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Strait through the Land of Fire

The disappearing glaciers along Magellan's legendary route


"Geographical / Expeditions"

Winter 2017

Marco Magrini

THERE ARE NO FLAMES ABLAZE, along Tierra del Fuego (Spanish for “land of fire”), just glaciers and icy rocks. You don’t spot giants wandering in barely populated Patagonia, which was named after an imaginary breed of human-like behemoths, the Patagons. Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, stage of legendary naval undertakings, is not really a remote headland. It’s an islet. Not to mention that it does not really deserve its title finis terrae, the “end of the world”, since Ramirez Islands are to be found further south.


No one can be blamed for such misnomers. Clearly, sailing down there from Europe, particularly using 16th century’s maritime technologies, was an hyperbole-inducing enterprise.


The colonial frenzy that swept the wealthiest European States at that time, inspired a string of expeditions to the remote south that were a little less brutish and wicked than in the rest of Latin America, for there were fewer resources to grab and fewer people to slay. Today, five centuries later, the tapering extremity of the continent still remains largely unspoiled and has become a sort of a thermometer for a planet in a changing climate. A thermometer that reads fever.


It is summer. Walking along the Tierra del Fuego shores, where immense Patagonia ends up in a maze of islands and canals, I encounter just a few minuscule flowers: the rigid and windy weather hasn’t allowed anything grander to evolve. Yet, this story was set off five centuries ago, in 1519, on the apparently trivial quest for dried bits of flowers.


The Molucca Islands, now part of Indonesia, were know to hold a treasure in clove trees, whose dehydrated flower buds were literally more valuable than gold, at least in the lavish European courts of the time. After a 1493 papal bull had granted Portugal all routes to Asia, Spanish fleets were barren from sailing down the African coasts and turning left around Cape of Good Hope towards the Indies, as Portuguese Vasco da Gama did six years later. King Charles I of Spain had to look for a way westwards. He found in Ferdinand Magellan, a ruthless explorer and a Portuguese defector, the right man for the right job.


Long after the two Iberian colonialists’ brawl, two independent countries now share Patagonia. In Tierra del Fuego, its jagged archipelago at the bottom, the border is a straight and gelid vertical line that separates Chile from  Argentina, where Ushuaia stands. The self-proclaimed world’s southernmost city, stretched out on the seafront, yet with steep snowy heights in the background, has the feel of both a ski resort for affluent tourists and a harbor for rugged seamen. In modern times, it’s the right place to set off from, on a journey through the cold and pristine “land of fire”.


On a cruise ship from Ushuaia, it takes one night’s navigation to get to the end of a world. A world under change. ‘It's raining less and it is hotter,’ says Manuel Canepa, captain of the Chilean Navy stationed at the Cape Horn lighthouse. ‘I’m here for just a one-year assignment, but I spent the last five in Puerto Williams, a little further north, and the warming trend is clear.’


Today, in truth, at the end of the world it is pouring. Exactly where the Atlantic and the Pacific go hand in hand, stage of legendary naval dramas, winds are suddenly picking up. We manage to rush back to the ship, just before they start blowing at Force 8.


Much below the iconic 56th parallel south which crosses here, there is only Antarctica, the biggest reserve of iced freshwater on the planet that, according to the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is releasing more water into the ocean than expected. Much above it, there are the Patagonian glaciers that, according to an article recently published in the Journal of Glaciology, ‘shed mass more rapidly in the last 14 years than in the period 1870-2001.’ Tierra del Fuego – separated from mainland Patagonia by the Magellan Strait – is no different: most of its glaciers, are retreating.

Stubbornly, Magellan was certain of the existence of a passage connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, or pretended to be. With his fleet of five vessels and a total crew of 235, he sailed past northern Brazil towards territories that, at the time, were literally uncharted. The first hint of a passage he found, was regrettably just a hidden bay, behind what is now Rio de Janeiro. The second, much further south, turned out to be the Rio de la Plata’s mouth, on whose facing shores Buenos Aires and Montevideo stand today. Before he had a third chance, he had to face yet another bout of collective starvation, one more storm, a ship wreckage, a bloody mutiny and the sudden defection of a whole ship.


On 21 October, 1520, more than a year after it had left Spain, the Magellan’s fleet found another plausible passage at 52°S latitude: this time, not a just a river’s mouth, since its waters were brine. It took another 350 miles of navigation into the unknown, before discovering they had found a way out to the other side of the world. It is now universally known as the Strait of Magellan and, needless to say, it is not straightforward at all.


Pia and Garibaldi Glaciers: the latter has disappeared.

Sailing along the Strait.

Captain Manuel Canepa,  stationed at the Cape Horn lighthouse.


OUR CRUISE SHIP HAS STEERED NORTHWEST, in order to reach quieter waters along the Beagle channel. The 12-meter waves were challenging the digestive systems of most passengers, and the Via Australis’ captain has scrappd the scheduled visit to Navarino Island, the biggest chunk of land, north of Cape Horn.


The following morning, there’s the typical calm-after-the-storm effect. The ship is gliding serenely over an enchanted waterway surrounded on each side by snowy heights, where imposing clouds filter patches of lights and shadows. The Beagle channel is named after the British ship that sailed here and made history, not for its exploratory accomplishments, but for its contribution to the biggest insight ever into biological sciences. ‘It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow’, wrote Charles Darwin in 1833, while aboard the Beagle.


Things have changed, since then. The modern world is interconnected. Yet not as connected as the only atmosphere we have, where the greenhouse gases produced in one hemisphere, warm the climate that melt glaciers in the other one.


