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Where has all the ice gone?

Patagonia revisited

Feature story - 13 February, 2004
The icefields in Patagonia are suffering from the fastest glacial retreat on Earth caused by global warming. Jorge Quinteros who first visited the area during an expedition 50 years ago, joined the Artic Sunrise to witness firsthand the speed of the devastation.

Jorge Quinteros at the HPS31 glacier viewpoint holding the photo taken during his expedition in 1955 showing the extent of the melt.

Jorge, 71, crossed the Patagonian icefields with Harold Tilman and Charles Marriot during the summer of 1955 as part an expedition sponsored by the London Royal Society.

Jorge recalls the first time he came to the area: "The first time I came to Patagonia was when I was to cross the HPS31 glacier. I flew from Santiago to Punta Arenas to meet Tilman. We had never met before. I went to the harbour, which was almost deserted. All of a sudden I saw a mast far away. It was Tilman's small cutter boat. With that boat we did the whole trip through the fjords until we found a glacier where we could climb up and cross from east to west.

"It was a nice surprise when Greenpeace called me to come here after so many years. During all my life, I have done what I really wanted, which is to be close to the mountains. I am happy to be here again, in the same place where I was many years ago. The world needs Greenpeace and the organization does a very valuable job."

When we invited Jorge to join us on the Arctic Sunrise he was kind enough to bring his old photographs so we could compare the size of the glaciers 50 years apart. Sharing the experience of coming back with him clearly illustrated the drastic environmental changes.

Fifty years on

The Arctic Sunrise anchored in front of the HPS31glacier where we went ashore to set up camp. The transformation was so acute that Jorge didn't initially recognise the glacier and was shocked by the speed of the melt. When he visited the glacier at the age of 21, previously the ice had covered the area where the base camp was now situated.

"The scene has changed dramatically. It was completely different - parts have disappeared. The structure of the glacier has changed in a chaotic way. It's rough and it has retreated so much, I can hardly believe it. Where the glacier extended 50 years ago, washed and slippery rocks have now emerged."

Animation of the retreat of the foot of the HPS31 glacier, 1954-2004.

Later on he commented: "I couldn't stop looking at the place I had been so many years ago. One automatically connects this view with the one seen before. The scenery was different. The glacier formerly covered the place were we were standing. Now there is an abyss of 300 or 400 metres."

Jorge and some of the crew hiked to where one of his pictures of the glacier was taken during the first expedition. The viewpoint was originally chosen as an easy place to take a photo of the glacier, this time round it was a hard four-hour hike.

"We walked up an almost impenetrable slope, went up on the left side of the glacier, reached the upper part of that hill and finally found the place where the first picture was taken," he recalled. "The glacier had disappeared. If we wanted to walk on top of the glacier we would have to jump or get there with the helicopter! It was not possible to reach the glacier walking."

Jorge today lives in Santiago de Chile and works at the Hydrology Department for the Chilean National Direction of Water. He would like to change the name of the glacier HPS31 to Tilman, to honour his friend and companion.

Where has the ice gone?

The icefields in Patagonia are dominated by 'calving' glaciers which have different dynamics from glaciers that end on land and melt at their front ends. They are more sensitive to climate change once pushed out of equilibrium.

The icefields have lost 42 cubic kilometres of ice every year for the last seven years. That is the equivalent to the volume of ten thousand large football stadiums the size of Wembley stadium. Currently the Patagonian icefields contribute to nine percent of the global sea level rise from mountain glaciers.

Do something!

Some governments are slowly realising that they must tackle climate change and are holding a conference on renewable energy in June. Send them a "Postcard from Patagonia" to show them you want them to tackle the problem. We will deliver your card, frozen in a huge block of ice to the conference.

Don't buy products from the world's #1 climate criminal, Exxon/Esso.

Related video:

Patagonian glacier devastation:

Quicktime (4.4 MBytes), Real (3.2 MBytes), Windows Media (3.4 MBytes)

More info:

Read Irene's online diary from Patagonia in full.

More about the expedition and glaciers.