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Melting Beauty:
The Icefields of Patagonia

Text by Kathryn Hansen.
Visuals by Jesse Allen.
March 27, 2018

Forests, grasslands, deserts, and mountains are all part of the Patagonian landscape, which spans more than a million square kilometers of South America. Toward the western side, expanses of dense, compacted ice—the Patagonian icefields—stretch for hundreds of kilometers atop the Andes mountain range in Chile and Argentina.

The northern and southern lobes of the Patagonian icefield are what’s left of a much larger ice sheet that reached its maximum size about 18,000 years ago. Though just a fraction of their previous size, the modern icefields remain the largest expanse of ice in the southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica. But rapid change is ongoing. “They are, in fact, melting away at some of the highest rates on the planet,” said Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California-Irvine.

Meltwater from the Patagonian icefield contributes to sea level rise. The contribution is less than what will come from Greenland and Antarctica, but scientists plan to keep studying the region from space, from the air, and from the ground. According to Rignot: “Understanding the evolution of these glaciers helps us understand what glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica may look like in the future in a much warmer climate.”

The images below highlight this dynamic region. Click on the links for even more insight about each icefield and its glaciers.

North Patagonian Icefield

North Patagonian Icefield

The northern remnant is the smaller of the two icefields, covering about 4,000 square kilometers. It has 30 significant glaciers along its perimeter, including San Rafael and San QuintÍn. Read more...

South Patagonian Icefield

South Patagonian Icefield

The southern icefield spans about 13,000 square kilometers, more than three times larger than the northern section. Iceberg-choked fjords and glaciers that flow along the flank of an active volcano are just a few of the highlights. Read more...

Ice on the Move

Ice on the Move

Ice is moving at vastly different speeds across Patagonia, from a few centimeters to 10,000 meters per year. In this map, yellow areas are moving fast and purple areas are slow. Notice the significant amount of green; almost half of the ice is moving at speeds faster than 100 meters per year. Read more...

Other Images of Patagonia

Glacial Retreat at a Non-glacial Pace

Glacial Retreat at a Non-glacial Pace

The HPS-12 glacier in Chile has lost about half of its length in three decades. Read more...

Retreat of the Sierra de Sangra Glaciers

Retreat of the Sierra de Sangra Glaciers

Ice loss in Patagonia has struck more than just the largest and most frequently studied ice fields. Read more...

Glaciar San QuintÍn, Chile

Glaciar San QuintÍn, Chile

The largest outflow glacier in the Northern Patagonian Icefield appears to be shrinking. Read more...

Southern Patagonia Ice Field

Southern Patagonia Ice Field

Straddling the southern Andes Mountains in Chile and Argentina, these glaciers have thinned significantly in the past four decades. Read more...

Upsala Glacier Retreat

Upsala Glacier Retreat

A photograph by an astronaut on the International Space Station shows a progressively shrinking glacier in the North Patagonian Icefield. Read more...

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

One of the most famous glaciers in Patagonia periodically cuts off the major southern arm of Lago Argentino. Read more...

Glacial Lakes of Patagonia

Glacial Lakes of Patagonia

This natural-color image shows multicolored glacial lakes extending from Andean glaciers. The lakes extend primarily eastward across the high plain. Read more...

Upsala Glacier, Argentina

Upsala Glacier, Argentina

Upsala Glacier in the Southern Patagonian Icefield calves icebergs into Lake Argentina in this astronaut photo from October 25, 2009. Read more...

Glacier Outlet, Southern Patagonian Ice Field, Chile

Glacier Outlet, Southern Patagonian Ice Field, Chile

This astronaut photograph shows the merged outlet of two glaciers within the deep fjords of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Read more...

Mosaic of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field

Mosaic of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field

Outside of Antarctica, the largest contiguous ice field in the Southern Hemisphere is the Southern Patagonian Ice Field in the Andes Mountains of Chile and Argentina. Read more...

Northern Patagonian Ice Field, Chile

Northern Patagonian Ice Field, Chile

The Northern Patagonian Ice Field is the smaller of two remnant ice masses crowning the Andes Mountains of lower South America. Read more...