Day 147 - Memories of a Glacier

Published: December 4th 2006
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Today was all about our visit to Perito Moreno glacier, one of the world's great natural spectacles. We thought perhaps once you've seen one glacier you've seen them all; for that to be true that 'one' has to be the Moreno Glacier here in Argentina. It is a majestically huge tongue of ice spilling over from the Southern Ice Field, the same source as a couple of the other big glaciers we've seen recently. There's some debate, but one version of the state of the world's glaciers has it that this is one of a handful of glaciers that aren't retreating. Apparently it's hard to work out because glacier time is a long time and measurements are taken over many years to ascertain the true pattern. Whatever the scientists say, it seemed to us to be advancing in the 3 hours we watched it.

The glacier is absolutely huge, and flows down a valley and across a lake - not floating but rather along the lake's bottom. Sometimes it makes it to the far side of the lake, forming a dam and stopping water flow through the lake. Eventually the build up of water pressure becomes too great and the water breaks through. This would be quite a sight and happened most recently in 2004 - a DVD is available in all the gift shops (with 59 and a half minutes of padding).

Hopefully the photos show what it is like. What they can't convey though is the thunder-like cracks as bits of ice break off. Even small bits a few metres across make a surprisingly loud bang. We were kept well back, just behind a sign saying that 32 glacier watchers were killed here between 1968-1988. A more dangerous hobby than we'd thought.

The trouble with watching a glacier calving into the water is that once you've got over the initial buzz of the size of it and all the pieces falling off, all you want is for a massive 60m high chunk to collapse. As time wore on without such excitement we decided that glaciers are like pears. Eddie Izzard does this sketch where he complains about pears sitting in the fruit bowl, rock hard for days on end, before suddenly becoming brown, over-ripened mush when you turn your back. Similarly the glacier seemed to sense the presence of the hundred or so people watching, stubbornly trying to hold itself together until the buses leave at 8pm. Maybe we've been away travelling too long if we're thinking glaciers have personalities.

Anyway, on this occasion the glacier lost. Freezing cold and about to miss the bus, we reluctantly began climbing the steps to the car park. Ed turned round for one last look, immediately got Gemma to look too, and then we both watched the biggest splash we've ever seen.

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