Deep into a fjord along the Beagle Channel we come across two glaciers, Pia and Garibaldi, descending along two separate valleys that meet at sea. While the former continues to discharge in the water slices of the bluish ice Darwin saw, the latter has completely disappeared. In its place, there remains only a shadow of its passage: a river of pebbles, without any trace of vegetation.


According to a World Bank report, if the Earth's average temperature were to rise above the dreaded threshold of two degrees, the Andean glaciers could lose up to 97% of their volume. ‘Chile has more than 3,000 glaciers stretching for 8,900 square miles - says Flavia Liberona, director of Terram, an NGO in Santiago - and all climate models indicate increased desertification in the north and a decrease in rainfall in the south.’ Our huge thermometer at the end of the world, is reminding us of the feverish state of our atmosphere without borders. It spells a bleak future for millions of people in Latin America, who rely on natural water reservoirs up in the Andes.


While sailing through the Strait that one day will bear his name, Magellan didn’t confront too many indigenous people. He might have been alarmed at the sight of several small fires burning in the distance, hence the Tierra del Fuego overplayed denomination. He contributed to the legend of Patagons, who in later expeditions turned out to be genetically tall individuals, everything but giants. In the centuries that followed, though, indigenous people had their apparently inevitabile hard times.


It all started in 1884, with the unintentional discovery of gold in Eastern Tierra del Fuego. The news first reached Punta Arenas, a small village established by the Chilean government to assert sovereignty over the Strait. And then Buenos Aires, where Julius Popper, a Romanian-born Argentine engineer, recruited a huge team of workers, mostly Dalmatians immigrants from modern-day Croatia, to join him in the Tierra del Fuego gold rush.


It was ruthless. In 1893, more than a thousand Croatians had settled along the Beagle Channel’s shores and, while craving for gold, they couldn’t either shun their cravings for alcohol and women. At Popper’s command, the gang went after the  Selk'nam people, who had lived a semi-nomadic life in Isla Grande, the biggest expanse of land in Tierra del Fuego, for thousands of years. By the time the gold deposits were depleted, in just a few years, the Selk’nam (also know as the Ona people) were decimated, on their way to extinction. The precious mineral didn’t make Tierra del Fuego any richer, apart from Punta Arenas that grew into the biggest city of the remote South, where today nearly half of the population is of Croatian descent.


A Magellan Penguin / La Luna pub in Punta Arenas / Calafate looks like a miniature apple: it is edible and rich in Vitamin C / The Via Australis cruise ship / The Strait at sunset.


ON OUR WAY TO PUNTA ARENAS, the cruise’s final destination, we pay a visit to yet another discovery named after Ferdinand Magellan: the Magellanic penguin. Magdalena island, emerging from the very middle of the Strait, still hosts 60,000 breeding pairs of the cute and clumsy animal who was first spotted by the Portuguese explorer. On such a windy place, no trees or even bushes can survive. Only Magellanic penguins do (albeit digging shallow holes to find shelter), together with nomadic hordes of imperial shags, sea lions and two local varieties of seagulls. While vermilion clouds at dawn cast an emotional tint over the barren island, the sounds and the shrieks of these deep-south creatures conjure, with the howling wind, a concert of ancestral harmonies.


If were not for the sustained breeze, downtown Punta Arenas would seem just like an average town from an unspecified European country. Imaginably so, since – along with Croatians – here live people of English, Irish, Scottish, French, German, Italian and, of course, Spanish descent. A melting pot that spans from early colonialism to 20th Century’s mass migrations, where its people are clearly proud of living along the Strait’s waterfront, to the south of everybody else.


In a lively restaurant with a reputation for its pisco sour, the national booze, I spot a copy of a nice local magazine, El Magallanes, Sunday edition of the daily La Prensa Austral. Inside, there is a long interview with a researcher from Inach, Instituto Antártico Chileno, a national conservation institution based in Punta Arenas. ‘The latest IPCC report states that the planet has warmed 0.84° Celsius, but in our region the registered variation is three times as much: between 2.6 and 3° Celsius’, glaciologist Ricardo Jaña remarks. He admits that this region is a ‘natural lab’ for climate studies. And maybe, for climate politics.


In 2014, Greenpeace founded the Glacier Republic, both a virtual nation (with some legal basis) and an awareness campaign to put pressure on Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, asking her to legislate on the protection of glaciers, threatened further north by copper mines.


On our human timescale our planet’s geology convey a sense of immobility, but the earth never rests. Yet, there are places where the strength of geology becomes palpable: Tierra del Fuego is one of them. It was designed over a period of millions of years just by the power of glaciers that carved the valleys, then transported the debris along countless geological eras, to finally leave room for many stretches ​​of seawater, as the imposing Strait of Magellan.


The Portuguese commander accomplished the first half of his mission on 28 November, 1520, when three remaining ships sailed in sight of open waters. (The other half, concerning the spicy flower buds, was to be aborted in the Philippines, where Magellan’s overconfidence in Spanish weaponry granted him a severe loss of lives, including his own).


We can barely imagine Magellan and his men’s jubilation with finding the forbidden sea, all way through their own perilous route. In front of them lies the biggest ocean on the planet, rimmed by the so-called ‘ring of fire’, where 75% of earthquakes and volcanic eruption occur, seasonally battered by the most devastating cyclones.


Yet, it was a sunny day. ‘É um mar pacifico’, Magellan uttered in his native language. It has been called Pacific ever since. 

NOTE. The pictures above, shot by Marco Magrini during the cruise, were not included in the original publication

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