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Chile’s Glaciers: Millennial Ice Mountains

Chile’s Glaciers: Millennial Ice Mountains

By: Chile Travel - 1 January, 1970

Chile is a country of impressive and eternal icebergs.  It is estimated that there are 20 thousand km2 of glaciers and that our country is home to almost 80% of this type of ice masses in South America.  As the world’s most important fresh water reserves, glaciers are in enormous danger due to their premature melting accelerated by climate change.

The República Glaciar (Glacier Republic) has been dedicated to studying and disseminating the relevance of our glaciers and emphasizes that these ice masses “are created after the accumulation and compaction of mountain snow which is very high and also from the coldest regions that produce snow closer to ground level.”  Hence, the conditions under which glaciers are born and develop are very specific.

Glaciers are classified according to their shape, location, structure, and thermal conditions.  They are mostly found in southern Chile, but there are wonderful glaciers in the country’s central zone, even near warm places like Valparaiso and Santiago.  According to República Glaciar, approximately 1,835 independent glaciers have been recorded in our country, but it is estimated that there are more than 4,700 km2 not “recorded”.

The glaciologists Dr. Rodrigo Soteres and Dr. Hans Fernández, both from the Chilean Glaciers Foundation, told us about the complex times that glaciers are living and their key importance in the Chilean hydro ecosystem: “As a whole, the Andean glaciers contribute to regulate the local and regional climate, constitute a key stage of the hydrological cycle, and, above all, are fresh water reservoirs and modulators of the rivers’ flow system”, they explain.

For the same reason, the climate change threat is seen with concern by the scientific community, whose investigations explain the retreat of glaciers: “Thanks to the analysis of satellite images we know that the overwhelming majority of Chilean glaciers are losing mass since the mid-twentieth century and particularly during the last decades,” explains Rodrigo Soteres.

One example, they mention, is the case of the Echaurren Norte Andean glacier, located near the El Yeso reservoir.  Direct observations show that this glacier has lost a large amount of mass from the 1990s to the present.

These ice mountains are not only essential for the planet’s health and balance, but they are unique areas and those who have had the privilege of visiting them have been amazed by their beauty and magnificence.

Soteres and Fernández value the impact that glaciers have on our tourism and highlight that, in social terms, the Patagonian glaciers play a fundamental role in the tourism industry and in encouraging the creation of protected natural areas, while glaciers in central and northern Chile are critical in ensuring the supply of drinking water for the population and many primary productive activities such as agriculture.

Do you want to know more about some of our most popular and symbolic glaciers?  In this guide we will tell you about some of them, since understanding their current state and spreading their relevance is key to their protection.

Get to know them and learn from them!

El Morado Glacier

It is hard to believe that only 124 kilometers from the city of Santiago is the wonderful El Morado hanging glacier.  Located in the area of Cajón del Maipo, it is over 1,750 meters above sea level and its walls can reach up to 30 meters at its thickest areas.  This ice mountain makes its entrance through the El Morado hill, flowing into a lagoon.  Due to its height, it reaches exceptionally low temperatures and harsh conditions during the winter, which make it difficult to visit.

Classified as a natural monument, under normal circumstances you can hike to the base of the glacier during the summer, but currently it is not open to the public.

The scientist Rodrigo Soteres explains that the Cajón del Maipo’s glaciers fulfill crucial roles, helping rivers to maintain their flow during drought periods, ecosystems such as the high Andean wetlands to survive, and are a very important source to promote educational, scientific and tourist activities, in addition to being a key element of the Andes’s culture.

O’Higgins Glacier

This amazing glacier, also known as Ventisquero Grande (Large Hanging Glacier), has an intense turquoise color and is Patagonia’s fourth largest glacier, with impressive walls that rise above 80 meters.

It has an area of 828 km2 and the nearest town is Villa O’Higgins in Aysén, from which, under normal circumstances, you can take boats to see it.  This majestic mass of ice coexists with the binational lake O’Higgins, its desertic islands, other glaciers, basins, and channels.

This glacier, one of the country’s most important and symbolic, has receded about 15 kilometers in the last 100 years, which, according to experts, confirms the accelerated melting caused by global warming.

Queulat Hanging Glacier

One of Aysén’s most famous landscapes, the Hanging Glacier of the Queulat National Park, is a glacier with its tip appearing between two mountains that can be seen making it through the Park.

Queulat or “Sound of Waterfalls” in the Chono dialect, is one of Chile’s most beautiful National Parks.  With an Andean-Patagonian evergreen forest, this park was founded in 1983 and is located next to the town of Puyuhuapi, 165 kilometers north of the city of Coyhaique.

The Hanging Glacier is the Park’s most important attraction and one of the reasons why hundreds of people visit it, especially during the summer season.  The glacier’s particular beauty and unique location makes it very popular and fascinating.

San Rafael Glacier

One of the Northern Ice Fields’ largest glaciers, located in Aysén’s Patagonia.  It is part of the famous Laguna San Rafael National Park, Chile’s largest natural protected area declared by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve.  In its more than 1 million 700 thousand hectares (4,200,792 acres) we find black-necked swans and sea lions among its wildlife.

This ice mass more than 30 thousand years old, 2 kilometers wide and 20 kilometers long, along with a 50-meter wall, is one of Chile’s largest glaciers.

To visit the glacier, vessels can be hired that will take visitors to see the ice giant up close and marvel at its imposing presence.

Balmaceda Glacier

This glacier, along with the Serrano Glacier, are the most important of the Southern Ice Fields in the Magallanes area.  They are found in the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park passing through Coigüe, Ñirre, and Chilean firetree forests.

A 2,030-meter high hanging glacier located on Mount Balmaceda’s western slope.  An impressive show forms when ice blocks slide and fall into the water, becoming a true spectacle.

Unfortunately, this glacier is undergoing a serious receding stage, keeping the scientific community on the alert.

Bonus Track: Tapado Glacier

This is a rather peculiar glacier.  Chile’s northernmost glacier located in the Coquimbo area.  According to the scientist Hans Fernandez its morphological blend is especially interesting from a glacier evolution and location standpoint.

Although it cannot be easily visited due to its 4,500-meter above the sea level height, it was included in this list as an example of glaciers that were born and reside in northern Chile.  Such glaciers fulfill essential water sourcing roles and, at the same time, are undergoing a complex receding stage.

Photo Credits 
Andrea Barria

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