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The Edge of Ice: an up-close and informative encounter with glaciers in the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields of Chile and Argentina brings the effects of climate change to global awareness.




The bow of the catamaran points towards an outcropping of bluish ice jutting out from the hidden banks of Lake Argentina. As we near the giant Upsala Glacier, an icon of global warming for scientists, we can see large furrows on the millenary body of ice--evidence of melting. We are traveling through "Iceberg Bay," where Upsala's moraine has been slipping piece by piece into the lake. Landslides and floating masses of ice confirm for us the effects of climate change.

We are in the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields, the third largest icecap on the planet. The immense frozen white landscape stretches for more than 5,000 square miles and includes Chile's Torres del Paine National Park and O'Higgins National Park, as well as Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park, where we are headed now. It looks like a polar landscape with huge ice plateaus. Here, it snows about 300 days a year; the precipitation forms a great platform of ice that has given birth to dozens of glaciers.

Dr. Ricardo Villalba, Director of the Argentine Institute of Snow, Ice, and Environmental Research and a veteran of countless explorations on the Patagonian glaciers, speaks to our group. "We have been able to document the fact that the Upsala Glacier has receded three or four miles," he says. "Our team of scientists has been using satellite images to sectors of Patagonia and, on average, the glaciers have receded between fifteen and twenty percent in the last twenty years. Some of them have been melting at an even faster rate. If current temperature trends continue, this glacier will disappear entirely in 100 years," Villalba predicts.


The icebergs melting beneath the dark and stormy sky here at Upsala Glacier are powerful images, symbols of the Earth's current thawing period. Suddenly, we hear the roar of a wall of ice crashing into the water. It makes a wave that shakes our boat, and spectators applaud in celebration. For a moment, they have forgotten what this means for the future. Once the excitement passes, however, many of them begin to talk about the connection between these landslides and global warming, between global warming and our future water supply. They are getting a lot of information from the guides on board, and they will leave better informed and more aware. For many of those travelling with us this morning, especially the young, this show of ice falling apart before their eyes will change the way they think about the environment and about how to treat Mother Nature.

"All of the scenarios for climate change in the future indicate that the warming trend is going to continue, that temperatures will rise, and that melting will speed up. If this happens, and there are no changes in human beings' attitudes towards nature, it is quite possible that many of the small glaciers will be gone by the end of the century," Villalba warns.


The glaciers of this region regulate water supply and generate energy. They are also indescribably beautiful. Argentines can be proud that UNESCO has recognized these attributes and declared Los Glaciares National Park a World Heritage Site. Today, visitors from all over the world come to Patagonia to see the Perito Moreno, Upsala, and Viedma glaciers, or to ride a boat on Lake Argentina to observe the millenary fields of ice that are crashing down in a dramatic and moving spectacle of global warming.

Glacier activity is generating a kind of ecotourism that is supporting most of the economy of the region. "There is a very close connection between the glaciers and the social, cultural, and economic activity happening in the area, thanks to the ice. It is also clear that tourism in the glacier areas has helped us to educate people about climate change, an issue that involves us all," Ricardo Villalba adds.

Ice retraction in Patagonia is an ancient process. The first colonists and scientists to visit the region in the late nineteenth century were already able to see that the glaciers were slowly receding. That process has accelerated during the last few decades, however, and glaciologists say the change is significant. "Basically, glacial melting began to coincide with increased temperatures in Patagonia from the 1970s on," Villalba says. "As the Earth's atmosphere continues to warm, we will continue to have higher levels of melting," Villalba says.

Today, most of the glaciers are retreating at a pace much faster than predicted. Each glacier has its own characteristics, however, and melting behavior is determined by various factors, including form and elevation. Thus, different glaciers are responding to climate change in different ways. "Some glaciers--like the Perito Moreno Glacier, for instance--have even remained stable during the twentieth century," Villalba notes.

