There are 24,133 glaciers in Chile – 82% of the glaciers in South America. These vast and intricate cascades of white, blue and brown not only form one of the largest freshwater reserves in the world, they are also vital to the preservation of vulnerable local ecosystems.
But human activity threatens their very existence, despite their importance to people and the environment. Whether due to mining in northern and central Chile or climate change in southern Chile, these unprotected glaciers are under serious strain.
The Esperanza’s mission
The plight facing the glaciers is well known, but their remote location makes them difficult to study in depth. That’s why the Esperanza just spent several days in Patagonia in southern Chile documenting some of these vanishing fields of ice. We hope the research gathered could even be key to pressuring the government of Chile to commit to stronger laws fully protecting the glaciers.
Glaciologists and a climatologist led the Greenpeace expedition to two remote glaciers in Patagonia. Their goal: to gather crucial data about their current state and rate of retreat. One of the glaciers they visited was Pio XI, the largest glacier in Southern Ice Fields and the same glacier the Arctic Sunrise visited eleven years prior.
After leaving the Esperanza on inflatables, the team hiked for hours across the ice to get the data they needed. Without a ship like the Esperanza, access to this remote spot would have been nearly impossible.
The team used a radar technique called radioglaciology that can measure the thickness of the ancient ice. They also placed cameras at key locations around the glaciers to monitor their retreat and took ice samples for analysis.
While the data they were gathering seems basic – the changing size of the glaciers, the rate of their disappearance – this type of information that is crucial to understanding the scale of the problem is missing from the political conversation.
What the future holds for Chile’s glaciers
The scientists are still analyzing their findings, and we will hear the results soon. But we already know one thing: in our warming planet, protecting all glaciers is essential.
Right now, Chilean law does not protect glaciers from the destruction of human activity. Far from it. Instead several Chilean governments have failed to give them protection – allowing glacier destruction at a record pace. Chilean state-owned CODELCO (the world's largest copper producer) has destroyed about 342 hectares of glaciers in the Andes in the past decades. Other mining projects from Barrick, Antofagasta Minerals and Anglo American continue to raze glacial areas and remain a direct threat to Chilean water reserves.
All this, at the same time the glaciers are under siege from rising global temperatures.
But there is a chance to make this right. Chile is currently considering a proposal to protect some glaciers. Sadly, the plan doesn’t do nearly enough – still leaving over 50% of the country's glaciers unprotected. That’s why we need your help – urgently.
All of us can work together to ensure that Chile’s glaciers have the protection they need. Send a message to Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to step up for the environment and the people of Chile and support a law fully protecting all Chilean glaciers.
Estefanía Gonzalez is a Glacier Campaigner for Greenpeace Chile.