The new stage of the UC Patagonia Station
The decree signed by the Ministry of National Assets ensures the continuation of the work carried out by the UC for over a decade. The work -in one of the last virgin corners of the Aysén Region and the country- is focused on interdisciplinary research on the interactions of human beings with the environment -fauna, vegetation, water resources- and global change, among others.
The UC Patagonia Interdisciplinary Research Station is located in one of the few pristine territories left in Chile and the world. Situated in the Aysén Region, it is a privileged place for the study of flora, fauna, glaciers and rivers, and complex phenomena such as biodiversity, global and climate change.
UC has developed an intense and extensive research and academic training work in this fiscal territory, under concession since 2009. Thanks to this work the concession was renewed for the next fifteen years.
"This renewal agreement is very important. On the one hand, it is a recognition of the research work and commitment to the community that has been carried out at the Patagonia Station and the Aysén Region. And, on the other hand, it implies futures plans and projects that will be of great importance and impact, at a regional, national and international level. It is a great achievement for all the faculty and researchers involved,” said the University’s President, Ignacio Sánchez.
The most remote place
To reach the UC Patagonia Station, you must take a plane to Balmaceda -a little over 50 km from Coyhaique- and then travel the nearly 300 km to Bahía Exploradores, along a beautiful road that crosses the Cerro Castillo Reserve -if you are lucky you might see a huemul (buck deer)-, and the emerald waters of Lake General Carrera, the largest in our country.
From Puerto Río Tranquilo, the closest town to the station, you must take the so-called "Glacier Route" and continue about two hours to an area called Teresa, in the confluence of the rivers Teresa, Exploradores, and Oscuro, of different shades of green and blue. Until a few years ago, the only way to cross was on the boat of Don Jaime and Doña Rosa, who lived in the only house in the area, since the current bridge did not exist.
Then, you had to enter the final part of the Exploradores Valley, with its leafy forests of mañíos, tepas, lumas, coigües and ñirres (native species). Finally, you had to continue to the pier and take a boat to arrive, about an hour later, to the UC Patagonia Station, or rather to the Maldonado sector, one of the access points to the 5,000 hectares of steep and wooded land that make up the concession. Access is now possible thanks to a footbridge that rises above the mallín (flooded meadows) and the dense vegetation -which before had to be cut with a machete in order to advance- and that leads directly to the heart of the station: a wooden platform where a tower rises to provide the basic services to welcome the experienced researchers who come to this place.
"It is a recognition of the research work and commitment to the community that has been carried out at the Patagonia Station and the Aysén Region. And, on the other hand, it implies futures plans and projects that will be of great importance and impact, at a regional, national and international level" - Ignacio Sánchez, University's President.
Convergence of knowledge
Since a group of faculty members of the Institute of Geography started this project eleven years ago with great passion and perseverance, other UC researchers have joined, and a research platform has been consolidated.
In 2015, the station itself was created through a rectory decree, composed by the faculties of History, Geography and Political Science; Biological Sciences; Agriculture & Forestry; and Architecture, Design and Urban Studies.
"After several initial years of exploration and gradual setup in the concession, we have managed, among other things, to support and develop various national and international research projects, including Fondecyt projects, post-doctoral projects, and those developed through our partnership with the Institute of Ecology and Environment of French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), said Alejandro Salazar, director of the UC Patagonia Station and professor of the Institute of Geography.
"Also, over time we have managed to install and operate a high standard weather station, which has allowed us to integrate the Aysén region into the long-term environmental monitoring network, LTSER- Chile, and the DEIMS-SDR information and data platform. We have also worked with international organizations such as UNESCO (Man and the Biosphere Programme), and the State, such as CONAF and the Institute for Fisheries Development (IFOP in Spanish). With the latter, we seek to establish the contributions of fresh water to the Cupquelan Fjord," said Salazar.
Its location, on the northern edge of Campos de Hielo Norte and gateway to Laguna San Rafael National Park, and the fact that it is an unspoiled territory, makes it a true natural laboratory for research. As Rodrigo de la Iglesia, a biological sciences professor, states, the station's greatest value lies in “having access to a system that still maintains pristine environments, and that enables us to test many of our hypotheses regarding the anthropogenic effect on coastal systems.”
Thus, studies are also being carried out on the existing fauna with camera traps -which allow the animals to be photographed in their habitat under daytime and nighttime conditions-, being able to establish the presence in the area of kodkods, pumas, pudus, foxes and huillines (southern river otters), among others. "This has recently allowed us to start a permanent monitoring plan, generating database record for the Patagonia Station, and learn more about the interactions between the different species, both native and exotic. As well as implementing actions to contribute with the protection of this unaltered ecosystem," explained the researcher of UC Center of Applied Ecology and Sustainability (CAPES), Paula Zucolillo.
"The main threat to these ecosystems is not only the impact of climate change, but also biological invasions. Exotic species such as the American mink, the didymo and the yellow jacket represent direct threats to native wild species," said Daniela Rivera, researcher at the GEMA Center for Genomics, Ecology & Environment of Universidad Mayor and associate researcher at the Station.
