The Patagonia catch-22
Patagonia in all its beauty can also be an unsettling place to visit, trapped within mutually conflicting and dependent conditions: tourism and climate change. It has become a hot-spot in Argentina for international tourists along with Buenos Aires, but some of Patagonia's most prized locations such as the Perito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate or the penguins on Isla Martillo near Ushuaia face threats from increasing temperatures, and are simultaneously visited by increasing numbers of tourists each year. It’s the ultimate catch-22: Crowds of tourists fly in from around the world to see these wonders before they’re gone, perhaps instilling an urgency to protect them. Yet it is our desire to travel and our unwillingness to cut certain habits which contributes to CO2 emissions and increasing temperatures which put at risk the places we love to visit.
The type of tourism in Ushuaia and El Calafate is a different breed from local tourism which, for the most part, enjoys other regions of Patagonia which are more affordable and reachable by car. In conversations with Argentines in different provinces throughout the country, most said that they would never have the chance to see Perito Moreno for themselves because of how expensive it is. Argentina is in the midst of one of its worst recessions yet, with inflation surpassing 100 percent. But the prices of food, transportation, tours and lodge in El Calafate and Ushuaia were not only higher than in some European cities, but were sometimes five times higher than in Buenos Aires, which is already considered an expensive city for Argentine standards. Indigenous communities and locals often cannot afford the high cost of living that has come with the increasing tourism, and of course, the impacts of climate change like flooding, drought and extreme temperatures shake up the ecosystems and communities. Tourism is a way to survive while also being a means to an end, adding another layer to the catch-22.
The Argentine government has enacted a number of laws to protect Patagonia, including the National Parks Law, Law on Forests, Environmental Impact Assessment Law, National Glacier Law, Water Resources Law and laws that establish indigenous land-conservation rights in Patagonia. The regions themselves are in great condition. But these aggressive laws cannot exactly protect Patagonia from the the global shift in temperatures brought on by worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, which are at an all-time high and eight percent of which are contributed to by tourism. Greenhouse gas emissions from tourism increased by 60 percent between 2005 and 2016 as flights have become cheaper, and for Argentina's case, places become safer and more catered to international visitors. In Patagonia, international visitor numbers have surged since 2017 according to statistics which show a tripple in numbers.
It all poses the question as a photographer who has just traveled over 13,000 km by plane: why do we feel the need to visit places that seem almost too pristine, too remote, too fragile for us to even be allowed to step foot in? Yes, looking a penguin straight in the eyes or standing in front of a 250 square kilometer glacier is shocking, maybe even emotional — but what is this experience worth?
Perito Moreno and the glaciers surrounding are some of world’s largest sources of water and it only recently started to recede for the first time because of rising temperatures. Before, Perito Moreno was a healthy glacier that never melted faster than it grew. This has changed in recent years as the region of El Calafate has faced heatwaves, extreme weather, increased desertification and rising sea levels. In the city of El Calafate, the Laguna Nimez natural reserve which is home to bird species including flamingos, black-neck swans and owls, acts as a vital protective sponge between the water from Lago Argentino and the lake-side neighborhoods in El Calafate. According to a local ranger who grew up just across the street from the preserve, which sits at the mouth of Argentina's biggest source of water, the rising temperatures and melting glaciers have made it harder for the preserve to manage and absorb the increasing water levels, causing the town to flood more often and throwing off the balance for its ecosystems. Meanwhile a 10 min walk from the reserve and its humble nearby neighborhoods, fancy restaurants and hotels line the downtown area and cater to clients from around the world.
Isla Martillo, a small island near the city of Ushuaia which is considered the southernmost point before Antarctica, has a similar story. Gentoo, Magellanic and King Penguins live there between September and April to mate and shed their feathers before migrating north. Tourists can take boats or even walk on the island through guided tours that are offered on an almost-daily basis. There are only two King Penguins living on the island who have been unable to successfully hatch an egg because of rising temperatures. While the other species around Isla Martillo are still at healthy numbers, they are constantly interacting with humans and the regular boats passing through. Touching and interacting with the penguins is strictly prohibited, but people can still come within inches of the penguins and their nests. As remote as Isla Martillo is, it is certainly not untouched.