A well-known destination glacier in Chilean Patagonia is now closed to tourists due to the risk of “catastrophic” falls of ice and disintegration.
The Exploradores (Explorers) glacier is located in the Laguna San Rafael National Park, in the breathtakingly beautiful Aysen region of the country, which boasts mountains, rivers and rainforest, as well as glaciers. It attracts up to 20,000 visitors a year.
But since 31 October 2023, tourists have been banned from the Exploradores glacier, after an ice fall and subsequent study revealed “evident risks and uncertainty regarding the behaviour of the glacier.” An email from the forestry department, which manages Chile’s national parks, explained that the glacier is at an “inflection point” and warned: “Conditions are not safe for ecotourism activities on the Explorers Glacier.”
One of the most popular such activities on the glacier is ice-hiking, with treks offered by various guide companies at the starting point in local village Puerto Rio Tranquilo. One, described by Go Patagonia, lasts 10 hours and includes a two-hour hike to the glacier where crampons are donned and, over another three hours, hikers experience walking on the ice and “ice tunnels”. It is easy to understand that, if the glacier were to start to break apart with trekkers out on its ice, the results could be terrifying.
We work in adventure tourism, where there is always an associated risk. If we’re going to close here, let’s stop climbing Everest, let’s stop climbing, stop skydiving.Bianca Miranda, Local guide
Economic and emotional impact
For the local economy and those tour companies affected, the decision to close the glacier is a shock and emotions are running high. Local guide Bianca Miranda, speaking to the AP, said: “For us the closing is not only an economic blow but also an emotional one. We have been working in this place for more than 10 years and it has become our second home.”
In words echoed by other local guides, Miranda points out that there’s a certain acceptance of risk in some branches of tourism.
Loss of 0.5 metres per year
The forestry department will point out that visitors to the national park are still free to see the Exploradores but from a safe distance on boats. It is not willing to take the risk of allowing more up-close-and-personal Exploradores tourism to continue when, according to drone pictures gathered by government hydrologists for its study, the glacier has ‘thinned’ by 0.5 metres per year, since 2020.
Meltwater collects and sits on top of the glacier in lagoons, whose number has also doubled in the same four year period. The amount of surface area in contact with meltwater means melt then happens more rapidly. Now, the study says, one of two outcomes is likely: either a “catastrophic” sheering off of a large body of ice; or the eating away and “disintegration” of the front of the glacier by meltwater.