Fri, Dec 09, 2011 - Page 7 News List

Chile glacier’s 1km retreat captured in images


Four photo grabs from a video released by the Centro de Estudios Cientificos illustrate the retreat of the Jorge Montt Glacier in Chile’s Patagonia over a one-year period, from February last year until January this year, in which time the snout of the glacier retreated 1 kilometer.

Photo: AP/Centro de Estudios Cientificos

Researchers in Chile released a series of time-lapse photographs on Wednesday showing the dramatic retreat of a glacier in Patagonia.

The Jorge Montt Glacier is shrinking faster than any other in Chile, with its snout retreating 1km between February last year and January this year, glaciologist Andres Rivera said.

Rivera said global warming is a factor and the glacier is also melting especially quickly because it partly rests in the waters of a deep fjord.

Researchers presented a video showing the glacier’s yearlong retreat through a total of 1,445 time-lapse photographs. It is one of various similar projects by researchers around the world documenting the loss of glaciers.

Rivera has studied dozens of glaciers as a researcher at the Centro de Estudios Cientificos (Center of Scientific Studies) in Valdivia. He and his colleagues did not know how rapidly the glacier was shrinking until they put up two cameras with solar panels to charge the batteries and programmed them to shoot four frames a day.

“It was more or less clear that this was one of those retreating most quickly, but we didn’t expect in the year of working with these cameras that it would retreat a kilometer more. That was a surprise,” Rivera said by telephone. “This glacier is filled with surprises for us.”

The glacier is about 1,800km south of Santiago in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, which blankets a wide swath of the Andes between Chile and Argentina.

“Patagonia has experienced climate changes at levels much more moderate than those observed in the rest of the world,” Rivera said at a news conference. “However, almost all the glaciers of the region have lost area, and Jorge Montt is the one that has the record retreat.”

The researchers believe that based on a map from 1898, this glacier has retreated about 19.5km since then, Rivera said.

It is a tidewater glacier that calves and releases icebergs as it advances into the fjord.

“Such glaciers typically do retreat in response to warming, but the speed of the retreat is controlled by the ability of icebergs to break off in the fjord, not by the rate of warming,” said Richard Alley, a prominent glaciologist at Penn State University.

Rivera agreed, saying he thinks climate change is the key trigger and local conditions at the glacier are also having a big impact. He said his team measured the fjord’s depth at about 400m in places, considerably deeper than they had thought.

The retreat rate of the glacier “is quite exceptional,” said Michel Barer, a researcher at McGill University in Montreal who has studied the melting of Peruvian glaciers.

Barer and other glacier experts at a conference of geophysical scientists in San Francisco said the fastest retreating mountain glaciers are probably somewhere in South America or maybe the Himalayas.

“We see steady but accelerating retreat of glaciers” in the tropical Andes, Barer said, whose calculations show those glaciers are losing 1 percent of their water a year.

According to a recent study by British and Swedish scientists who analyzed about 350 glaciers in Patagonia, all but two of the glaciers have receded significantly since the late 1800s and have been shrinking at a faster rate during the past three decades. The study was published in April in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Neil Glasser, a British glaciologist and one of the authors of the study, said he has also noticed in satellite images over the years that the Jorge Montt Glacier has been shrinking unusually quickly.

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