Photo Friday: The Sentinel and Landsat Images of Pierre Markuse

“Never stop being curious…” That’s Pierre Markuse’s advice. Markuse, who is based in Hamm, Germany, processes images taken from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellites and NASA’s Landsat orbiters.

You can visit his Flickr page here.

Aside from their beauty, his images capture the impact of anthropogenic climate change. The thousands of years old ice of the United States, Canada, Chile, Argentina, Russia, and Iceland, among other nations, is seen in vivid color and from high about the Earth’s surface. But side by side images, such as the ones below of Alaska’s Columbia Glacier, show the vast amount of glacier retreat that has occurred in just the last several decades.

Markuse’s images give us a unique perspective from which to admire—and lament—the state of Earth’s cryosphere.

Viedma Glacier, Lake Viedma, Southern Patagonian Ice Field, Chile, Argentina (Source: Pierre Markuse/Flickr)
Athabasca Glacacier, Alberta, Canada (Source: Pierre Markuse/Flickr)
Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska (Source: Pierre Markuse/Flickr)
Comparison of extent of Columbia Glacier, Alaska in 1986 and 2015 (Source: Pierre Markuse/Flickr)

Read More on GlacierHub:

How Mountain-Dwellers Talk About Adapting to Melting Glaciers

Video of the Week: A Stroll Through Myvatnsjokull Glacier

New Funds Help Girls On Ice Canada Expand Access to Glacier Expeditions

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Mongolia’s Cashmere Goats Graze a Precarious Steppe

Cashmere, the fine hair gleaned from the undercoat of the cashmere goat, is among the world’s most expensive ounce-for-ounce textiles. Cashmere goats thrive in the steppes of Central Asia, an ecoregion defined by its open temperate grasslands. In Mongolia, the second largest cashmere wool-producing country, a confluence of climatic and political forces, coupled with global cashmere demand, are creating instability.

The Mongolian steppe comprises one of the largest contiguous grassland expanses in the world. Increasing temperatures and decreasing precipitation, wrought by climate change, are transforming the country’s vast grasslands into parched deserts that offer meager sustenance for Mongolia’s goat herds. According to a 2013 study led by Yi Y. Liu of the University of New South Wales, precipitation across Mongolia has decreased by 7 percent since 1940. During the same period, the country registered an average temperature increase of 2°C. Glaciers in the icy Mongolian Altai mountains, which irrigate many of the rivers and lakes steppes, lost 35 percent of their debris-free ice mass between 1990 and 2016.

The Mongolian steppe pictured in 1997 (Source: Damiano Luchetti/WikiCommons).

 

The desertification of Mongolia, brought about by the onset of human-caused climate change, coincided with a political shift in the early 1990s toward a market economy in the country. The grasslands, once managed by experienced pastoral herders, supported around 4.4 million goats in 1988. Left to market forces and reduced government regulation, however, the goat population grazing the Mongolian steppe nearly quintupled to 20 million within two decades.

Cashmere fetches high market prices and global demand for the luxurious soft wool remains high. An article in the journal Science cited “fast fashion and increased knitting capacity” in China as factors in pushing cashmere to a mass market consumer good.

Patagonia, the outdoor brand known for its environmental activism, is addressing the degradation of pastures in Mongolia, by promoting the use of waste scrap from other cashmere purveyors. “We didn’t want to be a part of that, so we stopped using virgin cashmere several years ago,” Patagonia said in its 2018 environmental and social initiatives report. “By providing a market for recycled cashmere, we help divert discards from landfills and incinerators and, in our own small way, take no part in the desertification of Mongolian grasslands.”

It is unclear what impact Patagonia’s effort has had on market demand. Another effort focused on cashmere sustainability, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s cashmere initiative, is concentrating on the sustainability of Gobi Desert region cashmere production.

Almost the entire Mongolian steppe region experienced significant vegetation biomass declines between 1988 and 2008. The international research team, led by Liu, reported 60 percent of the decline to climate trends, with the rest of the damage done by fires and goat populations.

Caroline Humphrey, a leading researcher of Mongolia at the University of Cambridge, told GlacierHub, “The problem of goats is not so much the numbers (though that may be part of it), but the way they are now herded, which involves decreased mobility of the flocks and hence over-concentration on some pastures.”

