Mon, Aug 19, 2019 - Page 7 News List

South America’s glaciers might have a bigger problem than climate change

Rising temperatures and droughts are escalating the melting of Chile’s ice masses, but copper mining, which accounts for 10 percent of the nation’s GDP and more than half its exports, is the biggest threat

By Laura Millan Lombrana  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Yusha

Government geologist Gino Casassa steps down from the helicopter and looks around in dismay.

Casassa is standing at the foot of a glacier, 4,200m above sea level. The sky over the Andes is a deep blue, but something is not right: It is July — mid-winter in South America — and yet it is mild for the time of year, above 0°C. He takes off his orange ski jacket and walks on the bare rock.

“This should all be covered by snow this time of year,” he said, pointing to Olivares Alfa, one of the largest glaciers in central Chile, just a few meters away. “There used to be one single glacier system covering this whole valley; now it’s pulled back so much that it’s divided into four or five smaller glaciers.”

Chile has one of the world’s largest reserves of fresh water outside the north and south poles, but the abundant glaciers that are the source of that precious commodity are melting fast.

That is not just an ecological disaster in the making, it is rapidly becoming an economic and political dilemma for the government of Latin America’s richest nation.

A toxic cocktail of rising temperatures, the driest nine-year period on record and human activity, including mining, is proving lethal for the ice of Chile’s central region.

Built up over thousands of years, the ice mass is now retreating 1m per year on average.

Less than two decades from now, some glaciers will have disappeared, while the total volume of all glaciers in Chile will have shrunk by half by the end of the century, Casassa said.

That is an acute problem since Chile, which has 80 percent of South America’s glaciers, is also the country in the Americas most at risk of extremely high water stress, according to the World Resources Institute.

More than 7 million people living in and around the capital, Santiago, rely on the glaciers to feed most of their water supply in times of drought.

Chile’s government is well aware of the issue. A glacier unit was established in 2008 and tasked with producing an inventory of glaciers with the aim of protecting them and raising awareness of their importance.

However, its resources are limited: it had a staff of just seven last year — Casassa is the unit’s director — and has so far published a single register of glaciers, in 2014, using decade-old data.

The unit is due to issue a second inventory later this year allowing the first ever comparison of all Chile’s glaciers.

Not everyone is content to wait. An opposition bill now before parliament aims to lock in legal protection for glaciers, but Chilean President Sebastian Pinera’s center-right government has come out against it, arguing that if implemented, the measures would harm Chile’s economic development, and specifically its lucrative mining industry.

Glaciers happen to cover some of the massive copper deposits that make Chile the world’s largest producer of the metal, with about a third of the world’s copper output coming from its mines each year.

Mining is key to Chile’s economy, making up 10 percent of its GDP and comprising just over half its exports.

That economic reality is at the heart of the government’s quandary, evaluating the trade-offs required to protect the environment while supporting an industry worth about US$19 billion to the economy.

Chilean Minister of Mining Baldo Prokurica insists the twin aims are not mutually exclusive.

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