The waters of Patagonia, a natural laboratory for studying climate change

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In the extreme south of chilean Patagonia, in a place among the most inhospitable on the planet, scientists analyze water, plankton and cetaceans to try to anticipate the consequences of global warming in the other seas of the globe.

Since the city of Punta Arenas, on the Strait of Magellan at the extreme southern tip of Chile, four researchers from the Centre for research of the marine ecosystems of high latitudes of the University Austral (Ideal) boarded a fishing boat, transformed into a craft science to the needs of their investigations.

After a day and a half of navigation in trying the turbulent waters of the Strait, the meeting point of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, swept by winds of over 110 km/hour, they throw the anchor in Seno Ballena, ” the fjord of whales “, in the middle of the glaciers giants that serves as their laboratory.

On-site, they retrieve the data recorded by a system of sensors installed since April and who performs batteries of tests the water every three hours.

For researchers, studying the changes in chemical, physical and biological of the waters of the fjord which now have conditions similar to this that could be those of other marine ecosystems in the coming decades, due to greater release of CO2 into the atmosphere and the melting of the glaciers.

“In this place, it is as an experience with nature itself, this helps us know what might be going on without having to experiment in the laboratory, without having to imagine it “, explains to the AFP Maximiliano Vergara, marine biologist and phd student in aquaculture at the University Austral (UACh).

Seno Ballena gets its name from the attendance of the humpback whales that come each year by the dozens to feed. From the warm waters of central America where they breed, they fly thousands of kilometres to come to this area, one of the marine habitats, the most productive of the planet, where krill (small shrimp-cold water) and sardines live in abundance.

Disappearance of the plankton ?

But the disruption in climate could upset this balance.

The melting of the glacier of the island close to Santa Inés and the increased rainfall in the region have increased the levels of fresh water, the image of what is expected in other oceans due to rising temperatures.

A transformation to the serious consequences for the whales, because if the composition of the water changes, the plankton which they feed on could disappear.

“A change in micro-algae can generate changes in the secondary structure (the marine system) or in animals that feed on them,” says Marco Antonio Pinto, a marine biologist and a doctoral student at the UACh.

In normal conditions, when there are more micro-algae, the plankton – nourishes – feeds the higher levels of the food chain, up to the whales, ” adds the scientist.

“What we are trying to establish, it is our database. This will allow us analyzing the current situation, make projections on what might happen in the future,” says Mr Vergara.

The expedition members collect water samples from eight stations installed at various places in Seno Ballena, in order to measure the effects of the melting of the glacier of Santa Inés. It is reduced still further and now appear in rocks that were not visible during the previous expedition in April.

“The waters of the high latitudes of both the northern hemisphere as in the southern hemisphere, contain a large amount of information biological and physio-chemical processes that can serve as a basis to take critical decisions about projects safeguard the environment in the developed countries,” writes the biologist Maximo Frangopulos, professor at the University of Magellan and leader of the expedition.

Training shells

The first measures carried out by the scientists showed levels of salinity, calcium and pH decrease, in particular in the upper layers of the water, highlighting the changes in the structures of certain species of micro-algae, are vital to the entire food chain of the species living in the area or who go there regularly like the humpback whale.

Scientists fear a “red tide”, a phenomenon due to an excessive proliferation of micro-algae that causes the death of many marine species by consuming large amount of oxygen or the contaminant with the toxins.

For the time being, they recorded a lower presence of humpback whales in the area and a attendance the more marked of other species. Among them, a northern right whale dolphin and sea lions absent so far in this region of Chile.

They also noted a lower concentration of calcium carbonate, which could hinder the formation of the shell of certain marine organisms such as molluscs. This is the case of krill, which is very popular with whales, which sees its development hampered.

“It’s like a puzzle that we’re putting (…) to see how climate change can affect not only the marine system, but also the large mammals, which will also have a social and economic impact in the region”, adds Marco Antonio Pinto.

The crab, which is essential to the economy of the Strait area, was in particular need calcium to strengthen their shells.

The scientists of the centre Ideal plan to return to Seno Ballena during the next austral winter, to collect new information in the waters of the chilean Patagonia.