Immersed in Cape Horn National Park

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Text and photos by Ignacio Palma
Translation by Justin Mueller

A scientific expedition organized by the Subantarctic Biocultural Conservation Program (PCBS) traveled in late January to Hornos Island, located in Cape Horn Archipelago National Park, to research the southernmost ecosystems of the world and the effects of climate change, and to inform Chile’s national forest and parks service (Conaf) efforts to put together a management plan for the area.

The interdisciplinary team of 14 people surveyed the different sectors that comprise this insular zone and protected wildlife area, researching the flora and fauna, both in the intertidal and terrestrial zones, as well as archaeological remains that may have been discovered in the first possible human settlements that existed 8,500 years ago in the area.

The governor of Chile's Antarctic Province, Juan José Arcos, stated that he is grateful for the scientific contribution made by this program, which includes the University of Magallanes, the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity and the Omora Foundation. He stressed that the Cape Horn Sub-Antarctic Center, currently under construction in Puerto Williams, will be important for future research as well as for the residents of the provincial capital, since it will have an interpretive center open to the community. "The research activity that is being carried out in Cape Horn is of transcendental importance, because its also a call to our ecological conscience and to the care of the last subantarctic forests that exist in the world," said Arcos.

 


 

Exploring the southernmost forest in the world
The director of the PCBS, the Chilean biologist Ricardo Rozzi, could not hide his satisfaction after expedition number 63 that he led in this area declared a biosphere reserve by Unesco in 2005, a designation he had a primary role in establishing.

Also a doctor of ecology and a philosopher, he does not hesitate to deliver his diagnosis on the state of conservation of Cape Horn. "If this were medicine, the patient is healthy. And if there is a healthy patient in a world that has a global warming, an environmental crisis, that patient has to be a model. Cape Horn has the possibility of being preserved," he declares while Pyramid Hill disappears on the horizon from the Oveja Negra (Black Sheep), an 80-ton vessel built almost entirely with wood, on which we sail through the southern seas.

Rozzi is right. It is enough to travel around the island with him to learn about the unique biodiversity that the area contains, where its natural inhabitants dazzle you with their intelligence in facing the unstable climate here, often with brutal winds that exceed 100 kilometers per hour originating mainly in Antarctica, located less than a thousand kilometers away, only separated by the Drake Passage and the Diego Ramírez Archipelago. These last two zones were declared marine parks on January 21 by Chile.

 

 

 

For example, on Hornos Island is the southernmost forest in the world composed of Magellanic coihue trees that can reach up to eight meters in height. In its trunks there is a wide range of lichens that capture the sea spray, which, upon falling with the salts of the sea, turn the soil into a fertile surface, transforming it into a true sponge of liverworts and mosses. "When it rains, the water does not flow, everything is absorbed, and when it does not rain it releases water. Therefore, here on Hornos Island there is no drought and there is no flood. If we learned a lesson for the rest of Chile from this, we would gain a lot," reflects Rozzi after walking up a hill with large gusts of wind that shot hailstones directed with surgical precision toward our eyes.

Descending a little more in the return to the area of the lighthouse, the Chilean Naval Station, the Stella Maris Naval Chapel and the Albatross Memorial, we come across another originality of the southern flora: a meadow of mountain carnations. This white flower, surrounded by woolly mosses and yareta plants, is common in the high Andes mountain range. However, on this island they grow practically at sea level, as if they were in the Altiplano.

Rozzi explains that "as the latitude increases, and this is the latitudinal end of the continent, it is as if the altitude were to increase. This climate is similar to what would be found in the high páramo of Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia or Chile, and here we have it practically at sea level". Undoubtedly, the existence of the mountainous carnation in this area, once undermined by a Chilean-Argentine conflict that fortunately did not escalate, is a beautiful metaphor of peace that nature gives us.

 

 

A park full of exotic species
One of the important points that Rozzi highlights in this expedition is "to confirm that this island and this national park are practically full of exotic species, both plant and animal." In the expedition he managed to observe kelp geese—commonly called geese of the coast, a significant quantity of steamer ducks and a large colony of Magellanic penguins and some penguins with a yellow tuft, whose nests were found from the coast to at least 20 meters above sea level, between hebes, chauras shrubs, tussocks up to two meters and Magellan coihues. "This situation is not seen now on Navarino Island due to the invasion of the mink, therefore, we have a refuge," he says.

