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

“Mining can be done without damaging the environment and that’s what we want to do,” Prokurica said in an interview in Santiago, pointing out that countries with similar challenges such as Canada, Norway and the US have higher environmental standards and still manage to mine without a glacier law.

The bill proposes that all glaciers and their surroundings become protected areas, would ban non-scientific interventions and would consider any violations of the rules to be crimes.

That is too broad brush for Chile’s government, which plans its own environmental legislation.

“I believe in preserving the glaciers, but also in mining,” Prokurica said.

Pinera’s minority government is still on the back foot over the bill in the same year that it’s due to host the UN COP25 climate change summit, making it an easy target for charges of hypocrisy by opponents.

“If they don’t support the glacier bill, it will show their bid for COP was playing to the gallery,” said Chilean opposition lawmaker Guido Girardi, who sponsored the legislation. “We’re facing a catastrophe and not protecting glaciers is not an option anymore.”

Glaciers have long been the bane of the mining industry. During the 1970s, state-owned copper miner Codelco removed glaciers covering a rich deposit in the mountains northwest of the capital to allow development of its Andina mine.

At a time when Chile had almost no environmental protections, the act was celebrated as a great feat of engineering.

Scientific advances mean that it’s now known glaciers help lower temperatures and increase air humidity for a 50km radius.

They are also the reason that rivers in central Chile carry about the same volume of water during the current extreme drought as in normal conditions.

In a dry year, as much as two-thirds of the water in river systems feeding Santiago comes from the glaciers high up in the Andes.

The upshot is that as drought conditions become more prevalent from Cape Town to Chennai in India, Chile remains relatively sheltered. About 70 percent of the country’s population of 18 million lives in areas where glaciers make the difference.

However, that natural safety net is coming under increasing strain.

While most mines in Chile are in the country’s northern Atacama desert, miners are moving south in search of newer and richer deposits — and encountering glaciers on the way.

“Requests to explore and mine in areas with a large presence of glaciers are only increasing,” said Francisco Ferrando, a glaciologist and professor at Universidad de Chile in Santiago.

Most of Chile’s glaciers are in the southern Patagonia region, and while a few are located inside national parks and hence protected, the majority are not, meaning that any intervention is treated on a case-by-case basis.

White glaciers, where the ice is in direct contact with air, enjoy wider protection than less well-known rock glaciers — masses of frozen water that have sat beneath layers of rock for millennia.

An academic paper from 2010 found that one-third of all rock glaciers in central Chile had been directly impacted by mining activities such as road building, drilling platforms and depositing waste on top of the ice. In addition, dust from trucks and explosions in pits as well as vibrations from heavy machinery accelerate the melting.

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