Patagonia ice sheets thicker than previously thought.

Glaciers in South America’s Patagonia region, including Argentina’s Viedma Glacier (pictured), are much thicker than expected, according to a seven-year survey conducted by scientists from UCI, Chile and Argentina that will enable researchers and planners to more accurately model the effects of global warming and plan for potential disruptions in freshwater resources. (© Jeremie Mouginot / UCI)

After a comprehensive, seven-year survey of Patagonia, glaciologists from University of California, Irvine and partner institutions in Argentina and Chile have concluded that the ice sheets in this region of South America are considerably more massive than expected.

Through a combination of ground observations and airborne gravity and radar sounding methods, the scientists created the most complete ice density map of the area to date and found that some glaciers are as much as a mile (1,600 meters) thick.

“We did not think the ice fields on the Patagonian plateau could be quite that substantial,” said co-author Eric Rignot, Donald Bren Professor and chair of Earth system science at UCI. “As a result of this multinational research project, we found that – added together – the northern and southern portions of Patagonia clearly hold more ice than anticipated, roughly 40 times the ice volume of the European Alps.”

Patagonia is home to the largest ice fields in the Southern Hemisphere outside Antarctica, and its glaciers are among the fastest-moving in the world. Surface elevation observations from satellite radar altimetry and optical imagery have shown that most of the ice slabs in the region have been thinning rapidly over the past four decades. The contribution to global sea level rise from their melting has increased at an accelerating pace during that time.

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© University of California – Irvine