The cashmere goat population has quintupled since 1988 (Source: Oregon State University/Flickr).

 

Humphrey described how herders now tend to remain closer to routes and population centers. While earlier generations moved great distances to seasonal pastures, those migrations are now fewer and shorter. She also mentioned the increasing tendency to fence off or privatize land, which fragments grasslands and impedes goat herd movement.

While goat numbers have increased, Humphrey added  “Climatic factors, especially decrease in precipitation, are more important and have wider impact.”

One of the difficulties presented by climate change, is an extreme seasonal weather phenomenon known locally as dzud, a Mongolian term for winter weather disaster. Herders fear the dzud for the deep snow and severe cold it brings, leading to high livestock mortality. The dzud in the winter of 2018, killed over 700,000 head of livestock. Dzud are predicted to increase in frequency and magnitude with future atmospheric changes.

One form of dzud, described by Mongolian herders, is a “hoofed dzud.” In other words, a die-off of livestock caused by trampling and over-grazing by over-population or over-concentration of animals in one area.

A Mongolian child with a newborn cashmere goat after the 2011 dzud (Source: EU Civil Protection/Flickr).

 

According to Liu’s study, climate projections indicate average air temperature will increase and precipitation decrease in Mongolia over the next three decades. Researchers agree that these conditions will further stress the fragile steppe ecoregion and accelerate grassland degradation. In some areas of Mongolia, glacier meltwater is a key resource for pastures, evening out the fluctuations of wet and dry years, though this resource will decline in coming decades.

Efforts like Patagonia’s cashmere recycling program take understanding of the problem into action to ebb global demand. Separately but in concert, the Wildlife Conservation Society is focusing on sustainable development on the ground in Mongolia by decreasing livestock impact on grasslands, increasing livestock productivity, and by connecting herders directly to cashmere markets.

Liu’s study concluded, “Understanding the competing influences of climate, land management and global demand for a niche agricultural product like cashmere will be key to protecting these ecosystems from further degradation.”

Read More on GlacierHub:

United Nations Steps for Building Functional Early Warning Systems

Kashmir’s Water: New Weapon of War for India and Pakistan?

Video of the Week: Preserving Sheepherding and Tradition Among Nepal’s Tamang Community

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Roundup: Snow Algae, Dams in Ecuador, and Patagonia’s Cashmere

Snow Algae and Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

From Science Direct: “Most of what is known about snow algae communities has been learned from studies centered on glaciers and snowfields located on sedimentary or metamorphic bedrock, but little is known about snow algae systems hosted in volcanic bedrock (Hamilton and Havig, 2017). Recent work has quantified primary productivity as predominantly phototrophically mediated, and demonstrated inorganic carbon limitation of primary productivity by snow algae communities on PNW glaciers (Hamilton and Havig, 2017Hamilton and Havig, 2018) suggesting increasing productivity with increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations.”

Read more about the study here.

Pink Snow Algae (Source: James St John /Flickr)

 

From the New York Times: “This giant dam in the jungle, financed and built by China, was supposed to christen Ecuador’s vast ambitions, solve its energy needs, and help lift the small South American country out of poverty. Instead, it has become part of a national scandal engulfing the country in corruption, perilous amounts of debt—and a future tethered to China. Nearly every top Ecuadorean official involved in the dam’s construction is either imprisoned or sentenced on bribery charges. That includes a former vice president, a former electricity minister and even the former anti-corruption official monitoring the project, who was caught on tape talking about Chinese bribes.”

Read more about China’s role in Ecuadorian dam construction here.

Ecuador’s Coca Codo Sinclair Dam (Source: Ministerio de Turismo Ecuador/Flickr)

Recycled Cashmere Sweaters by Patagonia

From Business Insider: “The process of creating cashmere is so inherently detrimental—requiring lots of resources and incurring lots of environmental degradation—that any claim of sustainability is pretty much moot. It may make us happy to have, but it sure isn’t preserving the grasslands of Mongolia. Patagonia’s cashmere line is the best no-compromise option I’ve found. Each piece is made out of 95 percent cashmere scraps collected from European garment factories, plus 5 percent virgin wool for strength. Altogether, it’s a line of durable, warm, guilt-free cashmere sweaters, hats, and scarves with way less ecological impact, plus the added benefit of Patagonia-level quality and design. You can also view “The Footprint Chronicles” to learn about their supply chain and the sewing factory that made your sweater.”

