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UK glaciologists warn of global warming threat to South American World Heritage Site


Leading UK scientists fear that one of South America’s leading natural tourist destinations, the San Rafael Glacier in Patagonian Chile, which is renowned for the spectacular way in which it releases icebergs into the San Rafael Laguna, may soon retreat to a point where it no longer reaches the sea. This, they warn, might remove one of the main reasons why thousands of tourists travel to this remote corner of Chile every year.

The glaciologists have been studying the San Rafael Glacier, one of the fastest-moving glaciers in the world, and others in the Northern Patagonian Icecap, for the past 13 years. Following their recent visit there on a research project with Raleigh International, Dr Neil Glasser and Dr Krister Jansson from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and Dr Stephan Harrison from Oxford University have revealed that the ice front of the glacier has receded over 1km since the early 1990s and iceberg calving activity has been dramatically reduced.

Dr Neil Glasser said, “The San Rafael glacier is an amazing natural phenomenon which flows from an altitude of 3000 metres to the San Rafael Laguna at sea level. In latitude terms an equivalent glacier in the northern hemisphere would flow into the Mediteranean. This means that the glacier is a very sensitive barometer of global climate change.”

“There is no evidence to show that rain fall in the region has changed significantly over the past 100 years. The retreat of the glacier could only have been brought about by a rise in atmospheric temperature. Every year over 30 metres of snow falls in the mountains where the glacier forms. Such large quantities of snow maintain the flow of the glacier down to sea level.”

"The effect of this change on the San Rafael glacier will be dramatic. If the glacier retreats further up valley, it will cease to calve icebergs into the laguna, and one of the reasons why this area attracts so many tourists will be largely gone. As well as reflecting climate change, this may have knock on effects on the local economy."

Dr Stephan Harrison from Oxford University said, "In recent years the glaciers of the Northern Patagonian Icecap have been melting rapidly as a result of Global warming, and the San Rafael Glacier has mirrored this retreat. The Patagonian icefields are losing ice more rapidly than any other comparable ice masses on earth and we must see this as the inevitable consequence of Global climate change," he added.

The glacier flows westwards from the North Patagonian Icecap at around 17 metres a day, cutting through rainforests, and calves spectacularly into the Laguna San Rafael from a 70m high vertical ice cliff. The icebergs that are produced are often 100m long and the Laguna is a magnet for tourist boats. This unique environment is a World Heritage Site and forms the focus for the Laguna San Rafael National Park.

Glasser, Jansson and Harrison, have just completed a three-week research project with Raleigh International, to evaluate how the world’s climate has evolved over the past few thousand years and to help predict what is in store for the future. The group collected over 40kg of sediments for dating purposes from moraines while working at the glacier. The samples are currently on route to the UK for dating.

Arthur Dafis | alfa
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