A Troubling Turn for Glacier Science in Argentina

Ricardo Villalba (source:Jakub Malecki/Twitter).

An Attack on an Argentine Glaciologist

The long struggle by activists and scientists to preserve Argentina’s glaciers took a bizarre and surprising turn on November 27 when a federal judge indicted three former government officials and Ricardo Villalba, the country’s leading glaciologist, for allegedly abusing their authority by failing to properly enforce environmental law. They are accused of delaying and deliberately narrowing the scope of the National Glacier Inventory which Villalba supervised. After decades of advocacy for an inventory and six years of hard work to bring it to fruition, Villalba is banned from leaving the country, threatened with jail and accused of sabotaging his own life’s work.

Scientist conducting research for the Argentine National Glacier Inventory (source: CONICET).

The campaign to protect the glaciers was sparked by the expansion of high-altitude mining operations in the Andes. A first bill was passed in 2008 but vetoed by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, allegedly due to pressures from the mining lobby and its allies in provincial governments. In 2010, the legislature once again passed a bill to protect glaciers. This time Fernández de Kirchner signed the bill, the landmark Law for the Preservation of Glaciers and Periglacial Areas (N 26.639), bringing it into effect. This law called for the rapid development of a National Glacier Inventory, entrusting the task to the 45-year-old Instituto Argentino de Nivología, Glaciología y Ciencias Ambientales (IANIGLA), which Ricardo Villalba directed. Since 2011, the inventory has documented over 15,000 bodies of ice through satellite imagery and on-site inspection; completion is projected for 2018.

Tensions over a Foreign Mining Corporation

But a sticking point in implementing the law has been the treatment of existing mines. The lightening rod of controversy have been the mines owned by the Canadian firm Barrick Gold in the province of San Juan: Veladero, which began operation in 2005, and the nearby Pascua Lama, which straddled the border with Chile and never became fully operative due to legal challenges in the neighboring country. From early on, these mining projects were rumored to cause widespread damage to glaciers and periglacial areas. Despite this, Veladero continued to operate as the inventory was produced. Then, in a series of accidents in 2015, 2016, and 2017, Veladero spilled millions of liters of cyanide solution into public watersheds. These accidents led to a short-lived shutdown of the mine and a criminal complaint, which the local activist group “Jáchal No Se Toca” [Don’t Mess with Jáchal] lodged against Barrick Gold for environmental damage and against the state for failing to act.

Veladero mine in Argentina (source: Onadal/Creative Commons).

This is where the case took an odd turn. The accusations against Barrick ended up in provincial court, where a friendly judge let the corporation off with a minor fine. But the accusations against the state led to the federal indictment issued last week.

According to the judge’s ruling, which closely follows the activists’ complaint, the defendants were deliberately negligent in carrying out the inventory and therefore in implementing the law. The claim is that if the inventory had been properly carried out, the mine would have been shut down, and the spills would never have occurred.

The indictment claims that Villalba and the three officials responsible for the environment (secretary until 2013, minister afterward) violated the law by proceeding too slowly with the inventory, failing to inspect Veladero specifically, and delaying the publication of the results. Perhaps the most telling accusation concerns technical standards. Villalba decided, and the government agreed, that the inventory should only include bodies of ice greater than one hectare in area. According to the ruling, this contradicted the language of the law, which spoke of mapping all glaciers and periglacial areas, and meant that significant periglacial environments, particularly around Veladero, went unmapped.

Heavy machinery removing glacier ice at the Barrick Gold mine on the Argentina-Chile border (source:Chile Sustentable/Twitter).

Yet the one hectare threshold is not an arbitrary decision but the current international standard, applied in inventories of the UN-affiliated World Glacier Measurement Service and Global Land Ice Measurements from Space. This standard is equally or more rigorous than that employed for the national glacial inventories of Switzerland, France, Norway, Canada, the U.S., Chile, and Peru.

