Melting glaciers, an indicator of rapidly disappearing climate change

Shards of ice break off from one side of the Perito Moreno Glacier in an unexpected break-up process during the Southern Hemisphere winter months near the town of El Calafate in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, south of Argentina, July 7, 2008 file photo. FILE PHOTO REUTERS

AYSEN, Chile – A fissure widens in the San Rafael Glacier in Chile’s far south, and a ten-story iceberg crashes into the lake of the same name – a dramatic reminder of the impacts of global warming.

In Lake San Rafael, around 100 icebergs float today, detached pieces of the glacier that 150 years ago covered two-thirds of the body of water now free of ice cover.

The San Rafael Glacier is one of 39 glaciers in the Northern Patagonian Ice Field (3,500 square kilometers or 1,350 square miles), which together with the Southern Patagonian Ice Field (11,000 km2) in the Chilean region of Aysen, forms one of the largest masses of ice in the world.

According to satellite images from the European Space Agency, San Rafael is one of the world’s most calving and fastest-moving glaciers in Patagonia, “flowing” at a speed of about 7.6 kilometers (4 .7 miles) per year – “dramatically receding under the influence of global warming.

Glaciers are slow-moving masses of ice on land that may be hundreds or thousands of years old.

The seasonal melting of glaciers is a natural phenomenon which, with global warming, has accelerated “significantly”, Jorge O’Kuinghttons, regional head of glaciology at the water directorate of the Chile.

‘Excellent indicator’

Currently, Patagonia’s glaciers are retreating faster than anywhere else in the world.

“Glaciers are a great indicator of climate change,” said Alexis Segovia, another government glaciologist who works in the remote southern region of Chile.

All but two of Chile’s 26,000 glaciers are shrinking, he said, due to rising temperatures caused by human-made greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s a vicious circle.

Earth’s ice-covered surfaces reflect excess heat back into space, and if this is reduced by melting, temperatures rise even further.

Melting glaciers also contribute to sea level rise, which increases coastal erosion and high storm surges.

And water held by glaciers can be released by sudden collapse.

“Areas are flooding these days that have never been flooded before,” O’Kuinghttons said.

To learn more about what to expect in the future, glaciologists are studying the evolution of Chilean glaciers, which contain a frozen record of how the climate has changed over time.

According to the WWF, more than a third of the world’s remaining glaciers will melt before 2100, even if humanity succeeds in reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels.

The heat is “strong”

East of San Rafael, on Lake General Carrera shared by Chile and Argentina, small-scale sheep and cattle rancher Santos Catalan has been at the forefront of change.

To increase his income, he travels the lake in a wooden boat with tourists who observe the glaciers.

Over the past 15 to 20 years, he told AFP, the landscape has become much less white as the ice has melted and the snow has diminished.

“Things have changed a lot,” he said. “The heat is very strong.”

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Teresa H. Sadler