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Community in Science: the first workshop introducing the local challenges to climate change adaptation in El Chaltén, Austral Patagonia.

By Natali Ormazábal, El Chaltén.



On a rainy Autumn Sunday in El Chaltén, there’s “pesto” outside as they call it around here. A combination of wind, rain and cold. The days shorten and it starts to get colder. It was six in the afternoon. We were in a hall in the Chaltén Suites Hotel forming part of a gathering between local neighbours and an investigative scientist and glacier lover, to talk about the role glaciers play for the community and its behaviour due to climate change.


The French association, Boana, which has been active in Chaltén since its creation, addresses participatory water management issues, and participatory monitoring of ecosystems and investigates how mountainous areas can adapt to climate change. In this instance, they organized a workshop on “Cryospheric Sciences and Adaptation to Climate Change” with the presence of Dr. in Glaciology and Andean geomatics, currently President of the Working Group “Environmental and Infrastructure Monitoring” of Technical Commission II, of the International Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ISPRS): Gabriela Lenzano.




An encounter at the crossroads between science, citizenship and activism.


Marie Anière, co-founder of Boana, started presenting the workshop a little after 6:10 in the afternoon. There were more than 30 participants. She gave us a rundown of climate change adaptation, horizons in planification and political decisions. She introduced the concepts of vulnerability and impact. Finally, she shared 3 adaptation plans that were put to use in Europe.


The objective was to make the first diagnostic of participatory vulnerability towards the community for climate change adaptation.



A global challenge that involves open knowledge sharing


Last July 2023 was the hottest month in the recorded history of the earth. Also, in that same year, the UN declared the "era of global boiling"; and, as Chaltén is located within a protected area, inside Los Glaciares National Park, where glaciers retreat every year, it was appropriate to generate this open dialogue. This is how a space of connection was created between the research of a glaciologist and the observations of the neighbors who live at the feet of the hanging glacier cirques in the northern part of the park, and next to the deepest lake in South America, Lake Viedma.


Gabriela Lenzano travelled from Mendoza to El Chaltén invited by Boana, and thanks to the support of the IACS (International Association of Cryospheric Sciences) / IUGG, to initiate a local dialog about the necessity to adapt to climate change, emphasizing the results of the research done by IANIGLA, also member of the International Association of Cryospheric Sciences, on the behavior of the Upsala, Perito Moreno and Viedma Glaciers.


“Los glaciares son termómetros de sensibilidad al cambio climático”, mencionó la investigadora, fuerte y claro, y la sala escuchaba en total silencio. Los mismos cumplen un rol de identidad para quienes habitan la región de El Chaltén, y a su vez desempeñan un papel fundamental como testigos de las condiciones medioambientales pasadas, presentes y futuras. Esta sensibilidad a los cambios ambientales está condicionada principalmente como consecuencia del cambio climático, agregaba.


The glaciers are climate change sensibility thermometers”, mentioned the researcher, loud and clear, and the room listened in complete silence. The glaciers fulfil a role of identity for those who inhabit the Chaltén region and in turn, play a fundamental part as witnesses of past, present and future environmental conditions. This sensibility towards environmental changes is primarily a consequence of climate change, she added.


By the end of the XXI century, half of the world’s mountainous glaciers will have disappeared, if we reach a temperature increase of 1.5ºC. The medium sea level will keep rising due to the contribution made by melting glaciers and this tendency has accelerated twice as much as in the XX century. The impact done to some ecosystems is near irreversible, she later commented.


An interesting and alarming instance was upon us when we were shown two time-lapse photo sequences (here above) of cameras installed on the Viedma and Perito Moreno Glaciers, in which one could observe the movement and oscillations of both glaciers. The more alarming one being the strong frontal regression of the Viedma Glacier, registered between the years 2014 and 2016, where one can see the great mass of ice that was detached. Hence, the interaction between the glacier and the water considerably accelerates its regression.


The Perito Moreno Glacier, for 100 years oscillated, advanced and retreated; it is currently weakened in its margins and also suffers from climatic vulnerability. The Viedma Glacier, is a large ice mass that has experienced from 2014 to date a loss of 5.5 km2 of ice surface with a frontal retreat of approximately 2 km, and whose lake depth near the glacier front is 900 m. Frontal velocities of 3.5 m per day have been recorded. Thus, among those present we imagine the fjord that would be exposed when the glacier in question continues to retreat. Something far and hard to imagine but it is there, happening little by little.

Among the data shared by Gabriela, it is shown that between 1978-2018 there was a loss of ice in 28 glaciers that make up the Glacier National Park of -1.44 ± 0.15 m a-1 w. e. According to future scenarios, if greenhouse gas emissions are severely reduced by the year 2100, even so 20% of the glaciers would disappear in Southern Patagonia, therefore, ecosystems will evidently change.


At the moment, there are no future projections for the region. “Given such a scenario of uncertainty, which slopes are more susceptible or prone to landslides?” She invited us to ask ourselves.



The imminent destiny of glacial tourism


The modification of the landscape due to climate change increases the vulnerability of existing ecosystems and that of the stationary and transitory population. It was in this framework that the concept of “Glacial Tourism” and its imminent destiny was discussed. The development of glacial tourism in El Chaltén and El Calafate, which are the regional settlements that develop tourism as the base for their economy, must transform into a social player taking part in moving towards adaptation.



The importance of communal knowledge in the construction of climate change vulnerability analysis.


Gabriela highlighted that the views of the communities towards environmental and social issues, their level of organization and participation and the type of activities they carry out in conjunction with the protected area, is very important. It was then that the project named “Donde Nacen Las Aguas (DNLA)” (Where the Waters Are Born), was mentioned, which combines science, management and communal participation to develop new conservation practices for the Austral Patagonian aquatic ecosystems.


Within the practices that could be carried out, Marie highlighted the importance in forming and consolidating workshops to develop a local management system to help integrate the results of monitoring physical and social systems through community spaces. An integration of science, management and community would be very fruitful.



At the end of the exposition, some participants voiced concerns about the depth of the Viedma Glacier and its flotation; of the rising water levels and how it affects the flow of rivers. Some mountain guides shared images taken by them showing an abrupt change to the left margin of the Viedma Glacier. It’s something we all see, that can be seen by those of us who go to these places every year, they said; lagoons that form on the sides of the glaciers and deposit water over them, accelerating the regression.


Some suggestions were made, linked to the above, that proposed that in the framework of “participatory sciences” a collaborative platform could be made with images taken by park attendees.


At the end of the gathering, a neighbour raised his hand and asked, looking at Gabriela: “What do you, the researchers, require from the community to carry out your work?


These concerns and their participation demonstrate the interest and love the inhabitants of El Chaltén have towards contributing to taking care of the glaciers, their home; a fact that generates good expectations in interactions for adaptation that could happen going forward.


A tourist was there with her sons, two boys. She stepped forward before she left, thanked the presentation and highlighted the importance of these spaces for future generations. It was a beautiful gesture that contributed to the harmonious ambience of the day.


After 9 p.m. the workshop ended, the pesto continued outside. That necessary combination of wind, rain and cold is necessary for the remaining glaciers to continue to exist.


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