Personal reflections on the challenges in Environmental science in Chile

2nd February 2021

Two years into working as an environmental scientist in Chile I thought it was time to get some thoughts written down and get some visual aids at the ready to illustrate the issues of concern, the absolute beauty of the wild place and the need to protect it as well as surrounding South American countries. This is coming from the point of view of a well-travelled European now living in South America, so apologies for summarizing complex issues or not understanding the history of the issues as well as locals.

Moving from global to local science

In the UK as an atmospheric chemist, I worked on many studies of air pollution from a global perspective, understanding the effect of air pollution from one continent to another, the changes happening as air crossed the Atlantic or the effect of pollution on pristine environments like Antarctica. Me and my colleagues worked together on international questions and tried to look at what was happening locally or regionally from a global perspective, trying to be objective, rather than putting the finger of blame on specific countries or regions.

After over 10 years of forming a rich web of collaborations as an NCAS scientist I realised that I wasn’t personally living the research or feeling the impact of what I was doing. I was topping up my h-index (the way we grade a scientist´s publication record) but I was´t directly leading my research and merging my personal ambitions with my professional ones. A series of events led to me taking the plunge and moving to Chile to start a new life and try to find an alternative greasy pole to climb. Surprisingly to me, the confidence and skills you gain in one country are transferrable and soon people take a chance with you and like your ideas. I became a research assistant at the Center for Climate and Resilience Research (CR)2 at the University of Chile and also a research assistant at the Universidad del Desarrollo (UDD), my Spanish quickly improved and I learned about the important issues in Chile and where the gaps in our research are.

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The Atmsopheric Observatory at Cerro Tres Puntas at 3600 m in the Valle Nevado ski resort. The Met station, rain/snow gauge and the Black Carbon (ethalometer) and aerosol measurements with a sun photometer (the last 2 will be installed in 2021) will help us to understand the meteorology of the Andes and the importance of snow in the hydrological balance of the Santiago basin. We also want to see how much air pollution reaches these heights and distances from the megacity and understand their effect upon landing on snow or nearby glaciers.

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Cerro El Plomo (5424 m) is the mountain behind the refugio. The station can be reached by vehicle between November and April and by ski the rest of the time. In times of high snow there is a tow lift to the station, at other times and when the resort is closed, it has to be accessed by ski touring.

A new project testing small sensors for environmental field work

Now me and my boss have just been granted a 5 year FONDEQUIP Mayor research grant to build a “Platform for standardization, characterization and calibration of environmental air and water diagnoses” (website to follow in March 2021) at the UDD. So I had better start to reflect on what we could achieve and what are the dreams and ideals of the colleagues I have made along the journey to starting this.

Introducing the way science works in Chile may also give you a perspective on how the country works in general, from my innocent view-point. CR2 is the exception, not the rule, composed of a consortium of associated researchers from many regions of Chile, working on the common theme of the resilience to climate change, an incredibly important topic in Chile, a country that is very affected by climate change. However, much of the proposal writing in Chile is done on a very individual basis, more like the competitive US system and collaboration is not promoted in the same way as in Europe. This in environmental science could be disastrous and has also meant that there hasn´t necessarly been continuity in the environmental monitoring nor (also due to the geography of Chile) has it created strong networks between the fiscal monitoring and the research monitoring and environmental databases are at times near impossible to find. The Air quality network (SINCA) is good (but there are certain stations near industrial zones that often mysteriously read “no data”), the water quality network often leads to blank entries as well as the river flow network (DGA). CR2 has brought many meteorological and river catchment flow resources together (CAMELS and Explorador Climático).

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Water sampling with Sofi and Cata (neighbours who only had online school in 2020) and the local dogs.

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The turbidity in the river Volcán is very high. Our village of Baños Morales gets water from aquifers but we have hardness levels of over 800 ppm CaCO3 in our drinking source and all the rivers nearby have at least 200 ppm. We wonder whether the piles of gypsum could be polluting the standing water in the village´s water reserve.

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The Volcán Gyypsum (Yeso) stock pile from the mine near up near Baños Colina. Note distance to our drinking source (bottom right) and distance to our village (top right). Winds are always strong in the afternoons, especially in summer.

Environmental threats near Santiago de Chile

The Ministry for the Environment was only created in 2010 and has little power over the mega companies that have installed themselves all over Chile, in agriculture, mining, salmon farming and power stations. Chile´s main export is Copper and its second, salmon. The Copper mines are way up in the high mountains, often close to glaciers and their excessive use of water and the tailings created could always be run in a more environmentally friendly way.

