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Scientist Afield in the Southern Andes


Sharing Science in South America

Follow the adventures of Wisconsin scientist Nick Miller in the southern Andes where he shares his expertise and learns from colleagues about conservation in Chile and other countries.

By Nick Miller, Director of Conservation Science
The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin

On a frigid, snowy February day, I leave Wisconsin for Chile, a place that “was invented by a poet,” according to Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet.

This narrow slip of a country (2,700 miles long but no more than 150 miles wide), nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountains, will be my home base for the next five months. I’m participating in The Nature Conservancy’s Coda Global Fellows Program, which is designed to share staff capacity and expertise through short‐term assignments to meet the Conservancy’s greatest global conservation needs. It also provides staff with the opportunity to contribute and learn beyond their program borders.

I’ll be providing science support to my colleagues in the Southern Andes Conservation Program, which includes Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Peru. But I’m also looking to gain new perspectives on how conservation works in a different part of the world that I can bring back to Wisconsin to benefit the land and water conservation we’re doing here in the Badger State.

Chile: The Rare and the Beautiful

As I fly over northern Chile on my way to Santiago, it looks like the country is entirely covered with mountains; I later learn only 80 percent of Chile is mountainous. In addition to mountains, you will find the Atacama Desert—said to be one of the driest, most inhospitable places on Earth—forests, grasslands, deep valleys, rocky rivers, volcanoes, lakes, and glaciers. More about the glaciers later.

My Conservancy colleagues in Chile and their partners are working to conserve some of Chile’s most beautiful and least protected habitats including the Valdivian Coastal forest, a temperate rainforest that runs along southern Chile's Pacific coast, and Chile’s Mediterranean habitat, of which less than 1 percent is protected yet is home to more than 1,500 plant species found nowhere else on Earth. I’ll be helping with conservation planning and research in these amazing places.

“Water Blackouts” and Only My Second Day!

On my second day in Chile, Santiago experienced the second of two recent “blackouts” that left most residents in this city of about 6 million people without water. The blackouts took everyone by surprise as Santiago had not had water cuts in decades. The culprit? Mudslides high in the mountains around the city that interrupted the water supply.

Before I knew it, I was on my way up into the mountains with local staff to investigate. You may be asking yourself why conservationists were going to investigate a water supply problem.

Santiago is located in Chile’s Mediterranean region, which is a Conservancy conservation priority. The mudslides are a result of extreme downpours from cyclic and long-term changes in climate. And there are many factors in the watershed—some of which could be solved with natural infrastructure like wetlands—that can increase mudslide problems. Soils may be left unanchored by vegetation due to the overgrazing of domestic goats and cattle, increased fire and by glaciers that retreat faster than slopes can revegetate. In addition, if not properly planned and implemented, mining and road-building can contribute to erosion problems.

The Conservancy is working with partners in the region to find a solution that will protect the rare diversity of this special area and maintain a safe, secure water supply for the people of Santiago.

We discussed many possibilities that day including restoring and creating bofedales, high montane wetlands, which could replace some of the services the glaciers now provide such as storing, purifying and regulating water flows. This will become increasingly important as studies now show that glaciers in the Andes are shrinking at an alarming rate.

We didn’t find the answer that day. More research needs to be done. But I’m excited to be in at the start of a discussion that could lead to innovative solutions not just for Santiago and Chile but other places around the world.

Next month: My family arrives and we settle into Valdivia. Time to explore the coastal range, home to one of three of the world’s smallest deer (just 18 inches high at the shoulder) and the “little mountain monkey,” a marsupial barely larger than a mouse.

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