Read more about Patagonia’s cashmere sweaters here

Patagonia Logo (Source: /Wikimedia)

 

Read More on Glacier Hub:

Ecuador Presents High Mountain Projects at World Water Week

“Red Snow” Algae Accelerating Glacier Melt in the Arctic

“Reconstructing Norway’s Oldest Garment: The Tunic of Lendbreen

 

 

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Video of the Week: What Glacier Melt Means for Humpback Whales

In our Video of the Week, marine biologists examine how climate change might impact humpback whales in the waters off the coast of Chile. Melting Patagonian glaciers add freshwater to the ocean ecosystem, which is likely to change the water’s chemical composition, threatening the food supply of humpbacks.

Climate change is already affecting humpback migration patterns in other parts of the world. And changing climate conditions around Svalbard, Norway is altering the habitat of white whales.

The video, shared by the AFP news agency, emphasizes the importance of protecting vulnerable, marine ecosystems.

Researchers utilized buoys to gather information. Buoys can be useful in measuring such things as temperature, salinity, and pH levels, which can help monitor ecosystem changes and make projections about future conditions.

Check out more news on GlacierHub:

Millennial Climate Effects on a Lake Ecosystem in Southern Chile

GLOF Risk Perception in Nepal Himalaya

Argentina’s Retreating Turbio Glacier Creates a New Lake

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Photo Friday: Ice Collapse at Argentina Glacier

This Photo Friday, take a look at Glaciar Perito Moreno in Argentina, where ice collapse has become a spectacle. Perito Moreno is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Patagonia region. The terminus of the Perito Moreno glacier is 5 km wide, with an average height of 74 m above the surface of the water of Argentino Lake. It has a total ice depth of 170 meters (558 ft).

Tourists gather around the glacier (Source: Rodrigo Soldon /Filckr).

 

Los Glaciares National Park, Perito Moreno Glacier, 1981 (source: De Agostini Picture Library / P. Jaccod).

 

According to the glaciology studies, while most of the glaciers are retreating in the world as well as in Patagonia region, this unique glacier has advanced or remained the stable during the 20th century. Glaciar Perito Moreno is located in Los Glaciares National Park (Argentina) and is an eastern outlet glacier of the Southern Patagonia Icefield, the largest reserve of fresh water of the southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica.

Comparison between early 20th century and contemporary photographs of Glaciar Perito Moreno. The upper photographs were taken in 1914 by the German Scientific Society Expedition and the lower photographs in 2013 by Claudia Guerrido (Source: Claudia M Guerrido/The Holocene)

 

Periodically, the glacier advances through the the “Lago Argentino,” or Argentine Lake, and reaches the Península de Magallanes. It has regularly produced an ice dam between the Brazo Rico and Canal de los Témpanos since the early 20th century. The most recent ice dam establishment was in 2016.

A photo of where the ice-dam formed (Source: María G. Lenzano/Cold Regions Science and Technology).

 

The ice dam is expected to collapse eventually in a spectacular rupture event due to the effect of calving.

Perito Moreno Glacier ice fall (Source: Creative Commons).

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Inside the Gut of the Patagonian Dragon

The stonefly is the largest animal inhabiting the glaciers of Patagonia. What the inch-long insect eats and excretes on the ice is central to the overall glacier ecosystem. Also known as the Patagonian Dragon, the stonefly occupies a near-apex position in the truncated glacier food chain. Stonefly larvae develop in glacial meltwater pools, where the larvae spends most of its life as a waterbound nymph, consuming algae, fungi, and other small inhabitants found in cryoconite sediments. The wingless adults wander the ice surface in search of food and mating opportunities. Despite their significant influence on glacier biogeochemical cycles, glacier invertebrates like the stonefly and their associated bacteria remain understudied. New research published in the journal Environmental Microbiology provided the first look at the genetics underlying the gut microbiome of stonefly nymphs.

