Scientists from the Center of Scientific Studies of Valdivia (CECS) said this week that Chile's glaciers are melting at twice the speed observed just ten years ago. The scientists, who recently participated in a specially called international forum on glaciers, also warned that this trend could have devastating ramifications due to current plans to construct hydroelectric dams around Chile.
The scientists made their arguments after participating in helicopter tours over areas of high glacier concentration. This initiative, which was carried out with the assistance of Chile's army, was dubbed "Project Ice." Observers speculate that those tours indicate an increased level of concern about the state of both the country's glaciers and water supply. The scientists' conclusions are nothing short of alarming. Over the past decades, Chilean officials have studied 120 glaciers around the country, and now more than half of them are showing signs of receding. Glaciers in northern parts of Patagonia are disappearing by a rate of one to four meters per year. Even the emblematic tourist destination Volcan Villarica has lost an estimated 13 percent of its ice cap since 1976. "The glaciers are melting due to climate change. The ice has reached a point where it is thawing," explained CECS scientist Gino Cassasa. Andres Rivera, another CECS official, echoed Cassasa's comments. "Glaciers around the Aconcagua Basin have shrunk by as much as twenty percent. Meanwhile, in the ice fields in far southern Patagonia, which contain Chile's highest concentration of glaciers, some 500 square kilometers have been lost. That figure represents nearly four percent of the total area," said Rivera. "Chile currently has 2.7 percent of the world's glaciers. Still, its glacier melt is accounting for 7.7 percent of the rise in the world's ocean levels." This trend also has ominous ramifications for Chile's energy situation. Ricardo Villalba, the Director of the Argentine Institute for Glaciology and Environmental Sciences, believes that there will eventually be conflicts over the control and ultimate use of the country's dwindling water supplies. He cites Chile's dependence on glacier water for energy generation as the prime source of conflict. "Some of Chile's most important rivers, such as the Choapa, Aconcagua, and the Maipo, are also shrinking. There has been less precipitation, and their flows have been lessening. Still, at the same time, there is increased economic activity around these rivers, and, consequently, more demand for water," he said. Still, these warnings appear to be falling on deaf ears. Chile's National Environmental Commission (CONAMA) disclosed this week that, during the first eight months of 2007, it has received 10 new hydroelectric damn proposals in Region X. The proposals range up to US$180 million in cost, and would generate anywhere from 1,850 watts (w) to 155 megawatts (mw) of energy. The list of companies interested in constructing the dams includes Hidroaustral, Pilmaiquén, and energy giant Colbún. Meanwhile, energy companies Endesa and Colbún – co-owners of the HidroAysén project – recently revealed a new version of their planned hydroelectric complex, set to be built in Region XI. HidroAysén's original plan for its so-called Aysén Project projected two massive hydroelectric dams on each of Region XI's two largest rivers: the Baker and the Pascua. Together the dams were expected to produce approximately 2,400 MW of electricity – roughly 30 percent of the electricity currently available in central Chile. Still, the company announced plans in August to reduce the projected flood zone by 36.5 percent and include a fifth dam. The company now anticipates total power generation of 2,750 MW (ST, Aug. 13). The news about Chile's glacier situation comes as a follow up to a seminar entitled "Global Warming Challenges to Chile," which was held last week in Valdivia. During that conference, Chilean and foreign scientists confirmed that glaciers all over the world are currently receding. Additionally, the scientists confirmed that global warming was responsible for the receding glaciers. "What analysis shows is that there has been a significant rise in temperature over the last thirty years," said Doctor Ricardo Villalba, head of the Argentine Institute of Glaciology and Environmental Sciences. The meeting was organized by the CECS, the city of Valdivia, and the Bicentennial Commission in southern Chile's Valdivia. Scientists from Denmark, Switzerland, Canada, Bolivia and Argentina attended the forum. By: Matt Malinowski The Santiago Times