Climate change threatens Patagonian glaciers

Posted: 13 February 2004

If a picture paints a thousand words then the latest dramatic photos of Patagonian glaciers speak volumes about global warming. The images, taken by the Greenpeace research team on board its vessel, Arctic Sunrise, show the extent to which climate change has caused the ice to melt this century, when compared to photos of the same glaciers taken in 1928.

Patagonia's melting Upsala Glacier
Patagonia's melting Upsala Glacier
Top image: Original photograph taken in 1928 of the Upsala Glacier. ©Archivo Museo Salesiano. Bottom image: January 2004, Composite image of Upsala Glacier, Patagonia, Argentina. © Greenpeace/Daniel Beltra

"Rising temperatures are causing glaciers to melt all over the world. Here in Patagonia, they are disappearing at a rate of 42 cubic kilometres every year [the equivalent to the volume of ten thousand large football stadiums like, for example, London's Wembley stadium] - faster than anywhere else on Earth. There are many reasons for the speed of the retreat and climate change is the trigger of this process," said Greenpeace campaigner Joris Thijssen.

Greenpeace has been touring Patagonia and Chile for four weeks, investigating the extent to which the glaciers and ice-fields there are disappearing. The research team's findings confirm that a number of large glaciers, such as the San Quintin and Upsala glaciers, part of the Northern and Southern Patagonian ice-fields, have significantly thinned and have retreated several kilometres in recent years.

Not only does this melting reduce the water supplies of many people, the volume of melt water is also causing sea levels to rise, threatening millions with devastating coastal flooding.

Warming temperatures

From 1995 through 2000 the rate of ice loss from the ice fields more than doubled, says Greenpeace.

In recent years the melting of the glaciers in Patagonia and elsewhere has accelerated which, says Greenpeace, is a result of human-induced climate change. Human demand for energy from fossils fuels such as coal, oil and gas in the last century has increased global temperatures, as the heat trapping gases, principally carbon dioxide, are emitted into the atmosphere when these fossil fuels are burned.

Greenpeace web editor Iréne Berg
Greenpeace web editor Iréne Berg
Greenpeace web editor Iréne swapped the cold and ice of Stockholm in the winter for the cold and wind of Patagonia in summer to draw attention to glacial melting in this remote region.© Greenpeace

"Today we visited the San Rafael glacier, one of the highest glaciers of the Northern Patagonian Icefield," wrote Iréne Berg one of the crew members in on-line diary. "The San Rafael retreats about 70 metres every year. "A local company that brings tourists to the glacier have started painting numbers on the mountain wall by the front. These numbers mark the years, and show how much the ice have retreated. They started doing this in the seventies. The glacier is now very far from where it was in 1976."

In another excerpt she wrote, "tourists arrive every day to see the glacier, but at large the estancia (a farm or a ranch) has not changed much since the first people came here in 1914. Pablo, one of the guides, said: 'the estancia has not changed, but the glacier did'. Pablo has only worked here for two years, but he has already noticed the glacial retreat, how the distance from the ranch to the glacier increased."

"Climate change is a global problem - not only do we risk losing the world's glaciers but we are already witnessing an increased frequency and severity of floods, droughts and storms, loss of coral reefs, rises in sea levels and a rapid spread of diseases such as malaria," added Thijssen.

In light of their findings Greenpeace is urging political leaders to put their weight behind renewable technologies and industries. The organisation is calling on governments to attend the world's first international renewables conference in Bonn in June and to provide up to 20 per cent of their power needs from clean sources by 2020.

  • Tourists watched as a 220ft ice wall sheered off the front face of the 3,000-year-old Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina. Chunks of ice had been falling for several days before the spectacle - not for than 16 years. The collapse was caused by a build-up of water pressure coupled with higher than average temperatures. The glacier, known as the White Giant, is one of Argentina's leading tour attractions and a United Nations world heritage site. ( reported in Metro, March 17, 2004).

    Related links:

    Climate Impact on Patagonia (Greenpeace background material)

    Impacts of climate change on glaciers around the world (Greenpeace report) Contribution of the Patagonia Icefields of South America to Sea Level Rise by Eric Rignot, Andrés Rivera and Gino Casassa, Science 2003 October 17; 302: 434-437. (In Reports)

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)