Climate crisis melts pristine glaciers in Chilean Patagonia

Chile.- The inexorable advance of global warming has reached one of the most pristine areas of the planet: the Chilean patagoniawhose glaciers battle without luck against the melting.

In the remote region of Aysén, 2,000 kilometers south of the capital, Manuel Berrocal has been guiding tourists through the glacier Explorers, on Mount San Valentín, the highest in the Patagonia.

Years ago, the immeasurable mass of ice could be seen half an hour after entering the Laguna San Rafael National Park. Today it is necessary to walk through moraines for three hours to see the clean ice.

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“It has been a slow but uninterrupted retreat. You don’t realize it until one day you see that the tongue of the glacier is much further away,” Berrocal, director of Baguales Tourism, told Efe.

According to Glaciology and Snow Unit (UGN) of the General Directorate of Waters of Chile (DGA)the height of the glacier has decreased by 80 meters since 1944.

Alexandre Avendaño, captain of the Kawesqar, is also a direct witness to the ravages of the climate crisis. From his boat, he sees every day a new iceberg from the San Rafael glacier, the best known in Patagonia, rushing into the icy sea.

“Now there is more awareness, but three years ago tourist ships entered the bay and insistently honked their horns to cause landslides,” Avendaño told Efe about a glacier that has shrunk by 13% in 146 years.


With 23,000 square kilometers, Chile It has the largest area of ​​glaciers in South America. 63% of these are in the Patagoniain an area known as the Ice Fields and considered the third largest glacial mass in the world after Antarctica and Greenland.

But the health of the Patagonian glaciers is suffering and “the majority have presented an accelerated retreat in their dimensions,” Jorge O’Kuinghttons, a glaciologist at the UGN.

The Jorge Montt, in the southern zone of Campos de Hielo, is one of the most affected in Chilewith a decrease of 26% in the last 38 years, while Pius XI is the only one that has grown, with 1% of mass gained in the same period, an anomaly for which experts have not yet found an explanation.

Unlike other areas of the world where black carbon or industrial dust contribute to melting, rising global temperatures are the only cause of retreat in glaciers in southern Europe. Chileaccording to experts.

Patagonia is one of the most pristine areas in the world, where industry is non-existent and urban centers are very small..

A sign of this purity is the existence in the glaciers of a small endemic and unique insect, the so-called Dragon of the Patagoniawhich does not exceed 15 millimeters, is intolerant to contamination and generates a glycerol-based fluid so as not to freeze.

“From a chemical point of view, these glaciers represent the purest effect of climate change because they only reflect global warming and not other sources of pollution,” O’Kuinghttons said.


Gone are those winters when the thermometer marked up to 15 degrees below zero in Campos de Hielo. The average temperature in the coldest months today is around 0.5 degrees, while in summer it can reach 5.

“We have positive temperatures almost all year round in the San Rafael accumulation zone, which is telling us that the glacier is suffering a lot,” Alexis Segovia, a glaciologist at the UGN and professor at the University of Chile.

Apart from their purity, the Patagonian glaciers have another peculiarity: they are extremely prone to causing abrupt discharges of water accumulated inside them, an event known as GLOFS (glacial lake outburst floods, in English) and that puts communities at risk. from the surrounding valleys.

In the surroundings of the Steffen glacier, in the north of Campos de Hielo, several residents have had to move for fear of new discharges, which makes them “the first climate migrants” of the Chilean patagoniaO’Kuingtons noted.

Experts warn that the thaw will also aggravate the current drought Chile for more than 13 years, since these vast water reserves nourish the basins and are the main insurance that ecosystems and human communities have for their subsistence when there is no rain.

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“Glaciers also play a fundamental role in slowing down warming because they return a lot of radiation to the atmosphere,” Segovia said. If these surfaces continue to shrink, she warned, “the earth is going to heat up faster.”

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