Researchers turn to geoengineering to save Chile’s glaciers

Posted by on Jul 2, 2014

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Chile’s glaciers, like the one seen above, are under threat from mining and global climate change. Some researchers are trying to geoengineer a way to save them.
(Dietmar Temps/Flickr)

When you think of geoengineering, you may be imagining huge mirrors in space, or iron filings being dumped into the ocean. Geoengineering, though, can occur on a smaller scale. Some researchers are proposing small-scale fixes as in an effort to save some of Chile’s 3,100 glaciers.

Cedomir Marangunic, a glaciologist in Chile, saw the retreat of the country’s glaciers due to mining and global warming as an opportunity to test techniques for creating new glaciers and slowing the retreat of exiting ones.

How do you make a glacier? You can transport tens of thousands of tons of ice from a place where retreat is fast to a pre-prepared location where retreat is slower; you can set up barriers around an existing ice field, increasing snow accumulation and transforming the area into a small glacier; or you can cover an existing one with a “geotextile” sheet or rocky debris to slow ablution. A minimum of three years is required for some of these methods, according to Marangunic,

While stimulating the growth of new glaciers or slowing the retreat of established ones sounds great, project must simulate a “natural process” and avoid damage to local ecosystems, according to Marangunic, who claims this as a priority for his projects.

Others are not so convinced.

The head of Greenpeace Chile, Matias Asun, doubts that Marangunic’s techniques are “viable, sufficient, successful, and cost effective technologies.” Asun’s priority is promoting actions that protect and save existing glaciers, pointing out that despite the threat of climate change and industry, Chile’s glaciers are not protected by law. A bill in parliament proposes a registry of glaciers and a legal definition for them. The bill might increase awareness to their disappearance, but does little to protect them.

Currently, under the Chile’s water code, water rights are a private resource and can be bought, leading to the question of whether glaciers will be similarly purchasable. Environmentalists believe that that interpretation could allow mining interests to purchase rights to glaciers in order to degrade them with impunity.

Those 3,100 Chilean glaciers hold 82 percent of Latin America’s freshwater reserves – water that is crucial for industry and agriculture in the region. Government and business have an obvious and compelling imperative to save and restore the glaciers, but will leaders look to geoengineering or conservation? The window to conserve is closing, while the door to geoengineering is opening.

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