While continuing in the bay and penguin colony of the island, located in the foothills of the east face of Pyramid Hill, which flows into Cape Horn itself on the south side, the specialist observes the basin - the southernmost one on the planet - and diagnoses that "it has healthy trees, very laden with lichens, mosses and even cinnamon trees blooming and bearing fruit, with birds that come to feed on those fruits, like the white-crested elaenia and other birds that we were analyzing."

This is only a small part of the research and monitoring that the team conducted during the expedition. They also went to a herbarium with approximately 60 species, saw to the installation of permanent quadrants to monitor the advance or retreat of the different vegetation types, and conducted sampling with photo-quadrants of the intertidal underwater zone of at least two coasts–the busy Caleta León and a desolate beach on the Espolón peninsula. The diversity of marine forests composed of algae, fish and mollusks varies from one to another.

 


A biodiversity hotspot in the global warming era
According to the microbiologist and ecologist, Roy Mackenzie, who was part of the expedition, these studies are important for the future not only of Chile, but the planet, especially in the face of global warming that is projected to increase the Earth's temperature by 3 degrees Celsius between 2050 and 2100.

"If we lose that biodiversity hotspot, we will not be able to understand the form or the ecology of these islands anywhere else in the world. It is our duty, and we need to know how the different vegetation types that exist in Chile work. And these islands, particularly because of how remote and difficult to access they are, are some of the most unknown on the planet," says Mackenzie, after emphasizing that five of every 10 plants on the island do not exist anywhere else in the world.

Rozzi adds: "By naming Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve, we propose it as a sentinel for climate change. In this expedition we came to install not only thermometers but also to measure the trees, to see how they are reacting. After 20 years of research, we will be able to report what signs, what scars, what symptoms climate change leaves."

 


Working toward an adequate management plan
All the information gathered will make it easier for Conaf to lead a management plan in Cape Horn National Park, an initiative that the state agency has already started in the other two national parks of the Chilean Antarctic Province–Yendegaia and Alberto de Agostini. All of them belong to the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve.

Felipe Méndez, a doctoral student in biology and applied ecology at the University of La Serena, who works with Rozzi in the development of information for management plans, explains that this field activity is carried out through an open standards methodology, which allows for the identification of conservation objects and also threats to them. Méndez agrees with his teammates in that this area remains pristine and with many unique species, and he is happy that no threats were shown.

"The main idea of the management plans is to give Conaf the necessary tools for them to make decisions regarding the future of the park. In general, the management plans have a useful life of five years, and they have to be updated again. But by laying the foundations necessary to make a plan, Conaf can pay attention to the threats that we identify. In the case of finding the presence of mink on the Hornos Island, we must begin to see how to control their presence," he says.

 

 


According to Méndez, to avoid threats, it is important to design conservation strategies in the management plans. "Since we have a Navy point here where they receive and dock cruises with tourists, it is important to give them certain recommendations, such as, for example, the possible transfer of exotic species, such as plants that are mainly on shoes. We must emphasize the use of the trails and also develop future trails so that people can visit the park area a little more. We do this through the recommendations that we give them in the management plans," he says.

Rozzi adds that this research is not done independently, since the program receives international collaboration and also collaboration from Conaf, the Undersecretariat of Fisheries and the Navy of Chile, institutions whose contributions are appreciated. Also an academic from the universities of Magallanes, Chile, and North Texas, United States, Rozzi mentions that in addition to conservation, they will suggest sustainable tourism on the island, such as the installation of a long-range telescope at the Albatross Monument, so that visitors can fully appreciate the subantarctic forests from the Espolón peninsula. He advises that the lodging infrastructure should be concentrated in Puerto Williams or Puerto Toro, and navigation services should be offered from those localities. All this, with the purpose of not damaging the biodiversity in America's southernmost point. 
 
Almost 20 years have passed since Rozzi began his crusade to conserve this beautiful piece of land and sea, and today more than ever he emphasizes the great obligation that Chile has to tackle global warming. This is exemplified by the designation of our country to host the 25th UN Conference on Climate Change, to be held on a date to be determined between the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. "Just as in medicine it is better to prevent than to cure, in this case it is much better to preserve than later to have to remedy or restore. Cape Horn is one of the few refuges in the world, and represents a blue lung given by the sea and a green lung given by Cape Horn and its forest basin," he concludes.