Over the last 30 years, Chile’s glaciers have been melting faster than usual. The glaciers once dazzled Charles Darwin during his trip to the country. But what Darwin saw as gigantic ice has turned into fjords.
The Darwin mountain range, home to Cape Horn’s main ice field, has lost an average of 5km2 per year of ice in the last 30 years, compared to 1.7km2 per year from 1870 to 2016, Andrés Rivera, a geographer at Universidad de Chile, told news agency EFE.
Rivera said even though the ice at Cape Horn will not completely disappear in the next decades, some glaciers are vulnerable to climate change, especially those on the northern slope of the Darwin mountain range, covered by about 2,000km2 of ice.
“It rains a lot more today and snows a lot less than in the past. This is one of the effects that was predicted from climate change and it materialized,” the head of Cape Horn research center CHIC, Ricardo Rozzi, told EFE.
CHIC researcher Andrés Mansilla, who focuses on changes in algae as result of climate change, said algae absorbs large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and that its retreat can accelerate further climate change globally.
“Southern Chile is home to the largest reserves of brown algae in the world, which are extremely vulnerable to freshwater discharged from melting ice,” Mansilla said. “The glacier is melting faster and faster, and what seems somewhat imperceptible are actually tons of water discharged into the marine ecosystem.”
Charles Darwin visited the ice field during his first trip to Tierra del Fuego in 1832, which helped him with his scientific theories. But the glacier Darwin saw is now a fjord.
“In many parts, magnificent glaciers extend from the mountainside to the water’s edge. It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow,” Darwin wrote in his diary on Jan. 20, 1833, during a trip to the Beagle Channel.
Chongyang Zhang is pursuing an Erasmus Mundus Joint Master’s program in journalism, media and globalisation. His interest lies in the relations among the United States, Latin America and China. He is currently doing an exchange semester at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.