SANTIAGO – The warming of sea water and increasing temperatures are accelerating the melting of the Southern Patagonia Ice Fields. Recent studies are indicating that melting glaciers and fracturing ice are not only affecting one of the world’s last pristine natural reserves, but also causing global sea levels to rise.
The Patagonia Ice Fields, an area of around 8,000 square miles in the southern tip of the continent, are feeling the effects of the current climate crisis. Nearly half (4,083 square miles) of the Ice Fields belong to Chile, and scientists last month concluded that the ice field on Chile’s side had broken in two.
As temperatures are increasing in the Andes Mountains in Chile and Argentina, the glaciers in the Ice Fields have less snow and ice to replenish the region’s abundant glaciers, causing the field to rupture, according to Reuters who spoke with Gino Casassa, head of the Chilean Snow and Glacier Division.
Several studies have been released in the last years, all indicating the same: the Ice Fields in Patagonia are melting, faster and at higher altitudes than anywhere else in the world. Between 2000 and 2012, the Ice Fields thinned at a rate that doubled the melting rate between 1975 and 2000. And the situation is only getting worse, according to Cacassa who spoke in 2018 with Patagon Journal.
When asked if the rate of glaciers melt is still increasing in Patagonia, Cacassa said that according to recent studies, a “further acceleration of the mass loss of many glaciers” was visible.
What Happens When The Patagonia Ice Fields Melt?
So why is the (increased) melting of the Patagonia Ice Fields so dramatic on both national and global level?
First, glaciers are directly connected with their natural environment. According to Dr. Marshall Shepherd in Forbes, “Glacial activity is the pulse of ongoing climate changes. Glacial sediment clogs rivers, impacts aquatic processes and impedes critical water supply routes. Even ships passing through fjords in the region have to play a dangerous game of “let’s dodge the icebergs” calving from the glaciers.”
Chilean Patagonia has already seen these events happen: in November 2017, a huge iceberg ruptured from the Grey Glacier in Torres del Paine National Park, a clear, visible example of climate change affecting Chilean natural landmarks.
But not only nature gets effected: melting glaciers directly affect nearby communities. The most recent example is Villa Santa Lucia, where 18 people got killed by a landslide in late 2017. According to investigators, the mudslide was a direct result of melting glaciers in the mountain range nearby the village.
Also, on global level, the melting of glaciers forms a problem. Scientists say that global sea levels are rising faster than predicted, now that the melt of the Patagonia Ice Fields is accelerating. According to earlier predictions, in 2100 the world’s seas would rise by a maximum of just under a meter. Now that glaciers are melting faster than expected, experts have doubled the earlier estimation in their new predictions. Something that, according to the scientists, could result in a refugee crisis involving hundreds of millions of people around the world.
So What Should We Do?
Battling climate crisis needs measures taken on a global level. The COP25 summit in December comes at the right time and place. In the meantime, everything should be done to protect the Patagonian Icefields. In the mentioned interview with Patagon Journal, Gino Casassa, head of the Chilean Snow and Glacier Division, said the following:
“I think a major step was done years ago when both countries declared the ice fields as national parks. Industrial use of the parks is legally unacceptable, so they are protected. Argentina has gone a step further in approving a glacier law. In Chile, we’re still lacking a glacier law. What’s needed now is more environmental restrictions, protocols and regulations. We’re working on that – both in Chile and in Argentina – but there’s still a long way to go.”
Editor-In-Chief Boris van der Spek is the founder of Chile Today. He worked in Colombia, Surinam and the Netherlands as reporter and made appearances on BBC World Services and ABC News during major events in Chile.