South America

Patagonian ice melts as Chile experiences its worst drought on record

Glacial melt water in Patagonia. Source: Elliot Constable/SBS

Chile is experiencing its most extensive drought in history, and this year is set to become its driest in more than 40 years. In the southern region of Patagonia farmers are feeling the pressure as weather patterns change.

2016 is on track to become the warmest year on record while Chile is already experiencing its most extensive drought in history. For a country that relies heavily on its livestock and agriculture, the prolonged natural disaster is cause for concern.

In the secluded rural town of Puerto Prat, situated in Patagonia in southern Chile, 81-year-old sheep farmer Carmen Santana-Flores has been experiencing first hand the devastating effects of the drought. 

"Water has always been a problem, but not like today, now there is total lack of water," she told SBS.

Patagonian sheep farmer Carmen Santana-Flores.
Eighty-one-year-old Patagonian sheep farmer Carmen Santana-Flores says this is the worst drought she has seen.
Elliot Constable/SBS

This year is set to become Chile’s driest in more than 40 years and tops off seven years of continuous drought, and it’s not only livestock that Ms Santana-Flores is losing out on.

"We used to have potatoes and all sorts of vegetables, we planted everything" she said, "you have to buy everything now because you can’t sow in the ground".

A few hundred kilometres away, on a property just outside of Punta Arenas, alpaca farmer Sergio Diaz reminisces on snowfalls of the past.

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"It used to snow a lot more, any amount of snow, sometimes up to four metres in height!" he said.

Back in the 1970s, Mr Diaz worked across a number of properties with a variety of animals.

Chile, Patagonia, glacier ice melt
The normally ice cold region is experiencing increasing warm weather and ever shortening winters as a result of climate change.
Elliot Constable/SBS

"The ponds were so full that I would dig trenches for water streams and the cows and sheep would swarm like flies to get their share!"

The farmers are not completely without support, with the Chilean Government's INDAP service, created in 1962 and run by the Ministry of Agriculture, aimed at productive and rural development, helping remote farmers with the delivery of water.

Alpaca farmer Sergio Diaz  say in the 1970s, ‘It used to snow a lot more, any amount of snow, sometimes up to four metres in height!’
Alpaca farmer Sergio Diaz say in the 1970s, ‘It used to snow a lot more, any amount of snow, sometimes up to four metres in height!’
Elliot Constable/SBS

Both Sergio and Carmen work on properties in the Magallanes region, which is one of the most isolated areas of Chile. It sits in the greater Patagonia, a vast and rugged terrain that encompasses the southern most part of South America and is the closest large landmass to Antarctica.

Here the drought is is also having significant affects on the environment, Patagonia boasts some of the world’s largest glaciers and experts believe the regions vast ice shelves may be starving to death.

Patagonia, Chile glacier ice melt
As temperatures continue to rise scientist fear the regions glaciers are doomed.
Elliot Constable/SBS

Nicolás Butorovic, a specialist in academic climatology from the Institute of Patagonia University in Punta Arenas, said years of research has revealed extreme weather patterns and global warming are taking their toll on the Patagonian environment.

"In the last perhaps 10 winters, it has been less cold, which does not mean that they are warm, we aren’t in a tropical climate, but they are also very short winters that generally last between 1-3 months," he said.

To establish a standard conclusion on climate change and global warming, the World Meteorological Organisation requires a minimum 30 years of data. The Jorge C. Schythe station, where Mr Butorovic and his team works, has measured and recorded most surface meteorological parameters for the past 46 years. A recent summer in Punta Arenas that hit record temperatures of 29 degrees is testimony to changing weather patterns he said.

Patagonia is in the grip of a seven year drought, the worst in recorded history.
Patagonia is in the grip of a seven year drought, the worst in recorded history.
Elliot Constable/SBS

While the residents of the typically freezing cold, ocean side city enjoy the warm weather, he urged people to consider the future.

"We have to be careful and keep an eye on what can produce harmful effects both for the population and the vegetation. A clear example of climate change in this zone has been shown with these extreme events."

Although the region is withstanding the drought, but Mr Butorovic said that the current trends indicate that for the next three to fivemonths, the Magallanes region will not see much rain at all.

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