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Art by ELIJAH PETTET

PERITO MORENO
by WHITNEY BROWN

       I like to daydream about magnificent places, and one of the planet’s most incredible sights is in the Southern Patagonia Icefield, among sky-puncturing mountains, turquoise-hued lakes, and wind-shaped clouds. This sight, the Perito Moreno Glacier, is something to behold—98 square miles of snow and ice, ridges and crevasses, marvel and wonder.

       So, as Perito Moreno transforms Andean snow into ice, we’ll marvel. And as the glacier curves 19 blue miles toward a lake, as it towers hundreds of feet above the water, we’ll wonder. Finally, when the ice cliffs calve under the weight of upslope snow, we’ll behold: a cathedral’s worth of glacier tumbling into the lake[1].        

       I’ve never set foot in Patagonia. Even so, my daydream passport bears shimmering stamps from Argentina, slick-as-ice stickers of Perito Moreno.

       In tangible Patagonia, most people look at Perito Moreno from viewing platforms. But in my wildest imaginings, I can go wherever I like, do whatever I want: scale the ice cliffs, cartwheel between the ridges, camp at the bottom of the crevasses. More than anything, I like to pretend that I’m swimming in the lake.        From the surface, Perito Moreno would look as jagged as a geode, and huge crystals would conceal the ice clifftops. I’d lounge on the lake, the water somehow bath-warm, but the glacier would calve, ice splintering from the cliffs, and in the second before the shards hit the water, I’d try to dash away. As the frozen mass struck the surface, I’d sink through the lake, where ice chunks would look like teal silhouettes. Then one silhouette would rise beneath me, and I’d look down to see a piece of ice surging to the surface. Lifted by that ice, supported by it, I’d burst back into the air. Flecks of mist would fall like rain, but once they had subsided, I’d see the ice cliffs’ new facades: azure, angled, sharp. I’d wonder if the people on the viewing platform could see me, or if I melted into the jay-blue water.

       Glaciers shrink when they melt and calve faster than they receive new snowfall, and in the era of climate change, most of Earth’s glaciers are shrinking. But Perito Moreno is stable, Andean snowstorms making up for its calved ice. For a dreamer like me, one whose nightmares are often linked to climate change, Perito Moreno’s stability is a delight. It’s a source of awe, wonder, gratitude.

       I ask myself: should I make a pilgrimage to Patagonia? What would it be like to see Perito Moreno? To wave hello to a glacier, to surround myself with ice? 

       I think I would cry. I know I would cry.

       But my pilgrimage would spew carbon into the atmosphere, an air-altering action that—on a planet hurt by many air-altering actions—threatens glacial stability. I’m not one to travel lightly, but I do travel often, and if Perito Moreno ever tipped toward catastrophe, I suspect I would fall apart. Crumble.

       So I haven’t planned a pilgrimage. Not yet. Instead, I picture myself, swimming and soaring, at the glacier. Shining.

       Sometimes I dream that I’m an Andean condor, my wingspan nearly 10 feet long, blue sky coursing through the gaps in my flight feathers. I’d reel across the wind, coasting, gliding on thermals. But I’d rarely pump my wings. The air would keep me afloat.

       No meal would await me at Perito Moreno, that loud-thundering field of ice, but the place would feel special—like a source of primordial wonder, or inarticulable power. I would return there often.

       As the ice fell, I would hear familiar sounds: waves crashing, splashing, rocketing; onlookers exclaiming. Air is invisible to humans, though, so they couldn’t consider its moods, its wobbles, the way that I could.

       They wouldn’t know that the icefalls make the air crackle. 

       Or that the crackling air makes me shake.

       In the gusts, I would steady myself, airborne still.  

       The Canal de los Témpanos—the Iceberg Channel, an arm of Lago Argentino—abuts Perito Moreno and catches the calving ice. Human again, I dream that I’m swimming through the icebergs, through the many miles of channel. Backstroke to see the sky, freestyle to look into the lake. Breaststroke to move from one domain to the other, like an ambassador between air and water.

       When I reached the lake’s main body, more space would open around me: slopes backing away from the water, sunlight streaming into the valley. A perch would swim to me, and we’d exchange a few pleasantries. We’d agree that it was a soul-sustaining day, the whole world alive, the whole world fresh. To be fair, the perch would joke, this is freshwater. She’d flutter a fin, then take her leave.