Moreover, the one hectare standard is not the problem, for as Villalba wrote in response to the indictment, “in that area we mapped 30 bodies of ice with an area of four square kilometers, 4000 hectares. The inventory reveals the existence of glaciers in Veladero and Pascua Lama, and that element alone was sufficient to decide whether or not mining activity should continue. That decision belongs to the authorities responsible for applying the law and not the IANIGLA.”

Demonstration on December 4 in support of Ricardo Villalba in Mendoza, Argentina (source: DiarioContexto/Twitter)

As Villalba’s response suggests, the reasons for delay and inaction were political and institutional rather than technical. Given Argentina’s federal legal structure, the provinces play a key role in environmental regulation. In this case, the government of San Juan took aggressive action to protect the mines of Barrick Gold from the threat of the glacier law. First, the province claimed the law violated provincial autonomy, gaining an injunction on its application within San Juan for two years. Then, in 2012, the province passed its own law to make its own inventory, which would cover glaciers but not periglacial areas. In that same year, the province took advantage of an ambiguity in the national law to carry out its own provincial environmental impact assessment, which despite sharp criticism concluded that the mines could continue operating.

None of these provincial actions are mentioned in the indictment, which places all of the blame for the slow pace of the inventory with IANIGLA and national officials. Equally important, the indictment makes no distinction between expert bodies like IANIGLA and regulatory authorities of the state. This seems like a troubling misattribution of legal responsibility to IANIGLA. Today it threatens Villalba; tomorrow it may threaten any expert offering advice on protecting the environment or strengthening state regulation.

National and International Campaigns to Defend Villalba

Valuable as the work of environmental activists has been, the accusation by “Jáchal No se Toca” has yielded a perverse result. Threatening to jail a distinguished scientist for carrying out a conservation effort fully in line with international standards is troubling, and unlikely to lead to any greater protection for glaciers or the environment more broadly. For this reason, scientists and activists have rallied to Villalba’s cause since the indictment, with petitions garnering thousands of signatures and a rally held outside Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council.

In an interview with GlacierHub, a remote sensing professional at IANIGLA, Laura Zalazar,  described the situation as “very troubling.” She emphasized that his work on the National Glacier Inventory was of the highest scientific standards. She added, “Ricardo Villalba is a person with whom I have had the privilege of working. I can assure you that his research and honesty are exemplary.” She asked GlacierHub to include this link to a petition for Villalba, where concerned individuals can add their names to the others who have written to support his case.

To be sure, a few have defended the indictment, but coverage in the international scientific press has been roundly critical. The case remains open; its stakes for science and the environment are clear, as has been recognized by the leading scientific journals Nature and Science. At a time when scientific expertise and citizen activism are more necessary than ever, this case should trouble us all.

Demonstration on December 4 in support of Villalba at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) in Mendoza, Argentina (source: Señal U/Youtube).


Retreating Glaciers and Advancing Scientists Converge for UNESCO Meeting

The glaciers of the Andes are retreating and researchers are taking notice. Participants of UNESCO’s Impact of the Glacial Retreat in the Andes: International Multidisciplinary Network for Adaptation Strategies project met in Mendoza, Argentina, from August 23-25, to address challenges of glacial retreat in the Andes. 

A glacier in Argentina (Source: Studio 91.7).

The meeting took place at the IANIGLA Institute (The Argentinean Institute of Nivology, Glaciology and Environmental Sciences), and served as the final synthesis of the project. The project, which was established under UNESCO’s International Hydrological Program in 2012, focuses on developing a multidisciplinary network of professionals in the area of snow and glacial management to improve climate change adaptation strategies in the Andes. Presentations at the meeting, many of which were on research conducted from the beginning of the project, covered a range of topics. Researchers from Chile detailed the challenges facing glacier protection in their country, while the participants from Colombia detailed how their country protects the few glaciers they have left.

The final day of presentations at the UNESCO meeting on glacial retreat in the Andes held in Mendoza, Argentina (Source: CONICET Mendoza).