The research team, comprised of Japanese and Chilean scientists, traveled by horseback and camped at Tyndall Glacier in Chile, collecting samples for analysis in a Tokyo laboratory. The team were surprised to find some bacteria in the stonefly gut were not present on the glacier surface. Not only was the bacteria absent from the surface of the Tyndall Glacier, but they were also distinct from bacteria catalogued in other glacier environments, indicating a symbiotic relationship between the Patagonian stonefly nymph host and its gut bacteria. The stonefly nymph provides an enriching gut environment and in turn the bacteria aids in the insect’s nutrition and material cycle of the glacier environment.

The Tyndall Glacier is one of the largest glaciers in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field (Source: Takumi Murakami).

 

Insects and animals, including humans, host a variety of microorganisms in their digestive tracts. These microorganisms and other bacteria, called gut flora, help perform a variety of functions critical to the health of their host. For example, humans lack enzymes necessary to break down certain fibers, starches, and sugars. Our gut flora keeps us healthy and enables us to ingest a wide range of foods we would otherwise be unable to digest. Similarly, the stonefly’s gut community enables it to benefit from seemingly nutritionless cryoconite sediments.

According to Takumi Murakami, from Japan’s National Institute of Genetics and principal author of the study, glacier stonefly nymphs and their gut bacteria likely drive the decomposition of organic materials on the glacier. The gut bacteria-invertebrate symbiosis may even be a common phenomenon in glacier ecosystems beyond Patagonia. Understanding the role of high trophic level invertebrates, like the stonefly, and their bacteria in glacier ecosystems is key to understanding the big picture of glacier nutritional networks.

Stonefly nymphs and cryoconite sediment in a meltwater pool (Source: Takumi Murakami).

 

Japanese scientists have compiled a significant body of research on invertebrates and their gut flora, particularly those inhabiting glaciers. In 1984, Japanese researcher Shiro Kohshima documented a novel discovery on a visit to the Yala Glacier in Nepal; a cold-tolerant midge. Later he visited Patagonia to examine the glacier-indigenous insects of the region. Kohshima enlisted collaborators, who in turn brought their students, which has resulted in the present day team of glacier-insect specialists, including Murakami. Their diligence in studying glacier ecosystems has produced a prolific body of published work, helping fill knowledge gaps at the headwaters of organic decomposition.

(Source: Nicolas Ferrier/Instagram)

 

Further underscoring the importance of the research, Murakami told GlacierHub, “Recent studies suggested that glacier ecosystems are the source of nutrition for downstream soil, river, and ocean ecosystems.” Were it not for the bacteria inhabiting the gut of the Patagonian Dragon, the organic matter would not be processed, and thus would not contribute to the glacier or downstream ecosystems.

Murakami adds, “Since glacier environments are susceptible to climate change, it is essential to accumulate the knowledge on the current glacier ecosystems for future studies, otherwise we will lose the opportunity.” Murakami’s concern is not unfounded. In the U.S., the stonefly is the poster child of understudied species that are quickly disappearing due to rapidly changing habitats. Petitions listing two species of stonefly under the Endangered Species Act are under consideration.

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Roundup: Black Carbon, Dying Crustaceans, and Ice Sheet Melting

Kuwait Fires Cause Black Carbon Buildup

From Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics: “Muztagh Ata is located to the east of Pamir and in the north of the Tibetan Plateau. The ice core data provide important information for atmospheric circulation and climate change in Asia. Moreover, the climate in Muztagh Ata is very sensitive to solar warming mechanisms because it has a large snow cover in the region, resulting in important impacts on the hydrological cycle of the continent by enhancing glacier melt.”

Read more about black carbon in northern Tibet here.

Muztagh Ata Mountain, northern Tibetan Plateau (Source: Yunsheng Bai/Flickr)

 

Microscopic Crustaceans at Risk in Patagonian Fjords

From Progress in Oceanography: “Glacial retreat at high latitudes has increased significantly in recent decades associated with global warming. Along Chile’s Patagonian fjords, this has promoted increases in freshwater discharge, vertical stratification, and the input of organic and inorganic particles to fjords.”

Read more about the effects of glacial retreat on Patagonian crustaceans here.

