Climate Change Destroying Patagonian Ice Fields

Climate change is hitting Patagonia, a region covering the southern portions of Argentina and Chile, hard. Although the Patagonian landscape contains a diverse range of forests, deserts, and grasslands,  the dense Patagonian ice fields atop the Andes Mountains are most endangered from global warming.

According to NOAA’s 2019 Global Climate Summary, the combined land and ocean temperatures have been increasing at an average rate of 0.13°F per decade since 1880. These temperatures have been rising at a greater rate in recent years, as the temperature has been increasing at an average rate of 0.32°F since 1980. The rapid rise in temperature has led to the rapid melting of the ice fields, and contributed to global sea level rise. Just in 2019, Chile’s 12,000 square kilometer Southern Patagonia Ice Field split in two, alarming scientists as more of the ice breaks away.


Glacier in Chile, lost 66% of ice mass since 1953

Outside of Antarctica, the Patagonian ice fields are the largest mass of ice in the southern hemisphere. Over 99% of all tropical glaciers are located in the Andes. At the current rate of melting, it is projected that between  78% and 97%  of glacial ice mass will be lost by the end of the century. This poses a larger problem to communities, specifically communities in the Andean highlands of Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, who depend on glacial meltwater as a clean source of water both for drinking and for agriculture. Glacial meltwater has contributed to 61% of the water supply in La Paz, Bolivia and 67% of the water supply in Huaraz, Peru

Local residents also fear that the loss of glaciers will lead to a loss in tourism. Thousands of people travel to Patagonia and the Andes to hike and take in the beautiful scenery. One local resident and owner of an adventure tourism agency, Luciana Juarez, says, “the receding glaciers are causing ice fields to develop large crevasses that make mountaineering expeditions too dangerous.” But when asked what should be done to help prevent such a future, another local said somberly, “There is no return, I think, because the climate has already changed.”

Photographer Cristian Donoso is making it his mission to capture the devastating effects of climate change in Patagonia. Following in the footsteps of Alberto de Agostini, who left behind over 11,000 photos of the Patagonian landscape, Donoso is recreating de Agostini’s photographs over 100 years later. Donoso calls his project “Ice Postcards”. Donoso so far has found the exact locations of 10 of de Agostini’s images and recreated them at the same time of year in order to create the same seasonal conditions. The difference is startling. One photo in particular shows the Negri glacier that de Agostini took over a century ago. Donoso’s photo merely shows a small fraction of the same glacier. Donoso’s hope with “Ice Postcards” is that he can showcase the severity of this issue to those who can’t see it firsthand. Donoso believes that “No one will fight to protect things that they aren’t aware of”.


de Agostini’s photo of the Negri glacier in Patagonia (left) and Donoso’s photo of the Negri glacier in Patagonia (right)

So what can be done to save the Patagonian icefields? The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization recommends  increasing  support for science-based policy decisions. But following the current trends, the future of the Patagonian icefields is grim. Many of the recommendations are focused on adapting to a new normal. Local governments should create preventative measures and early warning systems for natural disasters as the glaciers melt away. Updated building regulations are essential to reducing devastation from future flooding and mudslides. An increased understanding of water demand and water use as well as good water governance is crucial in order to avoid carelessly running out of the limited water supply. Although the future for the Patagonian icefields are bleak, it should be used as a warning globally for what is to come if climate change is not controlled.


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