New study unlocks the secrets of the Patagonian icefields

Credit: Wenhao Ji / Unsplash

The Patagonian icefields, vast expanses of ice nestled in the Andes of South America, cover an area as large as the German state of Thuringia, about 16,000 square kilometers.

Yet, despite their size, much about them remains a mystery.

A team led by Johannes Fürst from the Institute of Geography at Friedrich-Alexander University (FAU) is on a mission to change that, shedding light on these remote giants using the limited data available and the latest research methods.

In an new effort, the team recalculated the volume of the Northern and Southern Patagonian Icefields, revealing an astonishing 5,351 cubic kilometers of ice as of the year 2000.

To put this into perspective, this is forty times the amount of ice found in all the European Alps combined. This discovery, detailed in Communications Earth & Environment, underscores the colossal scale of these icefields.

The Northern Patagonian Icefield stretches about 120 kilometers in length, varying between 50 and 70 kilometers in width, while the Southern Icefield is even more expansive, extending roughly 350 kilometers with a width of 30 to 40 kilometers.

The ice in these fields averages over 250 meters thick, dwarfing the glaciers of the European Alps.

The climate in this part of the world adds to the icefields’ mystique. Winds from the west bring moist air from the Pacific, leading to significant precipitation as the air rises over the Andes.

This results in an average of over 3,000 millimeters of rainfall annually in the region, compared to the modest 550 and 930 liters in cities like Nuremberg and Munich.

This high level of precipitation supports a rich rainforest to the west and a stark steppe to the east of the Andes, showcasing the area’s diverse environments.

Yet, studying these icefields is fraught with challenges. Besides the rugged terrain and extreme weather conditions, political disputes between Argentina and Chile over the border have rendered vast stretches of the glacier virtually inaccessible for in-situ research.

Moreover, the immense snowfall on the icefields makes operating a weather station near impossible, leaving researchers to estimate that snowfall could be anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000 liters per square meter annually.

Despite these obstacles, the FAU-led team, in collaboration with Chilean researchers, has made significant strides in understanding the icefields’ dynamics.

By comparing ground measurements with satellite data, they have refined estimates of ice thickness and gained insights into the ground beneath the ice.

This information is crucial for predicting the glaciers’ future behavior, as melting ice can form lakes that may accelerate glacier retreat by attacking the ice from below.

The team’s efforts have revealed that the Patagonian icefields are thinning by about one meter annually, a stark indication of climate change’s impact. These findings emphasize the urgency of monitoring these ice giants closely.

As Johannes Fürst notes, understanding the rate and scale of ice loss is vital for tracking the broader implications of our changing climate.

This research not only highlights the importance of the Patagonian icefields in the global climate system but also showcases the innovative approaches researchers are taking to study remote and challenging environments.

As the world warms, the fate of these icefields will increasingly affect us all, making this research more relevant than ever.

The research findings can be found in Communications Earth & Environment.

Copyright © 2024 Knowridge Science Report. All rights reserved.