Tourism and climate change: Closure of access to a Patagonian glacier causes concern - and protest - in local community

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Exploradores Glacier. Photo: Harry BritoExploradores Glacier. Photo: Harry Brito 

By Francisca López Espinoza
López works for Fundación Plantae
On October 7, a major landslide occurred at the Exploradores Glacier in the Asyen region of Chilean Patagonia. Happening on the lateral lagoon on its eastern slope, and covering an area of 80 hectares, the event caused a considerable increase in the dimensions of the lagoon, accompanied by the appearance of cracks, according to official reports issued by the national water agency (DGA) of Chile’s public works ministry (MOP). Those documents also detail that the number and size of the lagoons nearly doubled, from 0.85 km2 in 2020 to 1.26 km2 in May 2023.
Just three weeks later, on October 23, governmental authorities from the aforementioned entities and that of Chile’s national parks and forest service (called the National Forestry Corporation, or CONAF) carried out an on-site assessment of the glacier's conditions. They concluded that the traditional route did not meet safety standards necessary for coming future incidents, thus the decision was made to permanently close the front access to the glacier, the starting point for hikes.
Francisco Croxatto, owner of El Puesto Expediciones and a member of AG Hielo Norte, a group of travel companies with concessions and permits inside Laguna San Rafael National Park, is a pioneer in offering ice trekking to tourists in Chile, and arguably the person most familiar with the Exploradores Glacier, having witnessed up close the changes occurring in this majestic ecosystem since first arriving here in 2004.
The community of Rio Tranquilo and tour operators have expressed their concern and discontent, as the CONAF restrictions will have a significant economic impact, especially during the high season, when the number of visitors increases. "The only answer we received from the authorities was a resounding "No”, said Croxatto. He and others in the travel sector say they have been seriously harmed by the sudden closure, which put an end to the contracts of 17 tour operators. In addition, the closure affects the entire chain of services related to this activity, such as food, transport, and lodging for tourists.  "We consider this measure to be disproportionate and we believe that it is possible to enable a route for trekking that does not expose visitors."
View of Exploradores Glacier. Photo: Harry BritoView of Exploradores Glacier. Photo: Harry Brito
"At this point we wonder why this decision was taken, without consulting those of us who know the glacier, as there is still a lot of safe territory to walk on, even entering through the frontal zone," says Croxato, who adds that a route can be taken along the west side, moving 1 km away from the calving glacier, and far from the crevasse that worry authorities. "The glacier is 3 km wide, we don't understand why the option of finding a different route is not exhausted if there are still another 2 km to walk," he says.
The adventure tourism professionals who guide these hikes are trained in risk management, which involves reviewing the conditions of the group, the weather and the terrain. Croxatto says that decisions are always made based on experience to minimize risk. In this regard, Harry Brito, a mountaineer and ACGM guide, who for many years has trained local guides in Aysén for glacier treks, agrees on the importance of planning, with defined itineraries and knowledge related to evacuation and rescue in glacier environments.
"It is an activity that carries a risk, like any mountain activity, but proper management can be done, and thus reduce the possibility or severity of accidents," comments Brito. "The grace of this glacier is that it can be visited by almost anyone, it does not require a high physical condition. It is flat and light in all respects. There have been accidents or falls, but not serious ones," he said.
Both Croxatto and Brito hope that the Chilean government will consider the vision and experience of those who know and work on the glacier. They insist that there are safe alternatives to continue with hikes in the area; for them, a discussion ought to be centered on finding solutions that allow them to reconcile the safety of visitors with the preservation of this key tourist attraction for the Aysén Region.
The impact on Puerto Río Tranquilo
The tourism activity of hiking on the Exploradores Glacier began in 2003, and Croxatto was one of the first to offer this experience to the wider public. At that time, Puerto Tranquilo was an isolated, small village of just 400 inhabitants. "When we started, there were still no roads or sewage systems in the area. Cellular service in Río Tranquilo did not arrive until 2012," explains Croxatto, who says thanks to social media all that began to change ten years ago. 
