Patagonia is Melting
One of the highlights of Cycling the Carretera Austral, is that you are consistently close to a Glacier or ten. Chile is home to over 24,133 glaciers, 80% of all the glaciers in South America. When you riding, to the left, right, in front and behind, you can nearly always see a glacier looming proudly above (when it’s not raining). Glaciers are magnificent, dynamic, dramatic and complex structures that produce over 80% of the fresh water in the world.
We took the opportunity to visit the Glacier de los Exploradores, situated in the Northern Patagonia Ice Fields on the northeastern slope of Monte San Valentín, in the Aysen Region of Chile. Combined with the Southern Icefield – these are the third largest land-based ice fields after Antarctica and Greenland. These “campos de hielo” are savage lands that still present many wild and unexplored territories. Due to the serious hard conditions and nightmare weather the first successful crossing of the two ice fields was not achieved until 1998! As you can see with the photos we were very lucky with the weather on our visit!
Climate change is having a dramatic effect on glaciers around the world. Scientists are particularly worried by the proportionally faster rate of shrinking of the glaciers in Patagonia compared to glaciers anywhere else in the world. Data from 2000 to 2012 shows a rate of thinning double of that from 1975 to 2000. In the photo below you can see where the glacier was just a few decades ago.
The glacial risks in Patagonia not only carry environmental risk but significant economic and social implications. Talking to the Gauchos and families who live in the countryside, we heard frequent stories of how the weather is changing, and effecting their crops, livestock and lives in general. We saw countless bare mountain tops that should have been covered in snow, and we saw stunning old photos of how life used to be with its regular large winter snowfall.
Our visit to the Queulat Glacier also highlighted the accelerating melting of this stunning hanging glacier. In 1837 the glacier was 100m from the sea, now it’s over 7.8km!
Yet none of this prepared us to what we saw in the village of Santa Lucia. Situated about 90kms from Chaiten, Villa Santa Lucia is a small Patagonian village with about 500 people. Last year on December 16th, after a massive storm yielding over 122mm of rain in 24 hours, a glacial lake burst, creating a massive “aluvion” or landslide. While most villagers were in their beds on Sunday morning, millions of tons of ice, rocks and water crashed down from the mountain side creating a tsunami of rocks, mud, and trees and destroyed half of the village and killing over 21 people. The exact number is still not confirmed, as not all the victims have been found. Some of these victims included cyclists just like us who were camped out in the campground.
Half of the town and over 325 people had to be displaced to camps in other towns, and as of March 12th they had not yet been allowed back to their houses. However, the road had just been reopened, which allowed us to pass through and see the devastation. We were not allowed to cycle through, and a road worker kindly offered to drive us through “ground zero”. We were totally shocked by what we saw.
What caused this tragedy is technically known as a Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFS). As the rate of melting increases, the size of glacial lakes is increasing and hence there will be more GLOFS. Hundreds of towns and villages around the world are under threat by GLOFS / so expect to hear more about these in the future.
Climate change is also accelerating the degree of Calving – this is when chunks of ice break up from the main body of ice. In late November, an iceberg measuring some 350 by 380 meters (1,150 by 1,250 feet) broke from the Grey glacier, in the Torres de Paine National Park in far southern Chile. This calving effects local shipping and presents a major risk of flooding in the park. Read more.
90% of the glaciers in Patagonia are shrinking, however there are a few anominalies created by the increase of precipitation in some parts of the region. Most notably the Perito Moreno Glacier.