Penitentes, An Otherworldly Wonder

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Lara Vimercati and Jack Darcy, two graduate students, at the edge of a penitente field on a Chilean volcano where researchers unexpectedly found algae. Steven K. Schmidt

Thanks to JoAnna Klein for bringing this question, and another Chilean wonder, to our attention:

If Algae Clings to Snow on This Volcano, Can It Grow on Other Desolate Worlds?

Scientists were surprised to find something living on the sterile heights of this Chilean volcano.

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The penitentes are thought to result from an unusual mix of wind, temperature fluctuations and the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Steve Schmidt

In Chile’s Atacama Desert, Volcan Llullaillaco is Mars on Earth — or about as close to it as you can get. At 22,000 feet above sea level, it’s the second highest active volcano on Earth. Most of the mountain is a barren, red landscape of volcanic rock and dust, with thin, dry air, intense sunlight and winds that will blow your tent down the mountain.

While the ground can heat up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, air temperatures rarely reach above freezing. When snow falls, it turns to gas just as it hits the earth. Occasionally, snow can collect in windblown banks, which then melt into icy spires up to 16 feet tall. The Spaniards called these “nieves penitentes,” penitent ones, because they look like hooded monks doing penance.

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Steve Schmidt

These conditions high up on the volcano made it seem about as lifeless as Mars. But a team of researchers led by Steven K. Schmidt, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies extreme life, have discovered microbes living in and around the penitentes at 17,300 feet above sea level, about one thousand feet above the point at which vegetation stops on Volcan Llullaillaco. Continue reading

Waterways, Persons & Rights

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The free-flowing Baker River in Chile’s Patagonia region. Permits for a major hydroelectric project on the waterway were revoked in 2014 amid protests. LOUIS VEST/FLICKR

Dams in Patagonia are the gift that keep on giving, in terms of awakening activism and forcing raised awareness of the value of waterways. I first mentioned my experience in Chile here. I came back to the idea a few more times. Thanks to Jens Benohr and Patrick Lynch for this reminder, and for letting us all know where this seems headed from a legal point of view:

Should Rivers Have Rights? A Growing Movement Says It’s About Time

Inspired by indigenous views of nature, a movement to grant a form of legal “personhood” to rivers is gaining some ground — a key step, advocates say, in reversing centuries of damage inflicted upon the world’s waterways.

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A Chilean energy company is seeking permits to restart the building of an unfinished dam along the San Pedro River. CARLOS LASTRA

Chile is a land of rivers. Along its narrow 3,000-mile length, thousands of rivers and wetlands bring freshwater and nutrients down from the Andes Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Together, these river systems drain 101 major watersheds that support both terrestrial and marine ecosystems, ranging from arid lands in the north to blue whale nurseries off of Patagonia in the south.

Chile’s second-longest river, the 240-mile Biobío, once tumbled fast and wild through deep gorges and spectacular scenery on its way from the Andes to the sea. The Biobío was one of the world’s great whitewater rafting venues — until the 1990s, when the first of three large hydroelectric dams was built across the river. Over the past two decades, the Biobío dams have flooded more than 13,000 acres, displaced hundreds of families of the indigenous Mapuche people, turned long stretches of this once-unruly river into placid reservoirs, and caused abrupt fluctuations in water levels that have wrecked nesting habitat for native birds and disrupted the river’s natural rhythms. Continue reading

Extreme Measures, No Good Outcomes

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A Mapuche gathering in Ercilla, Chile. The Mapuche are protesting the presence of agricultural firms on their land. Photograph: Rodrigo Abd/AP

During the two years I worked in southern Chile, 2008-2010, I had the opportunity to listen to the concerns of members of the Mapuche community, and heard a deep frustration bordering on despair. Their forests were being extracted, wholesale and rapaciously and there was little to nothing they could do about it. The news here, even with the exposure I had to the situation, still shocks me. It is not good news:

‘We burned the forest’: the indigenous Chileans fighting loggers with arson

Chile’s Mapuche people are resorting to increasingly radical tactics to reclaim their ancestral land from exploitive industries

Screen Shot 2018-06-14 at 6.00.13 PM.jpgIt is late autumn in southern Chile, and in the region of Araucanía, the leaves have turned copper and gold. But on the road to the mist-shrouded town of Lumaco, the hills are covered with rows of charred pines.

“We burned these forests as an act of legitimate resistance against the extractive industries that have oppressed the Mapuche people,” says Hector Llaitul. “If we make their business unprofitable they move on, allowing us to recover our devastated lands and rebuild our world.” Continue reading

The Idea Gets Greater, In Chile

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Protecting More Wilderness
Map shows the scope of Tompkins Conservation park projects in Chile and Argentina. Eight Chilean parks, shown in boldface, comprise the latest expansion of wilderness areas, an area roughly twice the size of Massachusetts. Source: Tompkins Conservation. By The New York Times

When the news was first reported, just the facts were enough. Then yesterday we had some commentary that made us think more on how important this news really was, from a global perspective. Now, the story behind the facts, and this op-ed by Kristine McDivitt Tompkins echoes the greatest idea:

We need a new story about the Earth that isn’t just a litany of alarming statistics about crashing wildlife populations, polluted air and water, and climate chaos. We need a story that reminds us that the continuing degradation of landscapes and the seas is not necessarily a one-way street toward irreversible destruction.

