Aysén 2024

2/26

Field Research is one of my favorite parts of doing science, but it requires a lot of planning, preparation, and some adaptability. You have to have the questions dialed enough to know exactly how you want to answer them, and yet have several fallbacks in case things don’t go as planned. It’s quite stressful, especially when you have several thousands of dollars (or more) committed to the research project, or you have dedicated years to learning, planning, and now executing a plan. This last week was the field excursion of the GLOF geomorphology project, looking at a more detailed view of GLOF impacts in Patagonia.

               -Quick recap, GLOF stands for Glacier Lake Outburst Floods. These are potentially deadly events that are expected to impact glaciated areas as glaciers retreat. While GLOF events can leave traces of past events for decades or even >100 years in some areas, GLOFs are surprisingly harder to trace in Patagonia due to the thick vegetation and the precipitous climate. For this reason, my research is an in-depth (pun intended) analysis of a GLOF which occurred about 35 years ago-

               Reaching the field site is no small task. The journey begins with an approximate 6 hour in bus ride from Coyhaique (and that’s excluding the transit from US to Chile) to Puerto Bertrand, a small community situated on the Rio Baker. From here, we take a 1.5-2 hr boat ride up the river, crossing two lakes, to deposit us at the mouth of the Rio Soler. Depending where you want to arrive, it can be a two to three day hike up the valley to the area of interest. This year, our hike was a cool ~8 miles to the upper boundary of our AOI. In order to facilitate the collection of samples, I contacted a local rafting guide that knows this area well and runs a packrafting business, a type of inflatable boat used for light and fast water transportation that you can strap some equipment and backpacks to. Unfortunately, this increased the weight of our packs we’d have to hoof up the valley. Including our normal camping equipment, the steel instruments used to extract soil samples, food for three people for a week, and the packrafts/helmet/paddle/dry suits/life vest, our packs were much heavier than optimal. The good news was that all the heavy lifting would be over once we arrived at upper reaches of the Rio Soler, as it was literally all down hill (or down-river rather) from there.

               After reaching the upper reaches, I had previously identified areas of interest where potential evidences of the GLOF would be present in the tree record or sediment. Finding the evidence would entail extracting a small (5mm) wood core, using an increment borer, from trees that looked old enough to be impacted by the GLOF. Impacts range from impacts from the water, strikes or scars from passing debris (like floating trees), or longer-term stresses related with changes in the valley hydrology. The next evidence we sought after was sediment that would have been deposited by the GLOF. We know from local accounts, and from hydrologic models I created and ran, that the flood wave covered the valley floor wall-to-wall with water several meters deep (almost a mile wide in some areas!!). This water was thick with debris from chaotic and high-energy water, and would have transported huge amounts of sediment, eroding in some areas and depositing in others. I identified areas of the valley with potentially lower energy where sediment would have been deposited. In these areas, we had large tubes of steel which we drove into the ground to obtain ground sediment samples. We were somewhat anxious about being able to find and identify the exact layer that was deposited from the flood, and after a few difficulties finding the best areas to extract samples, we were hootin’ and hollerin’ when we found a large (10cm thick) layer of course sand, followed by a distinct layer of vegetation (the valley floor prior to the 1989 GLOF).

Our plan was to jump from site to site rather easily using the packrafts, a plan which allowed for joyous moments of relaxation and incredible views of the valley. I still have a lot of analysis to sort out the samples we extracted, but we left the valley feeling accomplished with the hard work we put in over the six days we had in field, and probably a couple pounds lighter from the light meals we had planned for the trip. We celebrated the trip with several orders of papas fritas, sopaipillas (very similar to fry bread), completos, and a churrasco in Puerto Bertrand. I have a couple days to organize notes, wash laundry, and backup data before heading back south for a couple weeks of living with families in the area to conduct more in-depth interviews.


Feb 16

I’ve had an incredible couple weeks here in Coyhaique, building momentum little by little on research (which, consequently, has made it difficult to find time to give periodic updates on the blog). The last few days, I’ve found some really great contacts to help understand the recent changes here in Aysén. Overall, people seem really excited about my questions, and have been unbelievably helpful in giving their perspectives and experiences. Several themes appear particularly salient from the conversations with various interest-holders. They have predominantly had political or state-institutional backgrounds, which I’m looking forward to comparing to different community members experiences (tour guides, gauchos or ranchers, or other community members).  

 

The upcoming week, I’ll be in Valle Soler, which is the valley where the glacier flood I’m studying occurred in 1989, collecting samples from sediment deposits and affected trees. These samples will help fill in the gaps of the recent history of this valley, and will be used to ground-truth the hydrologic model I made of the 1989 flood. When seeing the results of my model, many planners have expressed apprehension over the changes they see (not only the environmental changes in the landscape, but also the political changes from the increase of populations in this region), and the lack of institutional preparation or of resources to meaningfully address what they understand as a potential hazard. To this end, I’m really focusing on the people of this region in this post. The idea of Patagonia tends to project a landscape which is pristine, free from the pollution which we have come to see as a (false-binary) necessity by-product of modernity. While it may be population density is low in this region, we cannot forget the people that have lived, and are currently living here in this region. A seemingly minor oversight to study landscapes and not relationships, the unfortunate reality of how science has been conducted has had dramatic impacts in the lives of those who are front-line to the very dynamics the scientific community seeks to understand. I’m hoping to learn how to reorient my research to be not only attentive to, but indeed driven by the local community’s needs and agendas.