As a result of climate change, glaciers in the Andes face an uncertain future. Increased temperatures serve as the primary driver of glacial retreat; in the tropical Andes temperatures increased by 0.8 degrees Celsius during the 20th century. Glacial retreat poses significant challenges to the Andean region and the people and ecosystems that rely on these glaciers. Many places in the Andes and coastal regions of western South America count on glaciers to provide water, especially during the dry season when they act as a buffer to guard against the seasonal variability of precipitation. 

Luckily, these issues are not being ignored. The UNESCO meeting was truly a continental affair attended by more than 40 experts from across mountainous regions of Latin America, from Mexico to Chile and Argentina.

Lucas Ruiz, a glaciology specialist at IANIGLA, who attended the conference, spoke to GlacierHub about his experience at the meeting. Ruiz, when asked what he viewed as the most significant result of the meeting, said that it showed that it is “possible to work between scientists, governments, citizens and local communities, not only to create awareness of the importance of taking care of the water, but also to change the way water is used in more sustainable ways.”    

One of the highlights of the meeting was the presentation by IANIGLA of their National Inventory of Glaciers for Argentina which is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The national inventory, one of the world’s first, almost never got started. Scientists from IANIGLA launched the inventory back in 2011 but were unable to reach an area near a large-scale mining operation in San Juan, Argentina, run by the world’s largest gold mine, Barrick Gold. The year prior, the Argentine government had passed the “Law of the Glaciers” to protect water supplies by banning activities like mining on or near glaciers and calling for the completion of the national inventory of glaciers. A 2012 ruling by the Argentine Supreme Court upheld the Law of the Glaciers opening the glaciated areas near mines to inventory scientists, enabling the inventory to proceed.

Researchers training for the glacier Inventory (Source: IANIGLA).

The law and inventory are of particular interest to Andean countries as a blueprint for glacier protection. Every country in the Andes now conducts glacial monitoring programs, but a complete Andean glacier inventory has yet to be finished. The lack of a complete inventory in the view of Ruiz is a hinderance to the development of a comprehensive glacial retreat adaptation plan. “Until we have solid knowledge of all the glaciers in the country, it is hard to establish a strategy,” he said. However, he also believes that the starting goal of any adaptation strategy is to build up awareness around glacial retreat, something the project has done well. 

Aconcagua, the highest point outside Asia. Participants from the UNESCO meeting visited the mountain during the conference (Source: Mark Horrell/Creative Commons).

Other notable glacial retreat monitoring projects were also presented at the meeting. Researchers from the University of Chile detailed their study of the Maipo basin, one of the primary source regions of water for the capital of Santiago, and some of the most important industry and agriculture areas in the country. On a larger scale, a collaboration between the Imperial College London, UNESCO, and others on glacial retreat vulnerability mapping across the Andes was presented. 

In light of the somber impacts of climate change, hope still abounds. Challenges remain, but as Ruiz told GlacierHub, the only way to overcome the challenges associated with climate change and glacial retreat is through collaboration and the consideration of all stakeholders involved. The Impact of the Glacial Retreat in the Andes: International Multidisciplinary Network for Adaptation Strategies meeting and project proved that collaboration between different governments, scientists and local communities is not only possible, but also greatly beneficial.

Argentina’s National Glacier Inventory Makes Progress

Identifying glaciers in the Atuel drainage, central Andes (source:Facundo Rojas/IANIGLA)
Identifying glaciers in the Atuel drainage, central Andes (source: Facundo Rojas/IANIGLA)

Argentina’s national glacier inventory, which began in 2011, has recently advanced significantly. A group of researchers from the Argentine Institute of Snow Research, Glaciology and Environmental Sciences (IANIGLA) wrote recently to GlacierHub They prepared a document, included below, to describe the progress to date. The authors of this document are Laura Zalazar, Lidia Ferri, Mariano Castro, Melisa Giménez, Hernán Gargantini, Pierre Pitte, Lucas Ruiz, and Mariano Masiokas.