Pia Fjord in Chile (Source: Glenn Seplak/Flickr).

 

Melting Greenland Ice Sheet Contributes to Sea Level Rise

From The Cryosphere: “Mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) has accelerated since the early 2000s, compared to the 1970s and 1980s, and could contribute 0.45–0.82m of sea level rise by the end of the 21st century. Recent mass loss has been attributed to both a negative surface mass balance and increased ice discharge from marine-terminating glaciers.”

Read more about the research here.

Massive ice island broken off from Petermann Glacier, one of the 18 glaciers observed in the study (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight/Flickr).

 

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Photo Friday: The Changing World of South Patagonia

This Photo Friday, explore the massive South Patagonian Icefield. Along with its northern counterpart, this icefield makes up the largest expanse of ice in the Southern Hemisphere outside of Antartica, thanks to the regions favorable climate. When westerly winds traveling across the Pacific reach Patagonia they are lifted upwards by the Andes Mountains which cools and condenses the air, forming clouds and heavy precipitation.

Just how heavy? The western side of the Patagonia Icefields receive an astonishing 160 inches of rain and snow a year. While the eastern side receives less, as the moisture content of the air masses that rose on the western side is depleted, the area still receives a substantial 40 inches. When this precipitation falls as snow and freezes on the glaciers, it adds mass; however, in recent times, the glaciers in South Patagonia have retreated due to climate change. The Jorge Montt, for example, has retreated 13 kilometers between 1984 and 2014 and at the peak of its melting was thinning by 100 feet a year. Check out the images below of four expansive glaciers in Southern Patagonia from NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Aerial photo of the Jorge Montt glacier
The Jorge Montt Glacier, one of the fastest melting glaciers in the ice-field (Source: NASA Earth Observatory).

 

Aerial photo of the Upsala Glacier
The Upsala Glacier, one of the longest and largest in the ice-field (Source: NASA Earth Observatory).

 

Aerial photo of the Occidental glacier
The Occidental, Greve, and Tempano Glaciers. The Occidental glacier is an anomaly in that it has only retreated about a kilometer since 1980s (Source: NASA Earth Observatory).

 

Overview of photo of the southern Patagonia ice-field
The section of the Patagonia ice-field containing the three glaciers above. The boxes outline the respective glaciers (Source: NASA Earth Observatory).

 

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Photo Friday: From the Philippines to Grey Glacier

Long hikes, cold winds and raging rivers weren’t enough to keep Filipino world traveler Rocco Puno from reaching his destination, Grey Glacier, located in the southern Patagonian ice field.

Puno, the son of a prominent Filipino family, was recently accepted into Harvard’s MBA program and upon hearing the good news quit his job to travel the world. In search of adventure and inspiration for new sustainable development ideas, Puno and his friends flew to South America and took the W trek, Patagonia’s most famous hiking route. It gets its name from the three valleys it cuts through, creating a “w” shape on the map. The hike goes through Torres del Paine National Park, located on the western side of Chilé before reaching Grey Glacier.

Grey Glacier stretches around 350 kilometers and is over 1,200 years old. It took Puno and his friends five days of hiking to finally reach their destination. Puno told GlacierHub that this was one of the most physically demanding challenges of his life, and yet it was truly worth it. “One of the most rewarding parts of the hike was seeing Glacier Grey,” said Puno, who hails from a country without glaciers. “Set to the backdrop of towering snow-capped mountains, we agreed that it was one of the most beautiful things we had ever seen.”

Puno highly recommends the trip to anyone who is willing and able to make the journey, saying his experience was both humbling and inspiring. This Photo Friday, find photos of his glacier adventure.

Rocco Puno standing next to one of the rivers along the W Trek (Source: Rocco Puno).

 

Torres del Paine National Park, Chilé (Source: Rocco Puno).

 

Grey Glacier, Patagonia (Source: Rocco Puno).

 

Rocco Puno with his friends Manu Gonzalez, Quintin de Castro, Price Padgett, and Wilson Padgett on a boat next to Grey Glacier (Source: Rocco Puno).

 

The “W” Trek through Torres del Paine (Source: Rocco Puno).

