Traveling in Chile reveals effects of climate change – The Washington Post

by | Jul 15, 2022 | Climate Change

Listen7 minComment on this storyCommentGift ArticleIn Chile, the weather is predictably unpredictable. One minute, the sun shines brilliantly on the glacial blue lakes, allowing for the perfect Instagram shot. The next, the winds howl menacingly across the granite peaks, numbing your fingers. Then the rain lashes the stark terrain, and just as you’re cursing the weather, double rainbows grace the sky!That’s a standing joke I heard frequently in Chile. Sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, this long, narrow, wildly beautiful country in South America lived up to its promise and allowed me to experience a diversity of seasons and landscapes over the short span of two months.But as I hiked and snorkeled on the remote Juan Fernández archipelago (about 400 miles off Chile’s Pacific Coast) and went waterfall chasing and glacier hopping in otherworldly Patagonia, I learned that, even for Chile, the weather is becoming increasingly unpredictable, leaving the country vulnerable to prolonged wildfires, the loss of endemic species and permanent damage to local ecosystems. Chile’s glaciers are melting at a record pace; its old-growth forests are threatened by hotter, drier summers; and even species brought back from the brink of extinction face an uncertain future. Traveling through Chile gives visitors a real-time lesson on how climate change is changing the places we love.AdvertisementContrary to popular belief, Chile isn’t so named because its shape resembles a chile pepper. One theory is that the word Chile is derived from the language of the Indigenous Aymara people, in which “chili” refers to the place where the land ends. Experiencing its profound beauty — intertwined with the reality of climate change — indeed made me feel as if I was at the end of the world, geographically and metaphorically. I could almost sense the future of our planet hovering uneasily on the horizon.Here are some of the places in Chile that delivered a powerful lesson in the importance of sustainability.Torres del Paine National ParkThe breathtaking mountain scenery, shockingly blue lakes, expansive glaciers and “blue towers” (the grayish-blue granite peaks from which Torres del Paine National Park derives its name) of Chilean Patagonia have long been the stuff of bucket lists — and deservingly so. But as I hiked across one of the world’s most spectacular biosphere reserves with a guide from Patagonia Camp, I was surprised to witness acre after acre of burned native forest, started by an act of irresponsible travel and accelerated by the hotter, drier, thunderstorm-prone summers that have become common in Patagonia in the past 50 years.AdvertisementIn 2011, a traveler went wild camping at an unauthorized site on the shores of Grey Lake in the national park, sans a guide or permission from park authorities. While trying to burn some toilet paper, he ended up starting a fire in the dry, windy terrain that Patagonia is known for. The strong winds allowed the fire to spread rapidly, and the inaccessible mountain terrain made firefighting efforts nearly impossible.The fire raged for 58 days and burned about 42,000 acres of old-growth, slow-growing, native Lenga forest. Some of these trees can grow to be more than 200 years old. The fire roasted thousands of animals to death, baked fertile soil and damaged swaths of wildlife habitat. With the park closed for several weeks and travelers evacuated, the fire cost tourism businesses an estimated $2 million.Eleven years later, the scorched, ashy stretches of Lenga forest, devoid of life, are a reminder that our travel choices matter, sometimes more than we can fathom. Climate models predict Chile will only become drier and warmer, leaving its forests and wildlife even more vulnerable to human …

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