Image: OJJ

The Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the largest body of ice in the Southern Hemisphere outside of Antarctica and is melting away very fast. So fast, in fact, that Scientific American published an article some five years ago with the title “Patagonian Glaciers Melting In A Hurry” and reported:

“Ice fields in southern South America are rapidly losing volume and in most cases thinning at even the highest elevations, contributing to sea-level rise at ‘substantially higher’ rates than observed from the 1970s through the 1990s, according to a study published Wednesday (8/2012) in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.”

The melting has kept on since that article was published and what information I could find said that it showed no signs of stopping or slowing anytime soon. I arranged to meet El Calafate’s local glacier expert more than 50 degrees south of the equator and hear about the latest prognosis on the ice and climate change in the region.   

Changes

“We used to get storms, wind and rain almost exclusively from the West. Now they’re blowing in from the East and we are unprepared—look, all the windows on this side are leaking, we didn’t realize.”

This is how scientist and glacier guru Lucciano Bernacchi begins our conversation on how climate change is affecting Patagonia. I turn around and see dark streaks of rainwater chasing each other down the inside walls of the new glaciology centre lobby, seven kilometers outside of El Calafate, where our interview takes place on a windswept and stormy afternoon.

Our view from the glaciology museum. (Image: OJJ)
Our view from the glaciology museum. (Image: OJJ)

Just back from a 3-month expedition to Antarctica, Bernacchi is keen to highlight the specific differences between different regions within Patagonia itself and between it and other parts of the globe re: the climate issue.

“Here, it’s not terribly cold,” he tells me.

My teeth are trembling in memory of a blistering 40-second walk between the bus and the entrance and beg to differ.

Down here it can seem that the ecological crises, now blooming across the planet, have not yet scratched the surface of vast Patagonia, Argentina and Chile’s extraordinary southern wilderness.

But appearances can be deceiving, even when it comes to a first glance at the local climate data, as Bernacchi explains.

“If you analyse the temperature here, the overall mean annual temperature in the area is not warming. We’ve got two weather stations, one in El Calafate and one in El Chalten, and none of them over the last 15 years have recorded a mean rise in temperature. However, there are warmer peaks of temperature in summer than previous recorded data. That would normally bring the overall temperature higher but because you also have lower peaks of winter temperature, this balances the overall temperature.

It is counter-intuitive, because the mean annual temperature is not getting warmer but you have warmer summers, and spells of colder temperatures in winter. The point concerning glaciers is that whatever ice is lost in those higher summer peaks is not being recovered.”

Melting

So the ice here in Patagonia is still disappearing at a very fast rate as higher summer temperatures rise. This includes the massive Southern Patagonian Ice Field, which stretches over 16,800 square kilometers across southern Argentina and Chile. Bernacchi says the overall situation of the glaciers here in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field is similar to what is happen to almost all the other glaciers on the planet—they are losing a lot of ice.

“If you take [the Southern Patagonian Ice Field] as a single unit, it is also reducing. Really, really fast. Not only in size and width but also in thickness, which many people don’t often take into account.”

“It’s loosing thickness too?”                                                                                                       

“Oh yeah yeah yeah. It’s lost more than 300 meters of thickness, multiplied by thousands of square kilometres in the last 50-60 years. 300 metres. So there is a general shrinking, which of course turns into water with much of it flowing into the Santa Cruz river here. In many places now you can go to spots where 10 or 20 years ago were under the ice and now you stand on bare rock. The ice has gone miles back.

To have a healthy glacier you need a two main of ingredients. You need precipitation, snowfall, and you need cold temperature…any upset in this relationship—any little change in temperature, any change in the amount of precipitation, will have an effect.”

So higher summer temperatures are being recorded and the Ice Field is losing a lot of ice.

The Perito Moreno glacier —El Calafate's most stunning asset and the exception to the rule of glacial retreat in the Southern Ice Field. (Image: OJJ)
The Perito Moreno glacier—El Calafate’s most stunning asset and the exception to the rule of glacial retreat in the Southern Ice Field. (Image: OJJ)

Of course, when one delves into the specifics of what processes lead to glaciers losing ice, it gets a little more complicated than that, a point Bernacchi is eager to convey.

“It’s a combination of factors…It would be simplistic to say that climate is solely responsible for ice melting because it also depend on the conditions at each glacier and on scientific principles—for example, glaciers calving into deep water tend to lose more ice related to how deep the body of water is.”

