Scientists urge faster action on Patagonia glaciers and climate change

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A group of scientists is preparing to warn Chile’s government that it must move faster 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 a letter scientists from Chile, Canada, Europe and the United States are preparing to send to Chilean President Sebastian Piñera and other officials. “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.

Prompting the concern is evidence that global warming over the past decade has increased the frequency and intensity of glacial melt. This, in turn, has led to more glacial lake outburst floods—including in Chile, such as one that emptied Cachet 2, a lake on Chile’s Colonia Glacier, in April 2008.

In my article for Newsweek magazine earlier this month, I highlighted this issue, which is only going to become more frequent in the years ahead.

In such floods, melting ice forms a lake whose water pressure gradually creates a tunnel through its so-called “ice dam” to the foot of the glacier. The water eventually bursts through the foot of the glacier, draining the lake in a matter of hours and sending a destructive wall of water down slope. With the water gone, the tunnel collapses, allowing the lake to begin to refill, but continued melting and water pressure can cause the process to reoccur. Cachet 2, in fact, has emptied six times since 2008.

In the letter they’re preparing to send to Chilean authorities, the local and international scientists are calling for research aimed at gaining “a more thorough understanding of the risks and hazards” facing people and infrastructure in Chilean Patagonia.

They also recommend tighter monitoring and suggest Chile join forces with international research centers to study the condition of the Patagonian ice fields and the threats they pose.

Amanda Maxwell, NRDC’s Latin America coordinator, says the scientists who drafted the letter are also preparing recommendations on the specific types of studies and programs Chile might consider.

“Glacial hazards are very real in Patagonia, and need to be studied and understood more,” says Maxwell. “We hope Chile will embrace the opportunity to work with international experts on this.”

Gino Casassa, director of Glacier and Climate Change Research at the Valdivia, Chile-based Centro de Estudios Scientificos (CECS), told me in a recent interview that while there are some anomalies, such as the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina, overall the Southern Cone’s glaciers clearly are on the wane. Research by the U.S. National Aeronautic and Space Administration shows that melting from the Northern and Southern Patagonian Ice Fields, which taken together  extend some 6,600 square miles and constitute the third-largest continental ice sheet in the world after those of Antarctica and Greenland, account for about 9% of annual global sea level rise from mountain glaciers.

“There is scientific evidence showing a new cycle of activity in Glofs, and not just Lake Cachet,” Cassasa says. "Glaciers are melting and lakes growing in size throughout Patagonia, a clear sign of global warming.”

Moreover, some scientists say the risks could be exacerbated in the Baker River region if the controversial HidroAysén project goes ahead. Endesa and Colbun, the companies pushing HidroAysen, contend that their dams would be able to withstand any Glof-style surges, based on analysis they’ve done of flooding stretching back 50 years. But Alejandro Dussaillant-Jones, a Chilean expert on hydrology at Greenwich University in England who has studied the Lake Cachet ice-dam break and its effects on the river, told me that several factors could overwhelm HidroAysén´s projections.
Says Dussaillant-Jones: “What has been happening up to now does not mean that it will be the same over the next 20 years. There are dynamic changes occurring to the source of the Glofs, the glaciers and the system of lakes upstream from Lake Cachet 2 that must be studied further. 

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