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In today's Times a bittersweet contemplation on the Patagonia glaciers as seen from the deck of a disco blasting cruise ship.
The pieces of ice in the water around us are now larger; their shapes are mesmerizing, as are their colors, varying shades of an intense, crystalline blue that I’ve never before seen in nature. As if we were children watching clouds float through the sky, we start pointing out ice in the shapes of whales and giraffes, or fallen columns; the larger icebergs, showing only 15 percent of their incredible mass above water, look like ruined temples and amphitheaters.
We come in sight of the first glacier and it is strange and magnificent, a frozen river of jagged peaks. Water pours off the sides. Glaciers worldwide have been receding for more than a century, but the melting has accelerated catastrophically in the last few decades. The tree line has not had time to advance enough to catch up; the ice has left behind wide scars of bare, hardscrabble earth. All the glaciers in Patagonia save one are shrinking more rapidly every year.
To my teenage niece, who has unplugged herself and joined me on deck, I explain all the science of climate change I can muster. Every once in a while a thundering crack is audible over the human din, as a huge piece of ice breaks off the face of the glacier. By the time you’ve heard it, you’ve missed it, and can see only the widening ripples radiating from the water where the newly calved iceberg has fallen. We watch melting ice cascade off the glacier’s crenelated face. “I guess this gives new meaning to ‘a glacial pace,’” my niece remarks.
I try to imagine what it must have been like to see glaciers looming 19 or 20 stories above, as the guide puts it, from a small, fragile craft, rather than from our three-story-high cruiser, and then I realize how strange it is that we resort to the architectural measurements of skyscrapers to wrap our minds around such grandeur. Getting to the glaciers in a small boat as a backpacker might have done a mere 20 years ago is now a privilege reserved for the very wealthy. Our cruiser cannot get too close for fear of a chunk of ice breaking off and sinking it — in revenge?
So, how rapidly are the glaciers pitching bits of themselves into the ocean? According to NASA research, so quickly that the melt is a significant cause of rising sea levels. It is this "calving" process that makes their melt so rapid and it's impact so great.
The Patagonia Icefields of Chile and Argentina, the largest non-Antarctic ice masses in the Southern Hemisphere, are thinning at an accelerating pace.
They now account for nearly 10 percent of global sea-level change from mountain glaciers, according to a new study by NASA and Chile's Centro de Estudios Cientificos.
. . .
NASA scientists have concluded that the cause of glacial retreat is climate change, as evidenced by increased air temperatures and decreased precipitation.
Still, those factors alone are not sufficient to explain the rapid thinning. The rest of the story appears to lie primarily in the unique dynamic response of the region's glaciers to climate change.
The Patagonia Icefields are dominated by 'calving' glaciers, that spawn icebergs into the ocean or lakes, and have different dynamics from glaciers that end on land and melt at their front ends.
Calving glaciers are more sensitive to climate change once pushed out of equilibrium, and make the Patagonia region the fastest area of glacial retreat on Earth.
But they sure are beautiful.