Global warming in Chile threatens industry, water supplies

Chile's giant glaciers are melting.
Chile's giant glaciers are melting.

SAN JOSE DE MAIPO, Chile — With a population of 16 million people, Chile doesn't produce much of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. But it's paying the price.

Giant glaciers are disappearing. Mudslides are becoming more common. Snow no longer falls in the spring, replaced instead by tepid rains.

Last May, an entire lake in southern Chile disappeared practically overnight after the Tempano Glacier, which had acted as a dam, melted and destabilized.

"Without a doubt, global warming is the cause," said Gino Casassa, a researcher at the nonprofit Center of Scientific Studies and a member of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "The only question now is what will be the effects for Chile over the next decades."

The answers have been coming in at an alarming rate as scientists scramble to record the changes happening up and down the country's mountainous spine.

Chilean researchers have found that more than half of the 120 glaciers they monitor are shrinking, with many disappearing at twice the rate recorded just a decade ago. That includes glaciers near the capital of Santiago that provide water to the city's 6 million residents.

In central Chile, where most of the population lives, the altitude at which snow begins to fall rose by 400 feet in the winter and more than 650 feet in the summer between 1975 and 2001. Rain has fallen instead at higher altitudes, causing the snow pack to shrink and triggering erosion on many mountains.

Average temperatures in the region over the past century have risen by half a degree to 1.26 degrees over the past century, enough to melt glaciers and snow.

The rising temperatures have produced a rise in water levels in the short term, but are likely to result in long-term shortages when the glaciers are gone, Casassa said.

Adding to Chile's worries, rain levels are dropping in the Patagonian south, where many of the country's hydroelectric dams are.

"It's like we're killing the goose that lays the golden egg," said Jorge Quinteros, 75, a veteran alpinist who researches snow and water levels for Chile's government. "Rivers are growing like they never did, and they'll continue growing for a few years, but when the glaciers are gone, then what?"

The damage isn't limited to Chile. Neighboring Argentina faces droughts near its side of the Andes due to dropping rain levels. Shrinking glaciers in Bolivia are threatening water supplies in some towns.

"What's happening in Argentina is very similar to what's happening in Chile," said Mario Nunez, director of the Argentine Sea and Atmosphere Investigations Center. "We're all trying to prepare for an uncertain future."

The changes have been both big and small.

Mario Martinez, 82, said the weather at his mountain lodge in the shadow of the San Jose volcano in central Chile is the same as it was — cold — when he first arrived 30 years ago. In fact, the worst winter he remembers hit recently, in 2002, when snow nearly buried his two-story house.

But the volcano is often no longer snowcapped, he said, "while the bottom part is covered."

Jose Manquez said declining snowfall has cut the ski season from three months to one month at the Lagunillas resort he helps manage. New snow-making machines, especially on lower-altitude runs, are his only hope for drawing customers.

The country's mining industry, which produces about two-thirds of Chilean exports, is researching new ways of doing business, said mining minister Karen Poniachik. Miners use vast amounts of water to crush, screen, wash and extract minerals, and disputes over water in the country's dry north, where many of Chile's mines are, already have sparked demonstrations and violence.

"The availability of water is definitely a concern," she said.

For Quinteros, who has spent decades roaming Chile's wilds, an era has already come to an end. The mountains he knew and loved have changed for good, he said, and the future doesn't look promising.

He remembers when the foothills above Santiago were covered with snow year-round instead of being bare for most of the year, as they are now. He also remembers visiting legendary glaciers in Chile's south, such as the San Rafael and the O'Higgins, before they were visibly in retreat.

"I see the changes every time I'm in the mountains," Quinteros said. "The impact of all this has been impossible not to see."

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