Drop by drop, colossal Chilean glaciers Darwin admired in 1832 are disappearing

By Iñaki Martinez Azpiroz

Puerto Williams, Chile, Jun 5 (EFE).- Where once the ice giants held sway, now there are fjords as, drop by drop, the southernmost glaciers in South America are melting more and more quickly, destroying landscapes that were once documented by a young Charles Darwin on his first visit to Tierra del Fuego in 1832, a trip that helped him reason out his scientific theories.

Darwin (1809-1882) wrote in one of his diaries about his passage through the Beagle Channel at Cape Horn that the glaciers extended from the mountains to the edge of the sea, and he said he could not imagine anything more beautiful than the cerulean blue of those glaciers, especially when viewed against the white snow.

The creator of the theory of evolution and one of the world’s greatest scientists described the landscape as “imposing,” with glaciers that reached to the sea and birds, plants and marine animals that surprised him by being so widespread and active, but now climate change is steadily disrupting that ecosystem.

Andres Rivera, a geographer at the University of Chile, told EFE that the Darwin mountain range, which contains the largest ice field in the Cape Horn area, between 1870 and 2016 lost an average of 1.7 square kilometers (0.65 square mile) of ice per year.

Over the past 30 years, he warned, “the speed (of ice loss) is up to 5 square km (1.9 sq. mi.) per year.”

“Now, it rains much more and snows much less than in the past. It’s one of the effects that had been forecast by the different climate change models and it’s been fulfilled,” Ricardo Rossi, who heads a new research center in the far-southern city of Puerto Williams, the Cape Horn International Center (CHIC), told EFE.

Although Rivera denied that the Cape Horn ice will disappear “completely” in the next few decades, he said that some local glaciers are very vulnerable to climate change, above all those that are located on the northern slope of the Darwin mountains, which contain about 2,000 sq. km (769 sq. mi.) of ice.

Apart from the glaciers, Darwin was impressed by the immense marine forests of brown algae that serve as nesting places for aquatic fauna in the Cape Horn area.

The naturalist described the “beds of algae” and discovered that the species called Macrocystis pyrifera, popularly known as seaweed, is very useful to sailors because it indicates rocky coasts and shallows and acts as a breakwater.

Darwin wrote that he knew of few more surprising things than this plant, describing it in detail as a strong yet supple rope-like species that can support the weight of loose stones and grows in the interior channels of the region.

One of the main researchers at CHIC, Andres Mansilla, who studies the changes in the algae resulting from climate change, told EFE that these ecosystems absorb large quantities of carbon from the air and, and that their decline, aside from the local impact, can increase the speed of climate change on a global level.

“Southern Chile has the biggest reserves of brown algae in the world, and they are extremely vulnerable to the discharge of fresh water as a product of (glacial) melting,” he said.

“The glacier is melting more and more quickly, and what seems to be scarcely noticeable is, in reality, tons of water dumped into the marine ecosystem,” he said.

Darwin’s trip through the Cape Horn region was a key experience for the young scientist, and despite the fact that its ecosystems currently are key in the study of climate change, the region is still lagging in terms of scientific research compared with similar latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere.

“The real effect of glacial melting on the marine ecosystems at Cape Horn is still unknown,” Mansilla said, adding that “There’s no concrete data because there’s no research. We know it’s having an effect but we’re far from knowing how great (that effect) is.”

EFE ima/bp

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