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Rapid glacial melt in the Chilean Andes could prove to be an economic and political as well as an environmental disaster

Aerial view of glaciers in the Andes Mountains west of Santiago.

By Laura Millan Lombrana

Government geologist Gino Casassa steps down from the helicopter and looks around in dismay.

Casassa is standing at the foot of a glacier, 4,200 meters (13,800 feet) above sea level. The sky over the Andes is a deep blue, but something is not right: It’s July — mid-winter in South America — and yet it’s mild for the time of year, above 0 degrees Centigrade. He takes off his orange ski jacket and walks on the bare rock.

“This should all be covered by snow this time of year,” he says, pointing to Olivares Alfa, one of the largest glaciers in central Chile, just a few meters away. “There used to be one single glacier system covering this whole valley; now it’s pulled back so much that it’s divided into four or five smaller glaciers.”

Scientists take measurements on Chilean glaciers.

Chile has one of the world’s largest reserves of fresh water outside the north and south poles, but the abundant glaciers that are the source of that precious commodity are melting fast. That’s not just an ecological disaster in the making, it’s rapidly becoming an economic and political dilemma for the government of Latin America’s richest nation.

A toxic cocktail of rising temperatures, the driest nine-year period on record and human activity, including mining, is proving lethal for the ice of Chile’s central region. Built up over thousands of years, the ice mass is now retreating one meter per year on average.

Less than two decades from now, some glaciers will have disappeared, while the total volume of all glaciers in Chile will have shrunk by half by the end of the century, says Casassa. That’s an acute problem since Chile, which has 80% of South America’s glaciers, is also the Americas country most at risk of extremely high water stress, according to the World Resources Institute. More than seven million people living in and around the capital, Santiago, rely on the glaciers to feed most of their water supply in times of drought.

Chile’s government is well aware of the issue. A glacier unit was established in 2008 and tasked with producing an inventory of glaciers with the aim of protecting them and raising awareness of their importance. But its resources are limited: it had a staff of just seven last year — Casassa is the unit’s director — and has so far published a single register of glaciers, in 2014, using decade-old data. The unit is due to issue a second inventory later this year allowing the first ever comparison of all Chile’s glaciers.

(Article continues below photos)

Photos show the extent of glacial melt from 1953 to 2019.

Not everyone is content to wait. An opposition bill now before parliament aims to lock in legal protection for glaciers. But President Sebastian Pinera’s center-right government has come out against it, arguing that if implemented, the measures would harm Chile’s economic development, and specifically its lucrative mining industry.

Glaciers happen to cover some of the massive copper deposits that make Chile the world’s largest producer of the metal, with about a third of the world’s copper output coming from its mines each year. Mining is key to Chile’s economy, making up 10% of its gross domestic product and comprising just over half its exports.

That economic reality is at the heart of the government’s quandary, evaluating the trade-offs required to protect the environment while supporting an industry worth some $19 billion to the economy. Chile’s minister for mining, Baldo Prokurica, insists the twin aims are not mutually exclusive.

“Mining can be done without damaging the environment and that’s what we want to do,” Prokurica said in an interview in Santiago, pointing out that countries with similar challenges such as Canada, Norway and the U.S. have higher environmental standards and still manage to mine without a glacier law.

The bill proposes all glaciers and their surroundings become protected areas, bans non-scientific interventions and considers any violations of the rules to be crimes. That’s too broad brush for Chile’s government, which plans its own environmental legislation. “I believe in preserving the glaciers, but also in mining,” said Prokurica.

Pinera’s minority government is still on the back foot over the bill in the same year that it’s due to host the United Nations COP25 climate change summit, making it an easy target for charges of hypocrisy by opponents.

“If they don’t support the glacier bill, it will show their bid for COP was playing to the gallery,” says Guido Girardi, the opposition senator who sponsored the legislation. “We’re facing a catastrophe and not protecting glaciers is not an option anymore.”

Rapid glacial melt of the glacier on Ecuador’s Cotopaxi volcano will affect the drinking water supply in Quito.

Glaciers have long been the bane of the mining industry. During the 1970s, state-owned copper miner Codelco removed glaciers covering a rich deposit in the mountains northwest of the capital to allow development of its Andina mine. At a time when Chile had almost no environmental protections, the act was celebrated as a great feat of engineering.

Chile may have the South America’s largest glaciers but it is not the region’s only country worried about glacial melt. In Ecuador, the glaciers on the Cotopaxi and Cayambe volcanoes have lost almost 50 percent of their mass in 50 years. Melt from the glaciers provides water to more than four million people and the government worries about the impact of continuing glacial recession. Peru and Bolivia share similar concerns.

