Is Chile the barometer of the planet?

Chile is a prosperous, sophisticated country, abundant in many natural resources. It produces half of the world’s copper, high quality fruit and in its Central Zone, where most people live, Chile enjoys a moderate and comfortable climate which enables Chileans to grow some of the finest wines in the world and export some of the world’s best fruits. It has almost every natural resource and the resources that it does not have, it can trade with the rest of the world that needs Chile’s copper.

In the north of Chile is the world’s hottest place, in the Atacama Desert, just south of the equator. In the south of the country there are glaciers and ice floes, close to the neighbouring region of Antarctica. The western part of the country lies on the Pacific Ocean, with thousands of miles of ocean front coastline. The eastern part of the country is guarded by the Andes Mountains, which you can see in the distance from most parts of Chile.

Perhaps the fly in the ointment is the location of the capital of Chile, Santiago, which is surrounded by hills and mountains. There the effects of thermal inversion lock air pollution over the city particularly in the summer months with the car exhausts and fossil fuel burning creating that yellow haze that you can also see in México City, Los Angeles and other places.  

In many ways a country physically separated from the rest of the world by high mountains, the world’s largest ocean, deserts and lands of ice will be a microcosm for the planet itself. Chile has virtually all the features of the planet within its boundaries, except abundant supplies of fuel for energy. If we look at what is happening to Chile’s climate, we can lean a great deal about what is happening to the climate of the whole of earth.

Chilean scientists have been studying the climate changes in Chile and have been trying to model future changes. This is not an exercise in curiosity; agriculture, and to a lesser extent forestry, are critical Chilean industries. A long thin country with deserts in the north, ice in the south and a fertile central area where most people live is very susceptible if the climate changes.

It seems that in the next forty years (less than two generations of Chileans) there are two things that according to Chilean climate modellers will happen. The first is a temperature increase of at least 1 degree Celsius and possibly more than that. The second is that there will be less rainfall – 10% to 15% less.

Dr F Santibanez has been doing much of the climate change work. He is an agronomist engineer and professor of agroclimatology at the College of Agriculture and Academic Director of the Ph.D. Program on Agricultural, Forestry and Veterinarian Sciences of the Universidad de Chile. He has concerns about the response of vines to heat stress; apparently the vines could ripen too quickly (particularly the merlot variety) causing loss of quality. Chilean wine exports exceed $1.5 billion each year.

If the temperature gets hotter, even by a modest amount, the character of the vines and the grapes grown will change. Also hotter temperatures will mean that more moisture will evaporate from the soil, and with less rainfall it will mean that farmers will have to irrigate more in order to produce the same amount of food. Hotter temperatures and less rainfall will also mean less snowmelt from the Andes, which will mean less water for irrigation and probably less hydro electricity as the hydro power stations will run dry more frequently than they do at present.

Chile is a country with all the features of our planet. If Chile suffers from warmer temperatures or less ice melt or less rainfall the effects may be easier to identify and isolate, because Chile is a long thin country stretching over many climate zones. It may that what happens, in climate terms, in Chile today will happen everywhere tomorrow.

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