Access improved in 2005 with the arrival of roads, but tourism took off in 2013, when other companies applied for and obtained concessions to carry out activities inside Laguna San Rafael National Park. Since the arrival of CONAF in 2015, growth has been exponential, especially for the town.
Tourism development was slow and steadily increasing until visits to the nearby Capillas de Mármol (Marble Chapels) experienced a boom and became known to national and international audiences. Rio Tranquilo then saw abrupt growth, causing collapses in services such as food, grocery stores, and gas. The transient population increased and the cost of living rose. However, despite the challenges, the town has managed to adapt, with improvements in infrastructure and services that have brought direct benefits to the local community.
Photo: Francisco CroxattoPhoto: Francisco Croxatto
Today, Río Tranquilo has become a capital for tourism in the Aysén region. The Capillas de Mármol, the Exploradores Glacier, and Laguna San Rafael are prime tourism attractions.  This tourism growth generates a linkage to other services, such as food and lodging, and it is estimated that more than 8,000 visitors arrive each season.
"The closure of a tourist attraction of such relevance in the park affects the region, causing a decrease in visits and a backward linkage. Around 8,000 lodging and dining reservations are lost during the season," says Croxatto.
The future of the Exploradores hikes
Some tour operators working in Puerto Tranquilo consider the document issued by the DGA, in which it decrees the closure of the Exploradores Glacier, as "not very consistent," since its evolution does not differ from global trends, in which retreat and thinning of the ice are increasingly common.  On the other hand, they accuse the authority of not having yet provided official and clear information on the measures that could be taken to mitigate the economic impact on service providers and the community in general.
Photo: Harry BritoPhoto: Harry Brito
"It is essential to consider that climate change has had a notorious effect on the Explorers Glacier, which has experienced a constant retreat and thinning. It retreats approximately one meter every year, and much of what was once ice has become lagoons, showing an accelerated fragmentation process," says Gino Casassa, Glaciologist, professor and researcher at the University of Magallanes and consultant of Geoestudios Ltda.
It is a fact that glaciers mutate, it is part of their dynamics and they are transforming rapidly every year, due to the impacts of climate change. "The glacier is not eternal; we know that this activity will end, and this could happen in two, five, or ten years. Nobody knows, not even glaciology; it is related to the planet and climate change. At some point we will have less ice and it will be impossible to walk on it. However, the options are not exhausted and we can continue to extend trails on the side that allow certain approaches and views," says Croxatto.
For Casassa, what the authority has done is to take a conservative measure, justified in reducing the risks to visitors, but not very balanced with the local reality. The glaciologist explains that in the glaciers there are episodic or habitual phenomena, in which the glacier recovers easily, as when an iceberg breaks off and forms again. In Explorers and in most of the world's glaciers, this is no longer the case: the ice they lose is not recovered.
"Everything indicates that this glacier, under these trends, will not recover. It is not only the increase in temperature, but also the decrease in precipitation. At this time, more mass removals and torrential rains are observed, extreme events in short periods, the so-called atmospheric rivers. These phenomena are also impacting the area; everything goes hand in hand," says the professor.
The glaciologist agrees that a solution must be sought to balance the local economy with the safety of the people.  "Although it requires efforts and costs, this should be done by the State in coordination with the private sector," he says.
Patagonia concentrates the largest number of glaciers outside the polar zones, so evaluating the possibility of expanding this tourist offer to other sites is also a possibility. Currently, programs are beginning to be developed for guided visits to the Calluqueo Glacier in the foothills of Mount San Lorenzo near Cochrane. "As human beings, we have a high capacity for adaptation, and we should focus on that ability rather than mitigating. We cannot go against these dramatic changes, which offer dangers, but let's look for other alternatives and evaluate other glaciers in the area," Casassa says.
Photo: Harry BritoPhoto: Harry Brito
The ephemeral footsteps on the glaciers
Those who lead excursions on the glacier share that a question often arises among those who visit it for the first time: Does stepping on a glacier mean damaging it? Francisco Croxato's answer is clear and direct: "That which you walk on today with your steps, tomorrow no longer exists; the superficial part of the glacier is like the sand of the sea".