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Photo Friday: Traversing the Chilean Andes by Bicycle

This Photo Friday, traverse the glaciers of the Chilean Andes with Marcos Cole, a Chilean geographer and mountain guide. Cole, as part of his Glaciers by Bicycle project, is currently traveling by bicycle from the Altiplano region in the north of Chile all the way to Tierra del Fuego in the far south.

The project has three objectives, the first of which is to create a photographic database of Chilean glaciers for future studies on glacial retreat and global change. Second, by traveling by bicycle, Cole hopes to demonstrate the importance of the bicycle in the fight against climate change. Lastly, Cole wants to highlight the importance of glaciers for society and ecosystems through the creation of a documentary of his travels.

Take a sneak peek of some of his personal photos.

Photo of Marcos Cole in front of the Sierra Velluda volcano
Marcos Cole and his bicycle near the east face of the Sierra Velluda volcano in the Bío Bío region of Chile taken in December 2017 (Source: Glaciers by Bicycle).

Photo of the glaciers of the Osorno Volcano
The glaciers of the Osorno Volcano on the shores of Llanquihue Lake in the Los Lagos region of Chile taken in February 2018 (Source: Glaciers by Bicycle).

Photo of the Queulat Hanging Glacier
The Queulat Hanging Glacier located in the Aysén Region of southern Chile taken in March 2018 (Source: Glaciers by Bicycle).

Photo of Leones Glacier
The Leones Glacier of the northern Patagonia ice-field taken in March 2018 (Source: Glaciers by Bicycle).

Photo of the Calluqueo glacier
The Calluqueo glacier on the slopes of Monte San Lorenzo in Cochrane, Chile taken in March 2018 (Source: Glaciers by Bicycle).

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Video of the Week: A Glacier That Keeps Collapsing

We’ve all heard of glacial retreat. But have you heard of this glacier in Argentina that keeps collapsing?

Take a look at this BBC video of the Perito Moreno glacier in the country’s Patagonia region, where a part of the glacier recently collapsed. This event is, thankfully, not due to climate change. Rather, its part of an unusual cycle of an advancing glacier, slowly damming a section of the Argentino Lake, creating an ice bridge, which then ruptures and collapses when the water pressure becomes too great. This collapsing spectacle is part of a natural cycle that can occur once a year or sometimes less frequently, around once a decade.

Even though this collapse may not be due to climate change, scientists do say that overall the amount of glacial ice in the Patagonia region is decreasing.

Read more glacier news at GlacierHub:

Avalanche Strikes Near Russian Glacier

Greatest Snowfall on Kilimanjaro Glacier in Years

The Glacier Law Conundrum: Protecting Glaciers or Limiting Hazard Response and Adaptation?

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An Interview on Patagonian Imaginaries

A recent paper in the Journal of Latin American Geography, “The Patagonian Imaginary: Natural Resources and Global Capitalism at the Far End of the World,” analyzes the construction of southern Andean Patagonia as an “ecoregion,” a label that has come to dominate the representation of the glaciated territory of Chile and Argentina. Through this representation, resource extraction and environmental preservation coalesce within a shared framework of green development, which then circulates globally and perpetuates the ecoregion narrative.

The incomparable beauty of the Patagonian Andes near Ushuaia (Source: Trey Ratcliff/Creative Commons).

The paper is a collaborative research effort by five scholars, and it differs from other work in the region in that it attempts to produce a unifying regional framework via a coterie of academic interests and field sites. GlacierHub spoke with the anthropologists Marcos Mendoza and Laura Ogden, two of the paper’s authors, about their findings.

GlacierHub: Briefly describe the importance of your research.

Marcos Mendoza: There are three contributions that the paper makes. It provides the first theorization of southern Andean Patagonia as an ecoregion that simultaneously examines multiple resource regimes. Most previous studies have focused rather narrowly on one type of resource. Instead, we sought to build our argument across three resource domains: land conservation, forestry, and hydropower. Second, we have developed a conceptual model for understanding the Patagonian ecoregion as an example of what we termed a “regional territorial imaginary.” To understand the Patagonian territorial imaginary, we attended to the: 1) geopolitics of space, particularly the development of protected areas in the wake of ongoing border conflicts between Argentina and Chile; 2) the intersection of global neoliberal capitalism with green development; and 3) the diverse forms of natural capital at work within “conservation” and “extraction.” Third, we hope it shows how useful it can be to theorize across resource regimes and bring together like-minded scholars working on similar problems. 