The evolution of invasive species in different sectors of the valley is being established and in-depth studies have been conducted on the families of salmonids in the area. Also, more than 50 species of bryophytes and mosses have been registered. "We have developed a baseline associated with the presence of trace metals in the water bodies near the station (rivers and fjords), and also of the microbial composition present in this water,” added Rodrigo de la Iglesia.
As Alejandro Salazar said, "we have also supported multiple UC undergraduate and master's thesis, through some of which we have been able to better understand the different phases of the valley's western settlement and colonization, and its transformations over time, through contact with former settlers and their descendants.”
This has been the subject of study of Felipe Jorquera, student of the UC Master’s degree in Human Settlements and Environment, and part of the coordinating team of the station. "You learn quite a lot. An interdisciplinary perspective is key in research topics, since each one is part of a line of work, in my case the line is "territorial and environmental dynamics and heritage", but in the end they all converge and are transversal".
As Paula Zucolillo added, since it is a field research station "that hosts research from different areas and disciplines, it allows new questions to be asked, as well as links and connections between the same research that is being developed there or is already completed.”
As the Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences, Juan Correa, said, "having access to a remote place, away from human impact -where these effects can be appreciated in the territory- is a unique opportunity. It also allows to have continuous records -of wind, rainfall, nutrients, etc.- and to access them in real time thanks to the technology."
"After several initial years of exploration and gradual setup in the concession, we have managed, among other things, to support and develop various national and international research projects" - Alejandro Salazar, director of the UC Patagonia Station.
These characteristics attracted international attention. Since 2018 the Patagonia UC Station is part of the Middle Man Observatory Network of the Institut écologie et environnement (INEE), an institution belonging to the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS). Thus, "l'OHM Patagonia - Bahía Exploradores" became the first Latin American member associated with this organization (Read about this news on the UC website).
The focus of study of this network is global ecology, that is, the interactions between environmental sciences. "We can compare, for example, mountains in Europe and Chile to see the impact of new forms of anthropization -conversion of environments by human action- such as tourism, pollution, impact on rivers, among others," explained Didier Galop, director of research at CNRS and co-director of the l'OHM Patagonia - Bahía Exploradores, during one of his visits.
This agreement has allowed the arrival of French researchers to the station. Such as Julien Cucherousset, of the Laboratoire Evolution & Diversité Biologique of the Université Paul Sabatier de Toulouse. "Being able to carry out our research project at the UC Patagonia Station and being part of the l'OHM Patagonia - Bahía Exploradores, offers a unique ecological context to understand the natural processes that allow invasive species to colonize novel habitats. In fact, the river network contained in the study area is practically unaffected by other human disturbances - for example, pollution, habitat fragmentation - other than biological invasions and shows extremely contrasting environmental conditions," he explained.
"Being able to carry out our research project at the UC Patagonia Station and being part of the l'OHM Patagonia - Bahía Exploradores, offers a unique ecological context to understand the natural processes that allow invasive species to colonize novel habitats" - Julien Cucherousset - Université Paul Sabatier de Toulouse.
Research platform and link with the territory
The possibility of comparing data, sharing knowledge, asking new research questions and offering infrastructure to receive national and foreign researchers and students, are some of the reasons why Patagonia Station is also part of the UC Regional Centers and Stations Network (see book “Field Science in Chile”)
Led by the Office of the Research Vice President, this network ensures the presence of the University in a large part of the national territory, from the most arid part of the Atacama Desert, in Alto Patache -in the Tarapacá Region- to the most remote part of Patagonia, in Puerto Williams.
"Thanks to this network, the UC offers a unique platform for national and international interdisciplinary and collaborative research, which allows us to better understand the phenomena, observing them in the same territories, and to give more relevant responses to the communities," said the Research Vice President, Pedro Bouchon.
"This network gives the University great power to enter the international concert, the possibility to have first class scholars, and to generate opportunities for our students, which otherwise would be very difficult to achieve," said Dean Juan Correa. "The stations are meeting places for the generation of new interdisciplinary knowledge and the education of people; but above all, they allow the University to project itself in the territory and link us with the local environment. What is generated in these spaces is invaluable.”
According to the University President, Ignacio Sánchez, some of the challenges of the work in the territory include "to strengthen the UC Regional Centers and Stations Network, to make it more public within the university, to integrate the stations to their own territory, the joint work with the regional universities -especially the recently created University of Aysén-, to get medium and long-term financing to carry out quality research, and to have an international projection, in order to establish academic and research collaboration agreements with the best centers in the world. We are working on all these aspects and tasks with a great sense of mission and passion.”
For this new stage, “the first challenge is to deepen the bond with the community, and being able to disseminate what we have been doing, both locally and regionally,” concluded Alejandro Salazar. That is why establishing links with regional bodies and researchers is essential, as well as generating synergies to deepen the knowledge of these Patagonian spaces and their importance to the world.
The possibilities offered by these little-altered territories for the study of global change are of international interest and hence, the need to consolidate links with regional networks that allow for the perpetuation of environmental research and monitoring, and thus show the State the need for a national policy in this regard.