I decide to take a closer look at the anomalous glacier that Villalba has mentioned, so I get off the ship on the banks of Perito Moreno and meet up with a couple of mountain guides who provide support for Dr. Villalba and his team. They will help me to reach a higher area where I can take some photographs. At the place where we begin our ascent, there is an outcropping of ice as high as a building. My guides, Jose Pera and Bernardo Roil, lead me upwards through a remote and wild landscape.

Jose has been leading a team of expert ice guides for more than twenty years, so he has a lot of experience in Perito Moreno's capricious behavior and he knows how to maneuver around potentially dangerous cracks. "The truth is that Perito Moreno has very peculiar characteristics," Pera tells me. "It has been stable for all of the 90 years in which it has been studied and measured. The watershed that feeds this glacier has a much larger area of ice and snow accumulation than other glaciers. This has to do with several factors: the topography of the valley, the microclimate, and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, which is only 30 miles to the west. All of the humidity and storms that come in from the coastal areas turn into snow and fall in the area that forms this glacier."

Perito Moreno is an atypical glacier in that the heavy snowfalls in its higher elevations make up for the mass of ice that it loses to landslides and melting closer to Lake Argentina. "Unfortunately, this is not the case with the other glaciers," Pera notes.

Bernardo Roil, Guide Coordinator for Los Glaciares National Park says the glaciers help him to educate people and encourage a change in thinking. "The first time I came to the glacier was when I was four years old," he says. My grandfather, who was a photographer of note in the Argentine Patagonia, was in love with this glacier. He came in 1937 for the first time and I think he felt the same thing that I did. I didn't want to go back home, and I always dreamed that I could work in some area that would be related to this mountain. Fortunately, things worked out for me to become a guide on one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Now I am also interested in drawing attention to the issue of global warming and its influence on other glaciers of this national park. I talk with people a lot about the visible retreat of the Upsala Glacier, which is losing 650 feet in length every year that it will not recover. I tell them that it also has a thinning rate of 35 feet per year and that that is a lot. It has an impact on them when I tell them that the entire ice field loses about 8.5 cubic miles every year in ice that it doesn't recover. That's an enormous quantity," Roll says.

As we cross over a dangerous crack that plunges down into the depths of the ice, Pera adds that he has seen more than a mile of ice break off the front of Upsala and an infinity of icebergs melting away slowly in Lake Argentina. "And remember, a glacier loses ice not only from landslides and chunks of ice failing off, but also from evaporation and surface melting. For example, we can hear water a few meters away from here. That's typical on any glacier. When it melts faster than it can accumulate snow, then what is happening on Upsala starts to happen. The great majority of glaciers are shrinking this way," says Pera.

All over the globe, glaciers are raising a voice of alarm and telling us that we are experiencing an unnatural warming of the planet. The warming is caused by excessive carbon dioxide emissions, which produces a greenhouse effect that warms the earth's atmosphere as it retains solar rays. The loss of ice throughout the Andes mountain range, the melting of the Arctic Sea, and icebergs the size of cities crashing off Antarctic glaciers all corroborate scientific data on the subject. But in spite of the catastrophes that will be caused by this massive melting of ice--rising sea levels, droughts, and floods, to name a few--human beings are not taking on the challenge with the urgency and seriousness it deserves. We are not taking the kind of massive collective action we need to take to minimize the consequences of our bad habits, for example, by reducing our consumption of energy and fossil fuels or by stopping deforestation.

Pera is part of a new generation of guides/environmental educators trained during times of climate change, and he knows that visitors who travel here ask themselves serious questions when they see the marvels of this place. He and his colleagues do their best to answer the tourists' most frequent questions: "Why are glaciers going extinct?" "Why is Perito Moreno stable?" "What is causing the melting?"

"We are facing a very dramatic situation that allows us to see the implications of man's activities in the natural environment and to educate people about global warming," Pera says. "We believe that our function as mountain guides--though our primary job is to make sure that people are safe--is to help to interpret the landscape and the climate to people. If we manage to help them take the concept of preservation with them, we will all win in the long run."


