Friday, October 26, 2007

As glaciers melt, Chile's future uncertain

SAN JOSE DE MAIPO, Chile -- With a population of 16 million people, Chile doesn't produce much of the greenhouse gases blamed for 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.

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

And the changes aren'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 Nuñez, director of the Argentine Sea and Atmosphere Investigations Center. ``We're all trying to prepare for an uncertain future.''


''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 Andean 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, 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, producing a rise in water levels in the short term but likely to lead to 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 located.

''It's like we're killing the goose that laid the golden egg,'' said Jorge Quinteros, 75, 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?''

Here is the full article.