 

GlacierHub: Describe your own work, and how that fits into this collaboration.

Laura Ogden: Patagonia, like Amazonia, has functioned as a mythic imaginary for a very long time [see Hugh Raffles’ classic “In Amazonia”]. Every hostel in the region seems to have several well-worn copies of Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia” lying around, which says something about how and why a particular figuration of Patagonia endures. For the last several years, I have been doing fieldwork in southernmost Patagonia, in the Fuegian archipelago, both on the main island and on Navarino Island. My project, which I am calling an alternative archive of loss, change, and wonder, explores the ways global environmental change articulates with other histories of loss and change in the region, as well as the limitations of this optic.

For the past few decades, environmental anthropologists, and particularly political ecologists, have been interested in understanding how neoliberal forms of capitalism are transforming conservation efforts and forms of environmental concern. I have always been fairly skeptical of totalizing critique, and so was not surprised that some of the key manifestations of neoliberal conservation— interest in carbon markets, ecosystem services, eco-tourism, etc. — are mostly rhetorical or strategic devices in the parks, estancias [estates or ranches], and communities where I have been working. In reality, the infrastructure just isn’t there yet — even though a range of communities evoke that language in hopes that the places and livelihoods they care about will be protected and/or remain economically viable. Of course, this could change quickly. Yet, our collaborative exercise showed me how the idea of Patagonia is becoming operationalized in new ways to support conservation and ecotourism throughout Chile and Argentina— sometimes to counter older forms of capitalist extraction and development initiatives, such as hydroelectric power. 

The jagged ice has captured the imagination of tourists from across the globe (Source: Killy Ridols/Creative Commons).

GH: If past research within Patagonia has been limited to specific sites and has failed to tell a broader regional story, what are the limits of the spatially and temporally multitiered methodology you and your co-authors implement in studying the region?

MM: The obvious next step to this methodological approach would be to perform a similar “regionalization” study of the eastern/non-Andean zone of Southern Patagonia, which has its own history of resource exploitation and representational value. However, eastern Patagonia has been primarily focused on agro-extraction—mining, petroleum, and livestock farming— with less coverage by protected areas. There is a fundamental asymmetry within the global imagination of Patagonia, which privileges its Andean landscapes (glaciers, mountains, lagunas, forests) and erases its non-Andean landscapes (steppe, monte, and coastal ecologies). This is one limitation to our study, which should be expanded to include the rest of Southern Patagonia.

 

GH: In what ways does the regional territorial imaginary of Patagonia as ecoregion create a new space for indigenous rights? I assume the ecoregion label and the commodification of pristine natural beauty also comes with foreign desire to experience indigenous cultures. What role does the territorial imaginary grant to the indigenous?

MM: The ecoregion is a green developmental framework to which indigenous groups— most located in Northern Patagonia— could tether their projects, goals and movements. This provides indigenous groups with a framework for potentially opposing mining, forestry, and hydropower companies and interests. However, green capitalism also presents its own set of risks to indigenous groups in the form of land grabs, control of water rights, inequality, etc.  

The ecoregion does entail the commodification of sublime nature and indigeneity/heritage. However, the armed forces and settler colonists were quite successful in killing, dispossessing and marginalizing indigenous societies in southern Andean Patagonia. Since the late 19th century, part of the colonization effort has been to erase or suppress the existing indigenous presence that remains. Rather than indigenous societies, the ecotourism industry has primarily sought to commodify Patagonian rural heritage. Gauchos [cowboys from southern South America] and paisanos [country people], working on estancias [estates], have become representative of “native Patagonian frontier culture.” This heritage industry draws upon tropes of indigeneity to construct a “wild other” living on the margins of Chilean and Argentine society.

 

GH: There are obviously limits to place-making, and one cannot readily attract visitors to any site. Why do you think mountains and glaciers in particular are such place-makeable spaces? I am curious about the importance of glaciers in constituting the Patagonia imaginary, and how that ties into a larger ecotourism trends in other glaciated parts of the world. Why, in your opinion, is Los Glaciares the “crown jewel” of Patagonian parks? What drives these sites as spaces of bourgeois aesthetic distinction?

