SANTIAGO – At the end of the world, in between mountains, oceans, glaciers, and deserts, lies a long, thin country. But where nature defines the borders of this country, the effects of climate change are being felt more than anywhere else. This is part II of Chile Today´s series on the effects of climate change on Chile – how it endangers the Chilean economy.
In part I of this series, we took a look at how Chileans and people living in Chile are being or will be affected by climate change. In every region, from the Atacama Desert to the southern regions, climate change will leave its tracks.
But not only the people of Chile and its regions will suffer: various sectors of Chile´s often hailed economy are already experiencing the ways in which a rise in temperature and a prolonged drought can affect their businesses. In this part, about Chile’s economy, we analyze climate change and its effects on three sectors: fisheries; agriculture in general (farms and forests); and vineyards in particular.
The effects of climate change on the mining sector don´t need a mention: there is a direct correlation between the scarcity and poor quality of the water in the north and the activities of the mining companies there. This will only get worse, for both the sector and the inhabitants of the northern regions, as temperatures rise.
Fisheries: algal outbreak, salmon starvation, decreased fish populations
2016 was a disastrous year for Chilean fisheries, especially for salmon. Tens of millions of fish died, causing incredible economic losses for the second largest salmon producer after Norway. The production for the entire year dropped 60 percent and the economic losses were estimated to be US$800 million.
The salmon died from a deadly algal bloom in the southern waters of Chile, exactly the regions where Chile raises much of its salmon. A 2 to 4°C rise in ocean temperatures, in combination with a lack of rain and wind, offered the perfect environment for the algae to grow.
Scientists from Universidad de Chile connected this outbreak to global warming, strengthened by the El Niño phenomenon, which was raging through the region at that time causing extreme weather in South America. The same scientists warned that such “red tides” are bound to reoccur in the future, as global warming is anything but an anomaly.
But salmon is not the only industry affected, and, because Chile has such a remarkably long coastline (nearly 4,300 km), its other fisheries are critical to its economy, too. In maritime waters throughout and along the country, fishermen are harvesting scallops, clams, mussels and locos, a local specialty, sold at a high price in Europe.
As we, humans, produce more CO2, the oceans absorb it, and, when they do, they become more acidic. Research by Chilean scientists, shows that the species mentioned above are threatened by this development. Kelps, important in the food chain of many fish, are highly vulnerable to both rising temperatures and increased CO2 levels in the oceans.
The same investigation shows that in the areas where Chilean fishermen harvest anchovies and sardines, water temperature has risen approximately 2°C, resulting in a decrease of the anchovy and sardine populations.
Global warming represents a great danger for the Chilean fishery sector, requiring permanent measures, through innovation and technology. And the sector doesn’t stand alone – the agricultural and wine sectors are also heavily affected and in need of change or technological solutions.
Agricultural sector: the eternal search for water
Forestry and farming are two key elements of the Chilean economy and the labor market of Chileans living outside the Metropolitan region. Although fisheries and the wine sector could be seen as a part of the agricultural sector, we look specifically at the production of wood, fruits, crops, and vegetables in this part.
The agricultural sector is vulnerable in every country. A study from Universidad de Desarrollo, states, “Agriculture could be one of the most vulnerable economic sectors to the impacts of climate change in the coming decades, with impacts threatening agricultural production in general and food security in particular.”
This study shows that climate change and its effects on Chile’s agricultural sector is primarily a regional issue. And again, as expected, the northern regions will be affected the most. The study estimates that the Atacama and Coquimbo regions will see a huge decrease in agricultural lands (40%). It is expected that crop and fruit production will be hit especially hard.
All zones, however, will see a decrease in production, which is mostly due to anticipated droughts and rising temperatures. And, although the southern regions will also see drops in crop and fruit production, these regions also heavily depend on forestry activities and should be even more concerned about their trees. Where most agricultural activities are irrigated activities, the forests of the south depend on rain. And without rain, there will be fire, as we saw in part I of this series.
Wine sector: one degree difference changes the wine
As Chile has a unique geography and climate, the country has developed in the last centuries into one of the biggest wine producers in the world, producing a large variety of highly prized wines.
The reason Chile has been able to produce such a variety of fine wines has to do with the variety in climates: from the northern regions, with arid climates, warm temperatures, and lots of sun, to the south, where the soil is more humid.
Chile´s unique geography will be its downfall, however, as the climate in the country, overall, is changing, endangering the unique and high-quality variety in wines Chile is now able to offer.
Where northern vineyards depend on the availability and the quality of water, water scarcity forces them to seek more innovative ways of watering their plants. But even technology has its limits – grape growers in the north are even thinking about moving their businesses to more commercially attractive regions. But preparing a piece of land for the harvesting of grapes, can take years.
In the southern regions, rainfall has dropped up to 30% in the last 50 years, and is estimated to drop another 10% in the next 40 years. Again, winemakers must be innovative to be able to keep producing the quality for which they are best known. However, according to an extensive study on the global effects of climate change on the wine industry, the wine sector in the south is still more or less safe, but will be different.
According to scientists, the general shift of warmer temperatures poleward will lead to a “huge shake-up in the geographic distribution of wine production.” Some large wine producers are looking at the Andes mountains, or are buying land in the south (Concha y Toro).
But the same investigation warns that, if not the industry, it will be the quality of the wine itself, that gets affected. Production of Cabernet Sauvignon is estimated to drop because of shortening of the growing season. A sensitive grape like the Merlot is in danger, too.
As the investigation says that “for wine production … the most miniscule modifications in proportions can produce the most major modifications in flavor,” we won´t truly understand the effects of climate change on wine until our daily glass of it starts to taste a little different.
This article is part of a series on the effects of climate change in Chile. The next part will be on the effects of climate change on Chile´s nature.
Editor-In-Chief Boris van der Spek is the founder of Chile Today. He worked in Colombia, Surinam and the Netherlands as reporter and made appearances on BBC World Services and ABC News during major events in Chile.