1/28

I've finally arrived in my field area (Coyhaique, Aysén) after some much needed time in Santiago to get oriented with the state of research and converse with a few researchers at Universidad la Pontífica de la Catolica. It was exciting to finally meet so many awesome researchers whose work I've followed here in Chile and (egotistically) satisfying to see how excited they were about my project. The rest of the week was spent taking care of simple tasks like responding to emails, tidying up logistics for the field research, and catching up with friends. I've been incredibly lucky to have met so many awesome people already from the first part of this project (from the Pathways Transect group) and I was sad to leave them in the Santiago area. 

Coyhaique is the capital of the region Aysén (regions are the Chilean analogs of US states), and was originally founded in 1914, officially in 1929. Initially, Puerto Aisén (being a sea port) was designated as the capital of the territory to export the wool created by early settlers by sea, but a decade after Coyhaique was founded Aysen was integrated as a region to the Chilean state and Coyhaique was coronated as the regions capital. The physical isolation is a cultural linchpin of the Aysen identity,  integral to both the Gaucho culture as well as the political feeling of being geographically distant from the state capital of Santiago and the politics of being a peripheral region. On more than a few occasions, locals have laughed when I ask about regulation or policy as there is simply no real mechanism of monitoring or enforcement of existing laws. This can present obstacles for concerted efforts to shape a unified policy towards disaster mitigation or preparation (at least in the types of policy and governance that we may be used to in the US), but in turn can present other advantages of grassroots community involvement in meaningful change. However, within the last few decades, rapid globalization of the region as opened many previously isolated communities to a variety of external forces which have different ideas on how to develop the region (you can imagine here the wealth and power inequality here of global actors imposing narratives of development on a previously isolated town of largely agricultural and subsistence farmers).

For my research, I'm trying to connect this social context to the still growing literature of glacial hazards, specifically those colloquially known as GLOFs, or Glacial Lake Outburst Floods. With climate change, the scientific community understands broadly the different types of impacts that are likely to occur in different warming scenarios (HUGE DISCLAIMER that there is still time to act resolutely towards meaningful actions that mitigate the worst effects possible within these scenarios), but it is obviously much more difficult to predict the numerous ways that processes can compound to produce unexpected impacts. For example, previous conditions considered extreme are predicted to be more common like: warmer summers, less precipitation in the dry seasons, or more concentrated precipitation in shorter periods, which can result in an expected increase in fires like the one that occurred just the day before I arrived in Coyhaique. Forest Firest (Incendios Forestales) here were, in previous decades, a relatively rare phenomenon; you can see the old-growth forest (pic 2 below) that sits atop Cerro McKay (pic 1). The important part here is to stress that processes deemed as disasters (flooding, fires, even earthquakes) are natural phenomena that can't be considered as disasterous just for happening, but only cause harm due to the relations within the mode of social production (or how society is constructed in relation to the environment). The underlying issues are rarely addressed within the scientific literature or scope of analysis for many reasons, including the extensive training required to understand these issues, as well as academic tradition of atomizing complex systems to the lowest common denominator. So, in summary, I'm trying to understand the rapidly evolving landscape of Patagonia in relation to glacier hazards, and focusing on the underlying two-way relationship between glacial hazards and modes of social production here (that is, how glacial hazards are affected by the social organization of the communities here, and conversely, how glacial hazards are shaping the social and political realities in this region. I hope this helps clarify broadly my research here, as I tried to write accessibly for family and friends. If you're interested in hearing more, or have questions, feel free to send over an email!

Jan 16

Goodbyes are always hard. The Pathways Transect group was absolutely incredible, I've never seen or experienced such a cohesive energy on a team from dramatically different backgrounds and research fields. Our group consisted of people working on water issues broadly but span from water governance, atmospheric rivers, engineering, and glacier/snow science. We came together in a short few days to begin working on a project and were able to produce some initial results that we are are very excited about. I can't believe how incredibly fast the 2 weeks in Ecuador came and went, but in that short time I've made friendships that will last a lifetime. The experience really helped orient the type of interdisciplinary work I'd like to continue doing. We wrapped up the program with heavy hearts to be departing, yet grateful for the memories and friendships we made. With a few more exciting moments trying to board our flight to Chile ;) I finally arrived 'where the land ends' (some theories claim that this is the translation from Mapundungun, and is personally my favorite).