The mesmerizing alpine landscapes lends themselves well to the ecoregion imaginary (Source: roman korzh/Creative Commons).

MM: As someone who has worked in Argentina, let me speak to that country’s history. One of the interesting things about the founding of the National Parks Administration of Argentina was that it involved elites who had spent substantial time traveling throughout Europe. They were well versed with the connection between the Alps, tourism and the leisured class. The founders sought to refashion Argentine and foreign understandings of the Patagonian Andes in explicit reference to creating Argentina’s version of the Swiss Alps. From the 1930s onward, mountains and glaciers became crucial to the state-led tourism industry in Northern Andean Patagonia. It took many decades, however, for tourism and conservation to become integral to Southern Andean Patagonia.

The Perito Moreno Glacier in the iconic Los Glaciares National Park (Source: Dimitry B./Creative Commons).

Since the 1990s, Southern Andean Patagonia has begun to market itself more aggressively as the “end of the world” and the region with some of most accessible glaciers on the planet. Sure, you can hike 12 hours round-trip to see a glacier up close, but you can also take a charter bus to the observation deck positioned directly in front of Perito Moreno Glacier. Or you can board a boat to sail through the fjords and see dozens of glaciers. For those people who either cannot hike or choose not to, accessibility is a major selling point. Because of this suite of options, Los Glaciares National Park is the most visited park in Patagonia, for now. Indeed, the primary ecotourism circuit involves Los Glaciares, Torres del Paine, and Tierra del Fuego. The place branding of the region really revolves around these three parks, but there is a lot of work going on in Chile’s Aysén Region to add more high-profile destinations to the primary circuit.

 

GH: The paper refers to a new phase of global capital, in which the extraction of resources and the conservation of biodiversity operate according to the same capitalistic logic. What future do you see to this pairing?

MM: In this article, we try to show how the Patagonian ecoregion is emerging through processes of natural capital formation across industries traditionally labelled as “conservation” or “extraction.” However, one of the points we make is that these terms are themselves slippery, underdetermined and contested. The case of hydropower is a good example. Some argue that building mega-dams is an example of “energy extraction” and should be opposed in order to preserve the green development framework. Others argue that mega-dams are actually “green energy” and align with the ecoregion paradigm. Our point is that scholars need to pay closer attention to the politics of meaning surrounding these two terms, which are often opposed to one another in an uncritical fashion.  

In terms of the future of this new phase of global capital, I imagine we will continue to see the growing expansion of natural capital, of various kinds. Much of the cutting-edge work in the neoliberal conservation literature looks at financialization and the new mechanisms and technologies allowing different permutations of natural capital to circulate globally. What our paper underscores is that we should expect to see different regimes of natural capital formation begin to interlock with industries we typically think of as “extractive.” In this way, corporations and industries can make money through the extraction and exchange of natural resources, but also make money off of conserving its resource stock for a set amount of time or by certifying its products as sustainable/green/eco-friendly.

The popular Patagonia brand has profited from and contributed to the Patagonia ecoregion imaginary (Source: Yukiko Matsuoka/Creative Commons).

 

GH: Ecotourism seem to have a long future, but what are the ecological risks to the region if the tourists, for whatever reason, stop coming?

MM: Certainly, there are many socio-ecological risks to Patagonian societies given their increasing specialization as an ecoregion. There will be more forest fires in popular national parks like Torres del Paine. We will see increasing urbanization in towns like El Calafate and Ushuaia. And there is always the fear that Patagonia will cease being a hyped, high-status destination to visit.

As such, communities recognize that they are dependent on macroeconomic factors and exchange rates over which they have little to no control. However, Patagonia continues to benefit from its global image as an archetypal wilderness. Its ecotourism industry–based on touristic access to glaciers–will endure for many more decades to come, despite climate change. Given the scale of the Southern and Northern Patagonian Icefields (combined they are approximately the size of the state of Vermont), Patagonian ecotourism destinations will have a comparative advantage over other alpine destinations that are rapidly losing their glaciers.  

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