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Melting Glaciers in Chile – washing away valuable data

Many of the world’s glaciers, such as the Exit Glacier in Alaska, United States and Pasterze Glacier in Austria, have lost mass due to melting over the past few years. One such glacier, Exploradores in southern Chile, is also disappearing.  This glacier is a sight to behold – a 20 kilometer frozen mass that is filled with cliffs of luminescent blue and indigo ice.

A view from inside the Exploradores Glacier, from Nature
A view from inside the Exploradores Glacier, from Nature
A view from inside the Exploradores Glacier, from Nature

The Exploradores Glacier is one of many glaciers in the Patagonian Ice Fields located in the Andes Mountains between Argentina and Chile.  This and many of the other glaciers in this region, such as the San Rafael and Jorge Montt, are retreating. Glacier retreat is one of many visible signs of climate change.

Map of the Patagonian Ice Fields, created by Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal
Map of the Patagonian Ice Fields, created by Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal
Map of the Patagonian Ice Fields, created by Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal

While there is no question that the glaciers are retreating, there is an uncertainty as to the cause of the retreat.  Scientists all over the world are looking to the Patagonian Ice Field for answers.  In an article featured in Nature, Chilean and British scientists discuss the glacier melt.  Some of these scientists have been visiting the glacier to collect important data, like temperature, precipitation, humidity and wind speed, to evaluate the health of the glaciers.  Connecting these weather variables to glacier recession is an important task, and will help answer the questions of how quickly the glaciers are disappearing and how that will affect local water supply.  While I’ve only named three glaciers in the region, there are over 100 in the Patagonian Ice Field that are being monitored.

Of the 100 glaciers being monitored for their weather conditions, nearly 90% are retreating.  It is estimated that since 1650, over 600 cubic kilometers of ice have melted between the northern and southern regions of the ice field, with the rate speeding up in recent decades.  This is concerning because of the fresh water on the earth, about 75% of it is found in glaciers.  If glacier melt continues, there could be major consequences.  A reduction in fresh water supply, loss of habitat for animals and plant species, and excessive flooding are just three problems we could face if these glaciers continue receding.  It is worth noting that glacier recession is normal, but what is concerning is the rate of recession.  If the rate of recession doesn’t slow down, we’ll see not only these beautiful landscapes disappear, but with it valueable paleoclimate data found in the ice.  We’re literally seeing data washed away through melt runoff!

While you may not be able to study glaciers as a GLOBE school, the research done by these scientists show a method for connecting local weather to climate.  How can you, as a GLOBE school, connect your local weather to climate?  This is a very important aspect of the Student Climate Research Campaign!  We’d love to hear your thoughts – send us an email at science@globe.gov or leave a comment!

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