I am currently in Concepcion for a summer school being trained on a sediment core sampling and analysis technique used to research paleoclimates from marine, lake, or fjord sediments. The Universidad de Concepsion is a world renowned research university and purchased an XRF scanner (a fancy x-rady machine for dirt), the first one in South America. The school is being taught by Sebastien Bertrand from Belgium and France, who is an expert of the field. I'll finish the training on Thursday and catch a bus to Santiago on Friday to begin my research.

Jan 10

Our Pathways group arrived in Santa Isabel, a small getaway village that Cuencanos use to escape to warmer and more tropical weather. The retreat was intended to give us some space to relax, focus, and make some headway on our projects. They amenities have been incredible, and despite the distractions (I mean, look at those views) our group has been very excited about our project. The city of Cuenca experienced its worst drought in recorded history starting in September, going over 118 days without significant rain. The drought brings obvious negative consequences of inadequate water for agricultural use, irrigation, and hydroelectric energy production, and is especially difficult for poorer cmmunities living in the periphery of the urban center. However, secondary impacts from drought can include longer term changes in soil properties such as compaction, increase hydrophobia of surface soil horizons decreased infiltration capacity, and increased erosion and runoff. So when an otherwise heavy but not extreme precipitation event did occur during the drought, the infiltration capacity of the soil was quickly exceeded which caused flooding in the downstream reaches in Cuenca. The water filtration plant was not able to keep up with the rapid influx of sediment laden flood waters, and was forced to shut down for a few hours. With climate change, not only will extreme events like this increase in frequency and magnitude, the compounding interactions between extremes (rapidly fluctuating between drought and flood conditions) are likely to bring dangerous scenarios that we are not familiar with. This is further exacerbated by structural inequality in which marginal communities are unable to secure water in current conditions, let alone future extremes. We are using the 2023 drought/flood events to explore recent past climate conditions to examine adaptation potential to future climate uncertainties.

This last week was difficult to stay focused as the country was cast into a violent state of emergency.  It was hard to see my new friends here watch in horror as their home country descended into chaos. The lived reality of local corruption, the creeping violence of the global drug market (fueled largely by US consumption), and the consequences of US imperialism overshadows our work here like a persistent nervousness that never quite leaves. In truth, we are only here for a short few more days, and then will board airplanes and depart to our research stations. The hard realization that this national emergency could easily develop into a prolonged cartel war, not too dissimilar from that of Colombia or Mexico. Talking with our Ecuadorian colleagues, they are hopeful this state of emergency will be a short episode and that things will improve, but the necessity to be prepared for alternatives requires hard conversation. Yesterday, we spoke with a professor at a local University who had to make safety plans for medical students who change shifts at late hours in the night. This raises obvious implications for the security of the students, as well as logistical nightmares for the nationally imposed curfew.  The cost of contracting a fleet of buses and drivers to transport students to their homes, sometimes in small villages over an hour away, causes ripple effects for the University. This is all to say that we are safe here, things are rapidly improving on the ground, and we hope it continues to do so. We have another day and a half to work on our project here before returning to Cuenca and then on to Chile for my research.

Taking in the views from the yoga room

Group planning for our project

Conceptual mapping brainstorm

Hard(ly) working

Dec 30, 2023

After a fairly arduous red-eye flight, I arrived in Quito. The city is surprisingly cooler and mountainous than expected, due to the season and altitude (around low 60s yesterday, elevation ~2850 m or 9350 ft). The drive in was spent conversing about culture and traditions of Quito and Ecuador. The driver indicated the numerous street selling of large 3-6ft dolls and explained that drawing close to the New Years, families will buy or construct dolls in the image of one or more members of their family. The dolls are charged vicariously with the year's sins, misfortunes, bad luck, summarily doused in gasoline, and burned at midnight on the 31st. I was curious about local cuisine and enquired from the taxi driver what I must eat, spending only 24 hours in Quito. He told me about the typical fried platanos, rice, corn and chicken, but then said I should try grilled Cuy. "Cuy?" I asked, not familiar with the word. "It's similar to conejo, or rabbit, but without the long ears." I remembered the word when, hours later, I saw a street vender selling Cuy hot off the grill. It was good, and I was hungry. It wasn't until the next day when, wandering a souvenir shop, I found out what it was. There were typical tchotchke's and keepsakes, wallets imprinted with animals from the area. El Aguila, with a large eagle above, Oso Andino, with a picture of the Andean Bear. I stopped when I saw "Cuy" with a picture of a Guinea Pig above. 

I leave the 31st to Cuenca where I will meet up with the rest of the Pathways group where we will be for approximately 2 weeks. We have a reservation at a restaurant overlooking the city to bring in the new year. I'm excited to meet the rest of our group and get working.

Basilica del Voto Nacional

Catholic Cathedral inspired by Notre Dame

Cerro Panecillo

The virgin angel that protects the city seen atop the hill.

Chugchuraca

Rice and corn, fried pork, toasted potato, fried plantain, and pickled onion and tomato salad