       I’d make it to the lake’s far side, a few dozen miles away, and look for an outlet. Then I’d see it: the Santa Cruz River. Someday, in another daydream, I’ll follow that river through miles and miles of cocoa-brown landscape. I’ll swim to the place where the river flows into the ocean. 

       A notch of earth, the Península de Magallanes, protrudes into the Canal de los Témpanos, and scientists say that this has kept the glacier stable. As Perito Moreno flows downhill, it reposes against the peninsula, and in this way, the land has become a buttress; the lowest ice, a dam[2].

       Every few years, the dam collapses, a blue arch crumbling: ice shards and chunks and columns falling, breaking, bursting. On the lake, the waves roar, while the air fills with mist. Before long, the sky contains so many droplets that a gauze filters the spectacle, and through that gauze, onlookers glimpse calving ice, splashing water, heightening drama. Then, after the collapse ends, the dam spends seasons and seasons building itself back up.

       When the dam has become substantial, you and I could stand on top of the ice. Imagine it with me: a splendid, sapphire-skies day at Perito Moreno. On Perito Moreno. The air would be cold, but we’d feel the sun on our cheeks, our hands, our foreheads.

       Far below, we’d see the Canal de los Témpanos, the Península de Magallanes. Behind us would sprawl an expanse of ice, the glacier’s beginning 19 miles away, among fleecy clouds and white slopes.

       Smiling, we’d sashay across the dam. #

       In Patagonia, we could trek across Perito Moreno, and along the way, we’d see meltwater, the glacier dotted with blue pools. We’d kneel next to one, hit its surface with our palms, have a water fight. We’d send up a spray to plaster our hair, to push a shiver down our spines.

       Later, we could kayak on the Canal de los Témpanos. As we paddled, we would spot ice chunks. When we saw one shaped like a bottle, we’d write to Perito Moreno. We’d slide our letter into the ice, trusting the lake to deliver the message, trusting the glacier to respond. 

       “Dear Friends,” the reply would begin.

       It wouldn’t come in the mail. Instead, blue-tinged words would rise from Perito Moreno, like particles of cool air, and an Andean condor would direct the words. They’d swirl over water, over land, sometimes getting lost. Then a gust would forward them, curling and spiraling.

       The words would arrive on a breeze. We’d understand them easily.

       “Thank you for caring about me,” the glacier would say. “I know that you have visited me, by watching videos and reading and daydreaming. I have sensed you here, so I have loosened ice columns near you. Sent a perch to greet you. Helped you keep your balance as you danced on the ice dam.

       Although you are strangers, I feel kinship between us.

       Every day, as the perch swim, as the clouds scud, human visitors gasp at the sight of me. But I’m pleased to know that other people glow and smile and hope when they envision me.

       Sometimes, for people like you, it is enough to know that a glacier is still in its prime. This knowledge can sustain humans; what humans do with this knowledge can, perhaps, sustain glaciers too.

       I am tens of thousands of seasons old. About one thousand seasons ago, the air began changing: sooty specks in the atmosphere, hotter sunlight in the sky. But I remain blue, mighty, beautiful.

       Yours, imaginatively,

       Perito Moreno”

       So we’d tuck the letter into our minds. Keep it safe. Never lose it.

 

[1] Bocchiola, Daniele, Francesco Chirico, Andrea Soncini, Roberto S. Azzoni, Guglielmina A. Diolaiuti, and Antonella Senese. “Assessment of Recent Flow, and Calving Rate of the Perito Moreno Glacier Using LANDSAT and SENTINEL2 Images.” Remote Sensing, (2021).

[2] Lodolo, Emanuele, Federica Donda, Jorge Lozano, Luca Baradello, Roberto Romeo, Donaldo M. Bran, and Alejandro Tassone. “The Submerged Footprint of Perito Moreno Glacier.” Scientific Reports 10, no. 1 (2020).

WHITNEY BROWN primarily writes travel essays about climate change. She graduated with an MFA in creative nonfiction from Brigham Young University. You can find some of her academic writing in ASSAY Journal.


ELIJAH PETTET graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cinema Studies program and now works at Sunlight Ski Patrol. As a passionate photographer, Elijah feels honored to see his work paired with the beautiful and topical writing in CHANGING SKIES.

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