Scientific advances mean that it’s now known glaciers help lower temperatures and increase air humidity for a 50-kilometer (30-mile) radius. They’re also the reason that rivers in central Chile carry about the same volume of water during the current extreme drought as in normal conditions. In a dry year, as much as two-thirds of the water in river systems feeding Santiago comes from the glaciers high up in the Andes.

The upshot is that as drought conditions become more prevalent from Cape Town to Chennai in India, Chile remains relatively sheltered. Some 70% of the country’s population of 18 million lives in areas where glaciers make the difference.

But that natural safety net is coming under increasing strain. While most mines in Chile are in the country’s northern Atacama desert, miners are moving south in search of newer and richer deposits — and encountering glaciers on the way.

“Requests to explore and mine in areas with a large presence of glaciers are only increasing,” said Francisco Ferrando, a glaciologist and professor at Universidad de Chile in Santiago.

Most of Chile’s glaciers are in the southern Patagonia region, and while a few are located inside national parks and hence protected, the majority aren’t, meaning that any intervention is treated on a case-by-case basis. White glaciers, where the ice is in direct contact with air, enjoy wider protection than less well-known rock glaciers — masses of frozen water that have sat beneath layers of rock for millennia.

Credit: Bloomberg,

13 thoughts on “Rapid glacial melt in the Chilean Andes could prove to be an economic and political as well as an environmental disaster

  1. If you were watching a movie, and all of the characters in it knew
    there were only 10 years left to save the world, but they continued
    going on with their lives as if nothing was happening you would yell at
    the screen right? I would.

    We on planet Earth are living out that movie. Climate change
    and environmental destruction are quite literally ending the world –
    and the United Nations has made it crystal clear through years of
    extensive scientific research that we have a maximum of 10 years left in
    order to turn the tides on the climate crisis and save humanity and
    every creature we share this once-blue earth with.

    Ten years left to save the world. Jamie Mongolan. American Colombian writer

    1. Climates don’t change drastically overnight like we’re seeing. Do your research on “weaponized weather”. The globalists have been using it for many years.

  2. Note for usanos from Aug. 13, 2019… “Extreme climate change has arrived in America” Washington Post:

    It’s true that there are various weather cycles, some natural, some not, just as hunger has cycles. I don’t know anyone who insists that an empty stomach will take care of itself if ignored, but then I don’t claim to know everything.

    Maybe, right?

    1. I do not adhere to the “natural cycle” thing. if it had any sense to it, we would never build roofs over our heads or climate control our swellings when needed. The Dutch would not have dykes and we swim Cuenca’s often-raging rivers rather than build bridges across.

      Frankly, dying of natural or human-caused climate change is the same and unnecessary. We can stop it either way, but one country is holding the whole planet hostage.

      1. Just to make sure you are speaking of the number 1 contributor of CO2 (which is referred to as the source of our rising temps), I have provided a list of the top 10 contributors.

        1-China 10,375 million metric tons per year
        2-USA 5,414 million metric tons every year
        3-India 2,274 million metric tons per year
        4-Russia 1,617 million metric tons per year
        5-Japan 1,237 million metric tons per year
        6-Germany 798 million metric tons per year
        7-Iran 648 million metric tons every year
        8-Saudi Arabia 601 million metric tons per year
        9-South Korea 592 million metric tons per year
        10-Canada 557 million metric tons per year

        You are well known on this site for blaming the U.S. for all problems worldwide. China is producing as much as the U.S., India, Russia, & Japan COMBINED!

        1. Mr Fitzsimmons! Kindly re-read the GP post. He make NO mention of contributors of CO2. He merely mentions that there is ONE country holding back the world from moving forward on this urgent matter!

          1. Sir, you have not been participating in this forum long enough to know how “Giggles” is always deriding the U.S. at every turn. I stand by my statement.

  3. This guy is very optimistic that only half of the glaciers will be gone by the end of the century. Even the most pessimistic forecasts from years ago have had to be reevaluated. The minister of mines then points to the ‘high environmental standards for mining in the US and Canada’ is obviously referring to the high regard Mr. Trump has for ‘environmental standards’ of any sort.

  4. I am informed by the free edX course Climate Change – The Science >
    Also (less than 7 weeks), cool mini-videos “Global Wierding” by Dr Katherine Hayhoe, co-author of the National Climate Assessment >
    If there are errors in Dr Hayhoe’s 120 peer-reviewed research publications, or books, or fun videos, please bring them to our attention.

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