The Melting Glaciers of Patagonia

(Photo credit: Photodisc/Getty Images)

Glaciers are melting at a quickening rate in Chile. (Photo credit: Photodisc/Getty Images)

Seventy-five percent of the world’s freshwater supply is locked up in glaciers and ice sheets. At 14,000 km2, the Patagonian Ice Fields located in southern Chile are the world’s third largest frozen landmass. According to the Centre for Scientific Studies located in Valdivia, Chile, nearly 90 percent of the country’s glaciers are in retreat. 

About 100 glaciers are monitored in Chile. The majority of these are monitored in person on an annual basis, because, due to the glaciers’ remote locations, installing and maintaining satellite or radio transmission stations is not economically feasible. Glaciologists travel to the Northern Patagonian Ice Fields once a year to gather data including temperature, precipitation, humidity, and wind speed from monitoring stations located there.

According to research by Neil Glasser, a glaciologist based at Aberystwyth University in Wales, and his colleagues, the Northern Patagonian Ice Field has lost over 100 cubic kilometers of ice since 1870. The Southern Patagonian Ice Field has lost more than 500 cubic kilometers of ice since 1650. These calculations are based on historical records, aerial photos, and satellite images. Research indicates that the melt rate has increased significantly in recent decades. For example, the Jorge Montt glacier located in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field retreated over 1 kilometer in the short period between February 2010 and January 2011.

Glacier expansion and contraction is based on several factors, including bedrock conditions, hydrology, regional geology, and ice properties. Climate—including temperature, precipitation, and solar radiation—has a major impact on glacial movement. An increase in average global temperatures is expected to continue the heightened rate of glacial melt in Patagonia. Melting ice fields have major implications for sea-level rise and the future availability of fresh water.

Glaciers at sea level are not the only ones impacted by rising global temperatures. The Andes Mountains, which stretch 4,500 miles along the western coast of South America, are home to 99 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers. Research indicates that these glaciers have seen more ice loss in the past three decades than in any other period in the past 400 years. Because temperatures do not fluctuate much in the tropics, the glaciers that are located there are particularly sensitive to the increased temperatures related to climate change. Research indicates that tropical glaciers located at elevations less than 17,700 feet are melting at double the rate of those glaciers found at higher elevations. Scientists think that these glaciers could disappear entirely within the next few decades. Changes that used to happen only in geologic time (that is, over millions and millions of years) now seem to be occurring within a human lifetime.

Country: Chile

Location: Chile is located in southern South America and borders the South Pacific Ocean between Argentina and Peru.

Area: 756,102 sq km (land and water) (slightly less than double the size of Montana)

Climate: Chile’s climate profile includes temperate, desert, and Mediterranean (chaparral) regions.

Terrain: The terrain of Chile includes low coastal mountains, a fertile central valley, and rugged mountains.

Natural Resources: Copper, hydropower, iron ore, molybdenum, nitrates, precious metals, timber

Economics: $335.4 billion (est. 2013)

Environmental Issues: Mining, deforestation, air pollution, water pollution

Source: CIA – The World Factbook (

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