 

Between where I live in the Cajón del Maipo and where I work on a research station in the Valle Nevado ski resort near Santiago there are multiple environmental threats. My mountain running friend Matt is an investigative journalist and has written articles on the Los Bronces mine polluting the Paloma glacier and the Alto Maipo mega hydroelectric project 10 km from my house that will divert nearly all the water from the Cajon del Maipo water shed at the Argentinian border into a 80 km tunnel (under glaciers) for a hydroelectric project that will now produce electricity at a much higher cost than solar energy. Then we have a Gypsum (CaSO4·2H2O) mine stock pile neighbour 400m away, the other side of the river from Baños Morales (see video and photo above) and the white dust can be seen every afternoon blowing our way, towards our village´s water source. My frequent hardness tests show levels of CaCO3 of 800ppm, when very hard is quoted as higher than 180 ppm by the WHO. Above you can see some of my water quality monitoring forays with some young neighbours- we are planning a lot more monitoring. 

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Sampling dust, water and soil in Alto Lao, Calama in the far north of Chile, where indigenous communities are threatened by pollution coming from mega Copper mines

Water sampling in the Lakes region with remote buoys or permanent water level monitors

The legal documents and the environmental assessments related to suspected sources of pollution are hard work to read or hidden deep in a sea of bureaucracy and the Transparency act (2008) is hard to activate. In theory we can call the Superintendencia del Mediio ambiente (the environmental detectives) and register a complaint and they should come and take measurements.

Where citizen science comes in

Local communities have many issues that they can learn more about and try to confront and question their right to live in an environmet that is free from pollution. With few water quality measurements in Chile and those for my village (supposedly since 1979), blank in the database, it is the perfect timing for some citizen science measurements to help to build up a picture of what is needed and what are the issues that we need to improve on. 

 

The same goes for air quality. In July 2019 we joined forces with CIEP (Centro de Investigación de Ecosistemas de Patagonia) in the small town of Coyhaique, where, during winter they have a serious air quality problem from the wood burning stoves in every house and the temperature inversions that form in the mountain-encircled valley. We used small low cost sensors that measure Particulate Matter and walked around the town (between 4 and 12 people at the same time) to create a snapshot of air pollution on a street-by-street scale, showing that conventional monitoring techniques cannot  detect the hotspots that form in the poor neighbourhoods that huddle the outskirts of town. See the map showing the whole town´s air pollution levels that we produced (in the presentation I gave at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference 2020) and the media reports on our measurements.

How our new laboratory could help to bridge the gap between local and global issues

The Platform of instruments that we will be setting up in 2021, will have reference instrumentation for measuring air pollution, water pollution and water availability (flow and height) available for use by the Chilean research community. We have to leave 60 % of the instrument time for the community, not for UDD internal projects, so the laboratory will be open for research visits, student projects, internships, or a day of sample testing. We hope that the community that is developing and testing small sensors for remote testing or setting up networks of sensors can come and test their instrumentation and use the network to discuss their issues of data storage, communication, calibration and weather-proofing for the harsh conditions in the field.

 

In the next 5 years we hope to have many discussions on the validity of data, on the inter-comparability of data and on the methodology for setting up remote environmental monitoring programmes or intense field campaigns. We want to recommend instruments, share data, set up new databases and make the results more available to the public. We want to test and recommend methods that the community could use to do their own local monitoring and use citizen science as the first step towards a more thorough understanding of our local environment.

I have come from working on global pollution issues to promoting local and hands-on science, which raises the public´s awareness of the issues and gives them the power to question and demand an expert opinion. As the local networks build up and the monitoring becomes more strategic in its key locations, this will help many environmental modelling studies and will help in designing environmental policies and laws that can help to identify sources of pollution or identify the delicate issues of water supply in the only country in the world where water is private.

Río Volcán, my local river which in February 2021 after heavy rainfall was unfit for drinking, due to high sediment levels

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Citizen science soil tests for the community- this could provide the first sets of data that can then be backed up with reference instruments

Chile- the environmental scientist´s playground

Chile has many environmental challenges and it is an exciting place to do environmental science. There is still so much to learn and there is so much variety in the issues in a country that stretches 4300 km south to north. Communities are resilient and together have a great strength. There is an incredible amount of solidarity on environmental issues and I have been involved in many educational courses (the Pandemic seemed to have led to a wave of fascinating talks and webinars) that have been very empowering. 

 

Most Chileans are proud of their mountains and their coastline but few really appreciate the richness of this country as they have never stepped outside of its borders or have not even travelled to its furthest stretches. It has an incredible wilderness to protect from its high summits to its rich and dense forests in Patagonia and its fjords and rich marine areas. Somehow we feel like little fishes in a huge ocean here but env ironmental scientists here are like explorers, as there is still so much to learn and to protect.