Patagonian Majesty: Ice Fields, Glacier Milk, and Rising Seas

Southern Patagonian Ice Field

This Copernicus Sentinel-2 image showcases glaciers and lakes of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field between Chile and Argentina. As crucial indicators of climate change, the retreat of these glaciers over the past decades has implications for rising sea levels. Credit: Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2023), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The Southern Patagonian Ice Field, straddling Chile and Argentina, is one of the largest ice masses outside polar regions. A recent image from Copernicus Sentinel-2 highlights its stunning glaciers and aquamarine lakes.

Part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field with its white glaciers and aquamarine lakes is featured in this Copernicus Sentinel-2 image from January 10, 2023.

Straddling the border of Chile and Argentina, the ice field stretches across the Patagonian Andes for more than 350 km (220 miles) and is one of the largest ice masses on Earth outside the polar regions.

Formation and Features of the Ice Field

Ice fields form due to accumulations of snow that turn into ice through years of compression and freezing. Shaped by the underlying topography, glaciers often form at the edges of an ice field.

In this image, the ice mass feeds several smaller and bigger glaciers, including the Argentinian Perito Moreno Glacier in the top right corner. Located on a narrow channel, Perito Moreno feeds Lake Argentino and forms an ice dam separating the lake’s main body, visible on top in turquoise, from its southern arm, which appears grey.

Lakes, Sediments, and Glaciers

Many lakes in the area are fed by waters from melting glaciers. The color of the water varies from deep blue to grey depending on the amount of suspended fine sediment present. This sediment is called ‘glacier milk’ and is a result of abrasion as glaciers flow over the underlying rock.

The biggest glacier visible at the bottom of the image is the Grey Glacier, its terminus is split in three by pieces of land. It lies within the Torres del Paine National Park, one of the largest in Chile. The name of the park comes from the three distinctive granite peaks ‘Torres del Paine’, visible in the bottom right corner of the image.

Moraines and Indicators of Climate Change

The darker lines following the flow of most of the glaciers are moraines: accumulations of rock, soil, and other debris that have been deposited by the glacier. Taking a closer look at the terminus of some of the glaciers, we can see how icebergs have broken off and are now floating in fjords and lakes.

Glaciers are the largest reservoirs of freshwater on our planet. The rate at which they may be melting or growing is one of the best indicators of climate change. The demise of glaciers is one of the main causes of sea-level rise. Many glaciers in Patagonia have retreated over the last 50 years. Satellite data can help monitor changes in glacier mass, extent, and thickness and, subsequently, their contribution to rising sea levels.

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