Last week my Alpine of the Americas partner, Jonathan Byers, touched down in Santiago, Chile and made his way south to the tiny Gaucho town of Perto Bertrand to set-up base camp for the next five months. After two weeks, he’s already taught glaciology on the Northern Patagonia Ice Sheet, to high school students from Nido de Aguilas, an international school in Santiago. He’s helping them understand how their own homes are connected to these ice sheets, even though they are countless horizons away.
Yet we don’t have to travel across the world to see these changes. They are right here at home. Hurricane Sandy has been a huge lesson for the North East Coast and unfortunately for many people recognizing these changes takes them coming and knocking on our doors. Even here in San Francisco, we have been touched and reminded how vulnerable we are. In these challenging times it is rewarding to see is the humanity that arises when we are faced with a collective struggle.
The Earth’s changing climate is affecting us all but in many unique and unpredictable ways. Alpine of the Americas goal is to use simple, repeatable, and useful observations to help us tell the story of how our environments are changing. Few people read the scientific papers that tell us how the world is changing, so we strive to generate the content that stimulates conversations of how local communities must adapt to and mitigate climate change.
What this ultimately requires are local, personal connections. Its been 6 weeks since Jonathan and I took a group of Presidians to Yosemite to repeat historic photos of the Dana Glacier to be the first beings to witness the Sierra Nevada’s changes from a this unique perspective. This group became participants by capturing images that can tell the story of how our changing snowpack is affecting Californians today.
While these glaciers are an important legacy of past ice ages their value lies in how they are indicators of less water being stored in snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. These mountains are the sole water source in the late summer for Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which provides 25% of the fresh drinking water for the City of San Francisco. While these glaciers seem remote and disconnected from daily life, they are directly connected to the faucets that millions of people depend on every day. This week, the outcome of Proposition F will determine if the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission will spend $8 million to determine the feasibility of removing this dam.
In Chile, Patagoinia’s glaciers are diminishing too, but this is only an indicator of a larger story. Jonathan is now based at the heart of Chile’s largest environmental and social debate. Downstream from his guide cabin at Patagonia Adventure Expeditions, is the second largest alpine Ice Cap in the world. Glacier Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) from the Northern Patagonia Ice Sheet periodically discharge enormous masses of water down this already voluminous river. Yet downstream hidroAysen plans to build two hydrodams on the Baker River to generate energy for Chile’s copper mines thousands of miles north in the Atacama desert, even though the this high desert has the world’s highest yields for solar energy. Needless to say, hidroAysen’s risky investment of placing two dams on Rio Baker’s unstable hydrology is being criticized in Chile.
Protests against the proposed Baker and Pascua River Dams in Santiago last month. Photo by James Q Martin jamesmartin.com
The Nido de Aguilas students dream of an economy in which they can thrive. Economic progress is necessary, but unsustainable growth doesn’t necessarily create the desired end. Will 1,864 miles of power lines through Chile’s National Parks and/or into neighboring Argentina justify bringing energy to Santiago and the copper mines to the north, when alternatives exist? We’re skeptical. Alpine of the Americas helps individuals become part of the conversation, to stimulate discourse that influences decision makers. We do not claim to know the answers, but when faced with a crisis, we believe that people can work together to be proactive and create positive solutions for our changing world.