Magazine article Geographical

Deeper Down: Patagonia's Ice Fields Are Much Bigger Than Anyone Ever Realised

Magazine article Geographical

Deeper Down: Patagonia's Ice Fields Are Much Bigger Than Anyone Ever Realised

Article excerpt

Scientists have never laboured under the illusion that Patagonia's ice fields are small. The three major sheets--North, South and Cordillera Darwin--make up the largest expanse of ice in the Southern Hemisphere outside of Antarctica. The biggest of these, the South, stretches 350km across the Andes between Chile and Argentina. But to really get a grip on the size of these structures you have to look down as well as across.

Following a seven-year study of the region, glaciologists from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and their partners in Argentina and Chile, have now concluded that Patagonian ice sheets are considerably larger than expected, containing roughly 40 times the ice volume of the European Alps and with some of the largest glaciers being as much as a mile (1,600 metres) thick.

These findings only became possible when the team abandoned the radar-based ground systems usually employed to measure glaciers and instead took to the skies, flying over the vast terrain in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft equipped with gravimeters. These devices can determine the ice volume by reading changes in Earth's gravitational field.

The reason Patagonia's glaciers have proven so tricky to measure is specific to the make-up of the ice in the region. Unlike the ice in Greenland or Antarctica, Patagonia's ice is temperate (near to the melting point) with the result that it is spotted with big pockets of melt water. This feature means that the high-frequency radar soundings used elsewhere won't work because they react too vigorously with the water at the surface. …

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