Further complicating the narrative is the spectacular Perito Moreno glacier, El Calafate’s main tourist attraction and one of the crowning jewels in the country’s wealth of natural wonders. The Perito Moreno is one of very few exceptions to the rule of glacial retreat in the Southern Icefield and the world as a whole. The massive body of ice has remained in effect stable in mass for decades now according to Bernacchi. This is in contrast to most all of the other glaciers here in Patagonia and, as BBC Mundo reported, throughout the Andes from Argentina and Chile all the way up through Peru, Ecuador and Colombia too.

Because regardless of how impressive the Perito Moreno glacier is (and it really, really is) the overall picture of glacial retreat and correlating higher summer temperatures is irrefutable—Bernacchi and his colleagues in the science community in Patagonia have recorded the rate ice is being lost year on year, in a data-gathering relay lasting decades. Some of the data is displayed for the public at the new Glacier Museum.

The implications of the data should be of concern to all of us when we match them with how reliant our species is on drinkable water: The Earth’s surface is around 70 percent water, but only two percent of that is fresh water, and the vast majority of fresh water is held in large bodies of ice like in Antarctica or here in the Southern Icefield.

The problems presented by the fact that this ice is melting away so fast are amplified in places like South-West Patagonia, where most of the drinking water (the sweetest I’ve ever tasted, by the way) comes from the glaciers directly.

View from the Glaciarium

Local factors like this and the more general threats to the wider human community posed by climate change has caused the issue to be put front and centre at the glaciology museum, which avoids any ambiguities regarding how serious the challenges being posed by a warming planet are for our way of life . A full third of the exhibits are dedicated to climate change and highlighting its demonstrable effects on both the local environment—itself an obvious source of pride for those living here and further afield in Argentina—and the wider world too.

It was a simple decision for Bernacchi and the others who helped create the museum in the first place.

“Our expertise here that has been monitoring the glaciers in Antarctica and Patagonia, what they’re doing, how they’re behaving. Obviously the trend, like everywhere else, is that they are receding.

“The final exhibit…highlights how the Earth’s climate is messed up in many ways not just in Patagonia but globally and to emphasize that environmental changes will affect everyone differently, you know, floods here, droughts over there. Our action so far has been educational, we’re not really doing anything else because that’s what we’re focused on.”

The retreating Glacier Martial, Ushuaia. (Image: OJJ)
The retreating Glacier Martial, above Ushuaia. (Image: OJJ)

A dark tunnel, ringed with a kaleidoscope of television screens and flashing lights in the museum’s final room seems like a misplaced set from Kubrick’s 2001. In fact, it’s the forceful end to the Glaciarium experience. Visitors are shown scenes of worsening droughts and floods from around the world and presented with the cold, robust evidence for climate change and its effects.

Indeed, the global nature of the issue is focused on here by highlighting how the threat posed by a warming atmosphere will cause acute disruption to finely balanced systems in different ways—extreme weather events like the droughts and floods Bernacchi mentioned are both likely to become more common and more severe as the Earth as a whole heats up, the narrator tells us—it just depends on where you are.

The earlier exhibitions included satellite imagery of the ice fields in the previous and current states and snippets of info on how much ice is being lost from some of the largest glaciers in the region, like the mighty Agostini glacier for example, now a daunting 49 km2 smaller than it was 26 years ago.

By the end the hard data showing us how serious climate change is for Patagonia and the glaciers here makes way for a more emotive exhibit. It seems that the people who helped make the Glaciarium understand that a cohesive human response to climate change not only requires rational, scientific strategies concerning the best ways to cut emissions and minimize environmental damage, but also the promotion of compassion for our fragile planet home, as many climate advocates from Naomi’s Klein to Pope Francis suggest.

The final slide features a poem:

During millennia we quenched our thirst

in the freshwater of the stream

Will our destiny be to live in a desert?

We have always enjoyed the warble of the birds

Will we allow it to disappear?

Have we worshipped the stars

To be afraid of the night?

Mankind’s greatest challenge is to listen

To the call of this fragile planet.

It is asking for help.

We all need to understand that the destiny

of our only home is in our hands

We are largely responsible for today’s

climate change and global environmental problems

Greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut

Earth is calling…

Life is asking for help

We must answer!