners of the World Bank's "100 Ideas to Save the Planet" competition.

So far, Gold has been relying on private donations and his own resources, but soon he will receive the first of two $100,000 payments from the World Bank to fund his work whitewashing the rocks.

The project might appear a little absurd, but it has a solid scientific principle behind it. It's called the albedo effect.

By painting dark rocks white, less of the sun's energy is absorbed by the rocks and more is reflected away from the Earth, lowering the temperature of the rocks' surface.

Otto Gold, from Glaciares Peru told CNN: "We are hoping to lower the temperature on the surface of the rocks from 20 degrees Celsius to five."

If they are successful Glaciares Peru will revitalize the water supply to an impoverished area of the Andes.

"Also, at the same time we are creating jobs and we can create thousands of jobs if we are successful," Gold said.

He says that local people have given the project a good reception, but there are some that remain skeptical.

"I understand that," Gold said. "But I would say to them that this deserves a chance to prove that it is right or wrong. And it's no harm at all."

Andy Ridgwell from the School of Geographical Sciences at the UK's University of Bristol says that it will take several years to find out whether the experiment will achieve anything significant.

"If it's at all feasible, then it is an interesting thing to try. If you can get some glacier mass re-established then you can have that water supply buffering that glaciers provide," Ridgwell told CNN.

The albedo effect may have helped cool the area around the city of Almeria, in southern Spain.

The expansion of greenhouse farming in the area, which started in the 1970s, has grown to cover nearly 30,000 hectares of land around the city. And in the summer the roofs of the greenhouses are whitewashed, so that plants inside don't overheat.

In 2008, Pablo Campra, from the University of Almeria, reporting in the Journal of Geophysical Research, found that that the Almeria region had experienced a drop in temperature by an average of 0.3 degrees Celsius from 1983 to 2006.

This was compared to an average temperature rise of around 0.5 degrees Celsius throughout the rest of Spain during the same time.

Campra concluded that the temperature fall may have occurred because of the growth of greenhouse horticulture in the region.

It's this downward temperature trend that Glaciares Peru hope to replicate. If they can achieve their objectives they hope to implement a "cool credits program" -- similar to carbon credits -- which they say will create a sustainable source of revenue and enable the replication of similar projects in other parts of the world.

While Peru's environment minister Antonio Brack is less than enthusiastic, calling the project "nonsense" last year, Jonathan Bamber, director of Bristol University's Glaciology Center, says Eduardo Gold's idea of painting rocks white isn't preposterous, but they'll have to paint a lot of them.

"Whether it will have the desired effect or its closing the stable door after the horse has bolted remains to be seen," Bamber told CNN.

"If you can reduce the overall energy balance of the region you might have a chance of reducing the amount of melting that takes place," Bamber added.

Eduardo Gold aims to complete the project in two years time, by which time he hopes to have proved the doubters wrong.