Climate Change and OAS Commitment

by Dr. James Patrick Kiernan

Cletus Springer, Director of the OAS Department of Sustainable Development, has stated that it is the position of the OAS that "climate change poses perhaps the gravest threat to development prospects of the hemisphere, in particular to small, island developing states [and those] countries with low-lying coastal, arid, and semi-arid areas or areas vulnerable to floods, drought, and desertification." The OAS remains committed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its objective of achieving the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

It has furthered this commitment by helping the governments of member states to articulate and adopt diversified energy policies and development programs that emphasize renewable energy technologies. In addition, the OAS has focused its efforts on helping member states meet the challenges of climate change adaptation by strengthening national technical and institutional capacity for disaster risk reduction, prevention, and impact mitigation.

Mr. Springer, who attended the December 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, explained that. OAS contribution to the development of climate change policies at the Copenhagen Summit was largely indirect. Climate change--in the context of environmental sustainability--was considered in a series of discussions that led up to the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, and which in the context of Copenhagen helped to forge a common understanding of the implications and complications of climate change among OAS member states. The OAS also helped strengthen the capacity of Caribbean countries to participate effectively in the Summit by providing technical support for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Strategy on Climate Change and Sustainable Development.

The OAS, with the active participation of the larger member states, should support the efforts of the smaller countries to increase their resilience to the dangerous effects of climate change. The bigger countries can utilize the various networks within the OAS to facilitate the transfer and adaptation of technologies to the more vulnerable countries. Welcome, too, is the expressed intention of the United States to establish an Energy and Climate Change Partnership for the Americas as a vehicle for information sharing and joint action in energy management and its contribution to climate change mitigation.


Beyond Copenhagen

by Alejandro Balaguer

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen, nations were unable to reach agreement on measures to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. Delegates had hoped it would be possible to use Copenhagen as a springboard to begin a series of more substantial agreements that would require countries to set goals for reducing emissions. But the future is uncertain now since conversations at Copenhagen did not lead to specific CO2 reduction targets. This fact alone has left a general sense of disappointment.

Though countless, solid scientific reports warn us of the potential tragic consequences of global warming for human beings, biodiversity, and ecosystems, the Copenhagen agreements--which are really more political statements than agreements--convey a certain level of indifference to the looming dangers. It is worth recalling that these include: rising sea levels, droughts, floods, storms, food crises, loss of biodiversity, epidemics, and desertification. Why should we wait for these extreme climate events to spin out of control before we take action?

The most optimistic, including Vinod Thomas and Kenneth Chomitz of the World Bank who work in the area of assigning monetary value to forests, say that the summit has set out a path to follow. These analysts say that protecting forests is an important part of combating climate change, since forests store carbon and regulate the water resources and climate of their regions. In the Amazon, for example, they say that "in order to obtain grazing lands worth 500 dollars per hectare, ranchers cut down trees, releasing hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Reducing this amount of CO2--at 20 dollars per ton on the European market--would cost more than 10,000 dollars." They also say that as deforestation continues, primarily for farming and livestock raising purposes, there are more opportunities for countries to receive payments for the environmental service of preventing deforestation. The REDD initiative (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), which received a strong boost in Copenhagen, is aimed at compensating countries that reduce deforestation. Thomas and Chomitz say that the support given to forest protection in Copenhagen "could open the world to helping people better administer their farms and forests while also reducing the dangers of climate change."

History shows that human beings have been able to change their attitudes and reverse adverse situations when they are pressed to the limit and their survival is at stake. For theologian and philosopher Leonardo Boff, Copenhagen goes beyond economic opportunities and opens a space to reflect on what is ethical. "We have not hesitated to endanger the equilibrium of the planet and the future of life itself in order to protect profit-making systems and national economic interests. But the planet is already warming to a degree that if we do not face up to the situation quickly, millions of people could be exterminated and much of our biodiversity could be wiped out." Where do we go then? Boff wonders. "We only know that we have to change if we want to go on."



Alejandro Balaguer is Executive Director of the Albatros Media Foundation in Panama and a frequent contributor to Americas.
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Author:Balaguer, Alejandro
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:3ARGE
Date:May 1, 2010
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