Training new researchers for the glacier inventory (source: IANIGLA)
Training new researchers for the glacier inventory (source: IANIGLA)

Glaciers play an important role in Argentina as water reserves, and serve as crucial components of hydrological systems, particularly in arid and semi-arid areas. Their rapid shrinkage in the context of global warming creates serious issues for the country. Despite the importance of the glaciers, Argentina lacks precise information on the number, location and size of these glaciers. This gap is one of the reasons that a law, known as Law 26636, was passed in 2010, titled “Minimum Standards for Preservation of Glaciers and periglacial environment.”

The principal objective of this law, laid out in its first article, is “to protect glaciers, considering them as strategic reserves of water resources.” The third article establishes the National Inventory of Glaciers, to document all of the glaciers and periglacial landforms, recording the information that is necessary for their proper protection, management and monitoring as water reserves.

Carrying equipment to Mount Mercedario, central Andes (source: IANIGLA)
Carrying equipment to Mount Mercedario, central Andes (source: IANIGLA)

The inventory and monitoring of glaciers and periglacial environments is carried out by the Argentine Institute of Snow Research, Glaciology and Environmental Sciences (IANIGLA), in coordination with the agency charged with enforcing the law, the Ministry for Environment and Sustainable Development.

The work is carried out through three distinct components. The first of these is the mapping and characterization of all the ice bodies in the country. The second is the study of recent fluctuations of selected glaciers, and the final ones consists of studies  of benchmark glaciers which are analyzed in detail to establish the effects of climate change.

Collecting data for mass balance research, Los Tres Glacier, southern Patagonia (source:IANGILA)
Collecting data for mass balance research, Los Tres Glacier, southern Patagonia (source: IANIGLA)

The study of fluctuations of glacier length and area of glaciers is currently scheduled to begin when the full inventory of the country’s glaciers is complete. This timing will allow IANIGLA to identify representative glaciers for all of the drainages.

Progress has been made with research on benchmark glaciers. Three have already been selected, each in a different region, and IANIGLA is monitoring their thickness, mass balance and velocity. These are Agua Negra Glacier in the arid north, Alerce Glacier in northern Patagonia and Los Tres Glacier in southern Patagonia. The process for selecting a fourth benchmark, located in the central Andes, is currently under way.

The mapping and inventory is carried out on a regional basis, recognizing the great climatic variation across the country. The regions, ranging from 21° S to 55° S, are the arid northern Andes, the central Andes, northern Patagonia, southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. In turn, these regions are subdivided into drainages and sub-drainages.

Calingasta Glacier, an example of a debris-covered glacier, northern Argentina (source: IANIGLA)
Calingasta Glacier, an example of a debris-covered glacier, northern Argentina (source: IANIGLA)

Within each of these sub-drainages, glaciers are mapped by remote sensing, along with field observations for validation. The mapping distinguishes rock and debris-covered glaciers, snow patches and ice fields from other glaciers. At present, IANIGLA has worked in 60 of the 70 sub-drainages in the country, and has napped 14,648 glaciers, with a total area of 5557 km2.

Base camp at Lake Tannhauser, southern Patagonia (source: IANIGLA)
Base camp at Lake Tannhauser, southern Patagonia (source: IANIGLA)

The research to date has shown significant regional variation across the country. Southern Patagonia accounts for 60% of the glacier area in the country, but only 14% of the individual glaciers in the inventory, while the central Andes represents 32% of the area and 55% of the total number of glaciers. The area in southern Patagonia is concentrated in a few large glaciers (including the Southern Patagonian Ice Field), while the central Andean glaciers are smaller. The types of glaciers also differ, with many debris-covered glaciers in the arid northern Andes.

IANIGLA looks forward to completing the inventory and the studies of glacier fluctuations. This work will support the effective implementation of the2010 glacier law in policy-making.

Readers can locate reports and maps from the inventory at http://www.glaciaresargentinos.gob.ar/