HeathcareScientists seek answers to climate change in "the end...

Scientists seek answers to climate change in “the end of the world”

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From the waters of one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, at the so-called “end of the world”, a group of Chilean scientists tracks everything from microscopic viruses to huge whales to help put together the great climate change puzzle.

Aboard the Chilean Navy oceanographic vessel “Cabo de Hornos”, 19 scientists explore the confines of the American continent for nine days, in the Chilean region of Magallanes, to investigate the presence of harmful organisms and the impact of climate change.

The need to implement more urgent policies to address the climate emergency haunts the minds of the members of this expedition, which sets sail from the city of Punta Arenas and navigates through the channels and fjords of the Strait of Magellan until reaching the Beagle Channel, which connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific.

“I think we are the voice of what nature cannot say,” says Wilson Castillo, a 24-year-old biochemistry student. “As scientists we have a lot to contribute, especially in a climate change scenario,” he says.

He is the youngest of the group of marine biologists, physicists and chemists processing samples taken from the sea for a study led by the High Latitude Marine Ecosystem Dynamic Research Center (IDEAL).

Castillo filters seawater and captures viruses to “larger microorganisms, even if they do not exceed a fifth of a millimeter.” In its tiny treasures, see pieces of the immense puzzle that must be put together to preserve the planet.

The staging is spectacular due to the absolutely changeable climate of the canals and fjords that surround this region, but most scientists do not have time for contemplation.

They continue their work when leaden rains – carried by cold sea winds – dissipate rapidly, making practically monochromatic landscapes explode in color. And they do not stop to observe the rainbows that usually form as the clouds recede, in a transition that can occur several times in the same day.

“Filter or die”, jokes Castillo, altering a military slogan that he read on a commemorative medal of the vessel and without stopping to study the seawater extracted as part of the “Exofan” expedition, which had to be postponed for a year due to the pandemic.

Rapid climate change

The mission pays special attention to the possible emergence of harmful algal blooms (HABs), known as red tide. This phenomenon, registered for the first time almost 50 years ago in the Magallanes region, then left a total of 23 people dead and more than 200 intoxicated.

As global warming progresses, many glaciers in Patagonia lose ground, melting large amounts of fresh water into the seas.

Studying the waters of this place is key because they present conditions that are expected to arise in other marine systems in the coming decades, as profound changes occur due to increased releases of C02 into the atmosphere and the retreat of glaciers.

Scientists and members of the crew of the oceanographic research vessel Cabo de Hornos disembark in the Francisco Coloane National Park, Chile, to take samples for research, on December 2, 2021. (Nicolas GARCIA / AFP)

Some variations in the pH or salinity level have already been observed, especially in surface waters.

But “we do not know how organisms and specifically microorganisms are going to respond to these effects,” admits the mission’s chief scientist, José Luis Iriarte.

In the 14 scheduled stops, a rosette -as they call a device with bottles that send up to 200 meters to the bottom of the sea- collects water at different levels.

Other teams collect soil samples from the seabed – sometimes more than 300 meters deep – while also looking for algae and mollusks on the shores.

Iriarte calls for more urgency in policies to face the climate crisis.

“Regional plans for mitigation and adaptation to climate change are out of date with respect to what is happening in the environment. The environment is going faster than we are responding as a society ”, he warns.

Whales

From the highest point of the ship, marine biologist Rodrigo Hucke spends hours looking for signs that indicate the presence of whales. Upon seeing a distant stream of water, Hucke’s eyes light up and the cry of “whale” is heard.

It is a “humpback” that swims near the boat. Hucke jumps into a small boat that allows him to approach to try to collect their excrement, in which they want to find information about how the diet of these immense cetaceans could be changing. This time he can’t.

University professor and veteran of the seas, says that since he saw a whale for the first time, some 25 years ago, the excitement is repeated with each sighting.

It regrets that it took so many years for the problem of the oceans, which cover 70% of the planet, to be taken seriously at the last United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP).

After two years of discussion, he hopes that the next summit in Egypt, COP27, will mark the beginning of a true global transformation.

“2022 has to change all this and there is already a concrete decision to move towards profound policies to change how we do things as humans,” he says.

The expedition ends and scientists leave behind what Hucke believes may become “one of the last bastions of biodiversity on earth.”

Back in their labs and classrooms, it will take months for them to finish processing and finding the answers they were looking for until the end of the world.

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