Letter from scientists on glacial hazards in Chilean Patagonia

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A group of scientists today sent a letter to Chile’s government warning that it must step up efforts to address threats posed by melting glaciers, particularly the deluges known as glacial lake outburst floods, or Glofs. “As the landscape responds to climate and global changes, the time for action is running out,” says the letter from scientists from Chile, Canada, Europe and the United States. “The glacial risks in Patagonia carry economic and social implications. They will not only affect the landscape, but the infrastructure and people as well.”
 
The scientists last September gathered for a symposium in Santiago called “Glacial Hazards Under Changing Conditions and Climate Uncertainty.” The symposium, sponsored by the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the German-headquartered Heinrich Boell Foundation, attracted experts in glaciology, hydrology, geology, geomorphology, geohazards and ecology.

Below the entire text of the letter: 
 
June 8, 2011
 
Dear President Piñera, Ministers de Solminihac and Benítez, President of CONICYT Aguilera,  and Intendenta Cuevas:
 
We, the undersigned representatives of the international scientific community, were invited to speak at the recent international symposium “Glacial Hazards under Changing Conditions and  Climate Uncertainty,” held in Santiago1. As a multidisciplinary group of experts in glaciology,  hydrology, geology, geomorphology, geohazards and ecology, we write here to express our  opinion that the Patagonian Ice Fields in Southern Chile and Argentina, the largest temperate ice  fields in the world, merit increased scientific research and further risk assessment on geohazards,  glacial hazards and flood risks.
 
After the Santiago conference, we traveled to the Baker River basin and the Río de la Colonia  valley. Coming from different countries, professions and specializations, we all agree that the  area is being increasingly impacted by the effects of climate and global change on the local  glaciers and ice fields. With the expected further changes in the region’s temperature and  precipitation patterns, Patagonia’s environmental systems could become more dynamic, unstable  and unpredictable in the future than they are already. A thorough understanding of the risks and  hazards associated with the region’s glacial environments and river basins would help to safeguard inhabitants and infrastructure, and better manage natural and productive ecosystems.
 
We applaud the recent efforts by the Dirección General de Aguas to monitor glacier lake outburst events near their source in Río de la Colonia, as well as the recent commitment for major research investment in the direct vicinity of the Patagonian Ice Fields. These are very positive steps, yet the size of the task and the logistic difficulties relative to the amount of data needed require additional efforts. Considerable expertise exists within the international scientific  community to conduct the analyses necessary for understanding this landscape and its risks,  together with our Chilean counterparts.
 
We feel that Patagonia has great potential for further scientific exploration. The research  conducted in this relatively untouched part of the world would be of international scientific value, with the potential for raising the profile of Chile in the global research community.
 
We recommend, therefore, that programs between Chilean and international universities and research centers are established in order to focus the scientific expertise available worldwide for Chile´s benefit. This would help foster the sharing of knowledge and experiences, and increase global awareness about Patagonia.
 
In addition, we suggest that Patagonia’s Ice Fields are studied in a careful and integrated way. Not only is it important to generate accurate baseline information about the region and its glacier and river systems, we must also identify and prioritize studies in those areas where human populations currently live or where human presence on the land is increasing. We acknowledge that this will be a large, long-term endeavor. For such complex conditions and difficult terrain, multiple Chilean agencies, academic institutions and organizations will need to work together. After visiting Patagonia, we, as experts in our fields, are both available and eager to participate in these tasks.
 
But the timing is urgent. As the landscape responds to climate and global changes, the time for action is running out. The glacial risks in Patagonia carry economic and social implications. They will not only affect the landscape, but the infrastructure and people as well.
 
Again, we compliment Chile on the steps it is already taking to understand its glacial environments and hazards, and we reiterate both our mutual conclusion that Patagonia’s Ice Fields merit further scientific study, and our offer to participate in fostering international scientific exploration of the region.
 
Sincerely,

Petteri Alho, Ph.D., Docent
Academy Research Fellow, Academy of Finland, Finland

Alejandro Dussaillant, Ph.D.
Civil Engineering Department, University of Greenwich, UK
(Local organizing committee)

Stephen G. Evans, Ph.D.
Professor of Engineering Geology and GeoHazards
Landslide Research Programme, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Wilfried Haeberli
Department of Geography, University of Zurich, Switzerland
 
Dr. Stephan Harrison
Associate Professor in Quaternary Science
College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, UK
 
Dr. Kenneth Hewitt, Professor Emeritus
Department of Geography and Environmental Studies
Research Associate, Cold Regions Research Centre, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario, Canada
 
Dr. Jeffrey S. Kargel
Senior Associate Research Scientist and Adjunct Professor
Department of Hydrology & Water Resources, University of Arizona, US
 
Claudio Meier
Universidad de Concepción, Chile
(Local organizing committee)
 
Brian Reid
Universidad Austral, Chile
(Local organizing committee)
 
Prof. John M. Reynolds
Managing Director, Reynolds International Ltd., Flintshire, UK
 
Prof. Andrew Russell
Professor of Physical Geography
School of Geography, Politics & Sociology, Newcastle University, UK
 
Jean F. Schneider, oProf. DI. Dr. sc. Nat. ETH, Geoscientist
University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, Austria (BOKU)
Chair of IAG-BOKU: Institute of Applied Geology
Center for Natural Hazards and Risk Management
Delegate of the University for non-OECD Countries
Expert for United Nations
 

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