On Monday we began to write such a story with the government of Chile. Under the wide skies of the new Patagonia National Park, President Michelle Bachelet and I formalized the largest-ever expansion of a national park system prompted by a donation of private land. Continue reading

10 Million Acres Added to Chile’s Parks

I don’t normally expect to get my daily news from Instagram, unless it’s an update from a personal friend. I follow the company Patagonia because they feature beautiful photos like those above, but yesterday they shared this fantastic announcement. Visiting Patagonia about a decade ago was an amazing experience that I hope to repeat before too long, and I am thrilled that there will be some new national parks to visit. Jonathan Franklin reports for The Guardian:

McDivitt Tompkins, the former chief executive of the outdoors company Patagonia, handed over 1m acres to help create the new parks. The Chilean government provided the rest in federally controlled land.

McDivitt Tompkins has spent 25 years working on land conservation in Chile with her late husband Doug, who founded North Face and Esprit. Doug Tompkins died in a kayaking accident in Chile in 2015.

“This is not just an unprecedented act of preservation,” said [Chile’s President Michelle] Bachelet, who flew to this remote Patagonian valley on Monday to receive the donation. “It is an invitation to imagine other forms to use our land. To use natural resources in a way that does not destroy them. To have sustainable development – the only profitable economic development in the long term.”

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National Park of the Week: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

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Source: parquetorresdelpaine.cl

For the type of jaw-dropping  sights that Torres del Paine National Park in Chile has to offer, it is only fair to know a bit of geological history that formed these towering, sheer ridges and deep, mirrored lakes. Located in the southern tip of the Andes of South America, the landscape of the park is owed to earth movements which occurred 12 million years ago and the gradual glacial erosion thereafter, which formed the “torres” (towers) measuring more than 2,200 meters in altitude. The 2,422 square kilometer area was established as a park in 1959; since 1978 it has been part of UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserve system. Continue reading

Chile Looks Beneath the Waters

Two Juan Fernandez fur seals (Arctocephalus philippii) slide through the water off the Desventuradas Islands about 559 miles (900 kilometers) west of Chile. Divers snapped this picture during a 2013 expedition to an area that is now the largest no-take marine reserve in the Americas. PHOTO:  ENRIC SALA

Two Juan Fernandez fur seals slide through the water off the Desventuradas Islands. Divers snapped them during a 2013 expedition to an area that is now the largest no-take marine reserve in the Americas. PHOTO: ENRIC SALA

Here’s another win for those who vouch for the ecosystem wealth that lie beneath the waters. The Chilean government on Monday announced that it has created the largest marine reserve in the Americas by protecting an area hundreds of miles off its coast roughly the size of Italy.

The new area, called the Nazca-Desventuradas Marine Park, constitutes about eight percent of the ocean areas worldwide that have been declared off-limits to fishing and governed by no-take protections, says Russell Moffitt, a conservation analyst with the Marine Conservation Institute in Seattle, Washington. (Read about the world’s largest marine reserve in the Pacific Ocean.)

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Protecting Penguins

Penguins – one of the most charismatic and charming birds on the planet, and yet very few people ever get the chance to see them. They are not enigmatic, nor are they rare, for the most part. And yet, the majority of people are under the impression that the only penguins living today are the Emperor Penguins, and that they live in the Arctic region. However, not only are the emperors one in over twenty extant species, but no penguins whatsoever live in the Arctic region. In fact, no penguins at all even live in the northern hemisphere – all are native to the southern hemisphere, but not exclusively in icy-cold climates such as Antarctica. They are spread over the entire hemisphere, with significant populations on the east coast of South America, the entire Sub-Antarctic, Oceania, and various islands on the Indian and Pacific oceans.

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Remembering Culture Shock

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It’s been almost 2 years since I first moved to South America, and as its winter here right now, the grey weather and cold temperatures have fostered a more contemplative lifestyle in me, and has often made me think about my first experiences in southern Chile.  When I arrived in Punta Arenas it was not only the first time in Chile for me, but also the first time in a Spanish speaking part of South America (I had visited Brazil the year prior).  I remember being apprehensive about my virtually non-existent Spanish speaking skills, and thinking that with French and German already in my arsenal, I perhaps will be a faster learner, and therefore, “it won’t be so bad.”  Then came the connecting flight in Santiago…I was in the airport and every word being spoken around me seemed utterly foreign.  Luckily I began to understand relatively quickly and became accustomed to the barrier.

Thinking about this made me check some old emails I had written to friends back home when I first arrived in Patagonia. Below I’ve posted an email that garnered a lot of attention, due to its comedic nature.  I’ve also included some photos I took while in Patagonia, which I have recently been revisiting because I find them peaceful, tranquil, and in accordance with my recent moods. Continue reading