Back in Patagonia: land of glaciers, rivers and research

The Southern Hemisphere is calling again. Two trains followed by two flights and one hour of camioneta brought us to the Austral summer, leaving behind a snow ‘storm’ approaching Europe (Fig. 1). Our team of four arrived in Coyhaique, the capital of the Aysén Region in Chile. This region holds some of the largest glaciers in Chile, which are part of the Northern and Southern Patagonian Icefields, and which form the main focus of our research activities


Figure 1: Flight over the Andes. The sunrise woke us up in our overnight flight with an incredible view picturing here the dry Argentinian part of the Cordillera before our arrival to Santiago de Chile Airport.

The three main objectives of this year’s expedition consist of (1) collecting river samples for the HYDROPROX project and related provenance studies, (2) retrieving and redeploying two moorings with sediment traps for the Paleo-GLOFs, HYDROPROX and GLADYS projects and (3) collecting sediment cores in Eyre Fjord for the GLADYS project. This sampling strategy will make us travel through Balmaceda, Coyhaique, Cochrane, Caleta Tortel, Puerto Edén, and eventually Eyre Fjord, in which the Pio XI Glacier is calving (Fig. 2). This year’s team is composed of Prof. Sebastien Bertrand, Dr. Benjamin Amann and the two PhD students are Dawei Liu and Loic Piret.

2 map

Figure 2: Maps showing the main locations in which we will travel through, with our route going from north to south.

The first objective on the agenda is to collect suspended sediments from seven rivers that ultimately all flow into Baker Fjord (Colonia, del Salto, Ñadis, Pascua, Bravo, Baker and Huemules). Defining the geochemical composition of those suspended sediments will allow us to estimate the relative contributions of sediment originating from the North Patagonian Icefield, the San Lorenzo region and the Southern Patagonian Icefield, which are all potential sources of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs). In each river, we plan to collect large volumes of water by means of a telescopic dipper, a bucket, a horizontal water sampler, or a brave Chino.

The second objective of this fieldtrip is the retrieval and redeployment of our two sediment traps in Baker and Steffen fjords. They both have been accumulating another year’s worth of sediment for the Paleo-GLOFs, HYDROPROX and GLADYS projects. Characterizing these sediments will help us interpret and calibrate hydroclimate changes in the region, and unveil the signature of GLOF sediments. This will allow us to constrain interpretations of past hydrological changes, including GLOFs, recorded in sediment cores retrieved from these two fjords during a previous expedition in January 2017 (“better than manjar”).

After our work in the fjord complex between the two Patagonian Icefields, we will venture south to the Pacific side of the SPI for our third and final objective: sediment coring and grab sampling in Eyre Fjord. This fjord is fed by the Pio XI Glacier, the only currently-advancing glacier in Chilean Patagonia. This large outlet glacier of the SPI has been advancing since the 1940s. Additionally, we will conduct CTD measurements for Dr. Carlos Moffat, a collaborator from the University of Delaware who studies glacier-ocean interactions. We will also take sediment cores in front of a smaller outlet glacier of the SPI, which will be made available for an MSc thesis. Any Master student interested?

Accomplishing these objectives would not be possible without the support of our Chilean collaborators. We are particularly grateful to Anita Abarzua (Universidad Austral de Chile in Valdivia), Ivan Perez (iMAR in Puerto Montt) and Romina San Martin and Silvio Pantoja (COPAS Sur-Austral) for providing the corer, deck unit, and grab sampler, respectively. The support of Nicola Araneda (CIEP), who gathered and organized the equipment that we and our collaborators shipped to Chile, is also particularly appreciated.

We are now in Chile. To our big surprise, Dawei (El Chino), who was once refused to enter Sweden, successfully entered Chile without a real Chilean visa (Fig. 3). In fact, he used a US visa, which the Chilean immigration officers did not even check.

3 dawei

Figure 3: Dawei, a very disciplined guest at the border station of Chile. Smile Dawei!

During the first day in Chile, it is tradition that the plans made in Belgium become fantasy. This fieldtrip holds true to the tradition. Seb had only just activated his SIM card when the first emergency texts came in: “Call me urgently. It concerns the R/V Sur Austral.” Apparently the research vessel had left to Puerto Natales for a dry dock repair one week earlier, and it was now moored four days of navigation too much to the south (Fig. 4), with no fixed return date. “Aye, Cagamos” we thought (Chilean for “ah, we are fudged”). The problem at hand is the Patagonian weather. Due to strong winds across Patagonia these last few days, with up to 100 km/h gusts, our ship cannot return to her home port. Our plan: Make Patagonian weather great again by building a wall along the coast to block the Westerlies.

4 boat+weather - copy

Figure 4: Maps showing wind direction and strength (purple >100km/h gusts) on the coast of the Chilean Patagonia. This maps illustrates the challenge for the COPAS Sur-Austral research vessel to reach its planned destination; detailed locations in ‘where the boat should be’ (Caleta Tortel) vs. ‘where the boat actually is’ (Puerto Natales) are referenced in the figure. Source:

Upon our (Dawei and Benjamin) arrival to live this first experience in a new culture, the town of Coyhaique left a good first impression (Fig. 5). We did not know what to expect, and found the town way bigger than expected. Both of us were particularly touched by the beautiful landscape, the nice weather, and the untypically high number of dogs in the street (‘’Yummy!’’ said Dawei). The diverse colors of both the houses and the surrounding bedrock added to the poetry of the place. Finally, seeing all these fancy big trucks driving around, and the patriotism through all the Chilean flags waving quasi everywhere, gave a slight contrast to the style of the town. This was largely compensated by “Aji Chileno”, the best companion to Chinese dumpling. With a Chinese in the group, the 240-g bottle that usually holds for 2 weeks was finished within the first 2 days!


Figure 5: Yes, we felt particularly welcomed in the town Coyhaique, capital of the Aysén Region

Our last day in Coyhaique also marks the arrival of our collaborators and friends from EULA (University of Concepción). Fernando Torrejón is a historian who reconstructs past environmental changes through interviews with the oldest persons he can find in a village and historical documents. Dr. Pablo Pedreros is a marine biologist who works on rivers but on this fieldtrip functions as a writer and Dr. Chauffeur.

After spending two days gathering our gear in Coyhaique (Fig. 6), we finally started heading south on the ruta 7 (‘Carretera Austral’) to Cochrane, a windy but partly-paved road passing through mind-blowing landscapes. The clouds turned to rain once we hit the gravel road, which made it particularly difficult for some cars but not our camionetas (Chilena for Pick-up truck, Fig. 7). For a group of six tourists who ventured too far on a drenched side road, the weather was so bad that they actually requested our assistance. Our prof demonstrated kindness to the lost huewones and pulled them out of their miserable situation (Fig. 8). The rest of the road guided us along the Baker River, the holy waters of Patagonia (Fig. 9).


Figure 6: Shopping at ‘El Rey del Fierro’ surrounded by a very pleasant landscape. Auto parts (or what looked like) were carefully selected to reach a total weight of 260kg. This will later be used as an anchor for our sequential sediment trap deployed in Baker Fjord.


Figure 7: Our drive from Coyhaique to Cochrane wasn’t without some rain. One would typically say; “This is Patagonia!”


Figure 8: Desperate group of young tourists from Israel stuck off-road with their white Suzuki under heavy rain. Our research team, arriving with a perfect timing, has provided hope for them to continue their journey.

9view on ruta 7

Figure 9: The imposing Baker River originates at the western end of Lago General Carrera.





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