Walking on a glacier is not something new; some of these majestic ice bodies offer shapes and conditions that make them an extremely accessible experience for most people. It is estimated that the practice of glacier hiking has its roots in parallel with the development of guided mountain tourism. One of the first destinations in the world where tourist hikes were carried out was the Mer de Glace, one of the most extensive glaciers in the Alps, which has not been spared from major retreat.
In South America, these activities have also been carried out for many years, in Chile, further south, on the Grey glacier (Torres del Paine National Park) and in Argentina, the Perito Moreno Glacier (located in Los Glaciares National Park) are reference points for these experiences and attract thousands of tourists every year.
Croxatto explains that every day a greater amount of ice melts than the footprint left by walking. Comparing the experience to walking on sand, he states that the footprints are so ephemeral that they quickly fade away: "The daily extension that melts naturally, far exceeds the mark left by a simple crampon. What you walk on today disappears tomorrow, and the ice is not affected by footprints. From our perspective, it suffers the consequences of natural processes and climate change, as well as the extractive and consumerist activity of mankind, which, although living outside it, impacts the ice in the same way. This is an acceleration generated by human activity on the planet".
Along the same lines, those who are professionally engaged in this practice maintain that walking on the ice generates awareness by experiencing and understanding in situ the dynamics of a glacier. This awareness contributes to its conservation. Therefore, it could be said that the minimal impact of a visitor's crampons is compensated by the environmental education and the transforming process experienced, which in the long term can help to value and care for the glaciers. Brito assures: "Although glaciers are melting rapidly due to climate change, they are not as fragile and ephemeral as snow. The traverses pass through an external part that, by nature, is in a constant process of change."
Photo: Harry BritoPhoto: Harry Brito
In addition, during these walks, one can appreciate that glaciers are incredibly complex systems that harbor life in the form of lichens, mosses and small insects, such as the Patagonian dragon (Andiperla Sp). These elements form interconnected ecosystems that feed others, making the experience of walking on the ice something that goes beyond the surface, revealing itself as an encounter with an environment that transcends the mere beauty of the landscape. However, a walk on a glacier can have several negative impacts, such as improper disposal of garbage, pollution due to inappropriate use of toilets, among others. In this regard, Camilo Hornauer, executive president of Fundación Plantae, an organization that has been working for the conservation and access to natural spaces since 2016, highlights the importance of promoting a conscious access to nature: "This implies a respectful and responsible treatment with the environment we explore, with the objective of minimizing the risks and footprints we may leave, without disturbing the ecosystems and maintaining consideration for the culture and local inhabitants. This approach not only contributes to the preservation of the environment, but also fosters transformative experiences and learning."
Likewise, he adds, "It has been demonstrated that, in the field of education, experiential learning is notably more effective for the assimilation of knowledge. This methodology allows us to internalize information more effectively, thus facilitating the protection and care of what we know in a tangible way. In this sense, walking on a glacier provides a unique opportunity to immerse ourselves directly in the concept of a glacier, perceiving its sounds, textures, among other aspects. In addition to the information that the tour guides can share during the excursion. The purpose is that, in the future, it will be the visitors themselves who transmit to their immediate environment the importance of glaciers and empower themselves in their defense and conservation."
The closure of the Explorers Glacier exemplifies the problems faced by many glaciers around the world. These have experienced a significant increase in their melting process, with a greater fragmentation of their fronts or terminals and the formation of glacial lagoons and the occurrence of extreme events such as GLOFs (glacial lake outburst floods). All these phenomena entail risks, underlining the need to take measures and actions, but always in consensus between local communities and government agencies.
This scenario becomes especially complicated for communities that depend on tourism, since the loss or limitation of access to these natural spaces directly impacts their livelihoods. It also highlights the urgency of establishing an effective dialogue and close collaboration between institutions and local stakeholders. The latter have an intimate knowledge of their environment and are fundamental in identifying and implementing the most appropriate measures to adapt and strengthen themselves in the face of impending changes. In this context, cooperation among stakeholders is the key to effectively addressing the challenges associated with glacier retreat and its impacts on local communities.