The changing landscape of Patagonia

By Jonathan Byers

Looking out across a glacial lake in a rocky valley below Cerro Fitz Roy in Los Glaciares National Park, I had with me a black and white photograph taken 80 years earlier at this very same spot by the Italian priest and mountaineer, Alberto de Agostini. In the photo by Agostini, a massive glacier filled the valley floor. The scene in front of me a century later was starkly different, with several kilometers of ice in the valley completely gone.

When we hear the term “climate change” we picture graphs of carbon dioxide levels, or images of smokestacks or forest fires, yet actually seeing the long-term impacts of climate change is often difficult. But in Patagonia, the changes taking place because of climate change can become visible where millennia-old ice is melting faster than ever before. As a photographer I found that looking back in time through historic photographs revealed the tremendous scale of change.


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Glaciers underfoot
Any climber who has spent more than a few years exploring mountains has tales of “how it used to be.” Places where you used to be able to just walk out onto the ice, for example, often now involve perilous crossings of unstable moraines. There are climbs that in the past had been extremely difficult but today are commonly done because of less rime ice formation, and some climbs that used to be on perfect ice now are rarely found in safe conditions. On the most basic level the advance or retreat of a glacier is like a financial budget. If you add more than you take away, it grows. If you remove more than you add, it gets smaller. In the case of glaciers this balance is dependent on precipitation and temperature. But even that doesn’t become clear until you walk across it with your feet.

In February 2015, a friend and I had a chance to hike the incredible circuit across the ice cap behind Cerro Torre in Los Glaciares National Park in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Heading out of the town of El Chalten following the Rio Electrico valley through old lenga forests it at first felt like a stable and unchanging landscape. But once out of the forest and onto sandy and rocky flats I started to see the so-called “potholes” in the sand — places where the last glacier ice has recently melted under the sand leaving holes filled with water. Even ten years ago the ascent of Paso Marconi was an easy walk up a glacier to the pass but now it involves steep scrambling up a rocky cliff, or crossing underneath a precarious icefall that regularly drops huge blocks of ice in the path of your ascent. We chose to scramble up the rocks. What was most surprising though is what we found when we got to the pass.


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We expected soft snow. Instead, we found bare ice crisscrossed by crevasses.


Paso Marconi accesses high onto the Southern Patagonian Ice Field on the upper parts of the Viedma Glacier. We brought snowshoes expecting to hike across the soft snow that had accumulated during the past winter. Instead, we found bare ice crisscrossed by crevasses as far as the eye could see. When we talk about glaciers disappearing, we often talk of retreat, where the terminus of the glacier moves up the valley that contains it, but that is only one part of what is going on. Actually, the glacier, or in this case, the entire Southern Patagonian Ice Field, is melting across it’s entire surface making it deflate like a balloon. This vertical ice loss, while often less noticeable, is really a far larger amount of ice melting because it is spread over a much larger area.

We spent the next two days jumping over crevasses, or walking meandering paths around the ends of the ones that were too big to jump. As we walked past the sides of the mountains, we could see the lines of loose rock showing how much higher the glaciers had once been. We were walking on ice that was hundreds of years old and yet where we were then standing would have been under hundreds of meters of frozen water just twenty years ago.


Water overhead
All of that water stored in the glaciers for thousands of years as ice eventually flows down to the ocean. While the vast majority of the world’s fresh water is trapped in polar ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica, scientists recognize that the areas that will have the most effect on sea level over the next 50 to 100 years are the alpine glaciers such as the Alps, Andes, and the Himalayas. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), alpine glaciers currently account for about 83 percent of glacier melt worldwide because they are in areas where warming is happening most rapidly and glaciers are melting the quickest.

After two days and 25 km of crevasse jumping, it was a relief to step back onto rocks and gravel below Paso Viento. As we began the climb up the pass we could start seeing farther out across the ice cap, and in every direction was exposed ice and crevasses. According to a recent study, glaciers in the southern Andes cover an area of approximately 29,400 km2 . Of that total ice mass, they are losing approximately 29,000,000,000 tons (29 gigatons) of ice per year. Imagine a block of ice 1 kilometer wide, 1 kilometer tall, and 1 kilometer across. That is 1 gigaton. Now put 29 of those together and imagine all that water flowing out to the oceans.



Descending down from Paso Viento we pass a spot overlooking the Quervain and Túnel Glaciers, where Alfredo Kölliker of the 1916 Sociedad Aleman expedition took a photo of his group’s camp. Ninety-nine years later when I find the location of his photo, I can see the small flat spots where they pitched their canvas tents, feel the wind coming off the glacier, and through the historic photo, see how the glacier that almost filled up the whole valley is now a few hundred meters thinner and has retreated up the valley leaving a blue lake behind.

Later, as I walked back toward El Chalten, I thought about when Kölliker or de Agostini were here there were no trails, there was no national park, and there was no El Chalten with its restaraunts, huge diesel generators, and increasingly crowded hostels. Without the ability to know what the landscape looked like in the past, modern visitors have no way to understand how much it has changed. Pampas become towns and roads, rocky valleys and lakes are the new normal, plants and animals move in, but the landscape and ocean record of what has disappeared from view is there if you know where to look.

The author, Jonathan Byers, is a photographer, filmmaker, climber, and director of the Alpine of the Americas ProjectThis article was supported by an EcoPatagonia reporting grant from Patagon Journal in partnership with the Earth Journalism Network.