Government geologist Gino Casassa steps down from the helicopter and looks around in dismay. Casassa is standing at the foot of a glacier, 4,200 meters (13,800 feet) above sea level.
The sky over the Andes is a deep blue, but something is not right: It’s July—mid-winter in South America—and yet it’s mild for the time of year, above 0 degrees Centigrade. He takes off his orange ski jacket and walks on the bare rock.
“This should all be covered by snow this time of year,” he says, pointing to Olivares Alfa, one of the largest glaciers in central Chile, just a few meters away. “There used to be one single glacier system covering this whole valley; now it’s pulled back so much that it’s divided into four or five smaller glaciers.”
Chile has one of the world’s largest reserves of fresh water outside the north and south poles, but the abundant glaciers that are the source of that precious commodity are melting fast. That’s not just an ecological disaster in the making, it’s rapidly becoming an economic and political dilemma for the government of Latin America’s richest nation.
A toxic cocktail of rising temperatures, the driest nine-year period on record and human activity, including mining, is proving lethal for the ice of Chile’s central region. Built up over thousands of years, the ice mass is now retreating one meter per year on average.