Southern Patagonia

The PATAGON project will look at a number ombrotophic raised bog sites across Chilean and Argentinian southern Patagonia, both on mainland South America and the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego.

The project description describes the immense importance of southern Patagonia’s location within the global climate system, but interest in the region extends beyond this.

Named Tierra del Fuego, or ‘Land of Fire’, by European explorers who saw smoke rising from native Selk’nam and Yaghan peoples fires, the region has a rich history of exploration and remains one of the most remote places on earth.

It is thought that the region was one of the last to be colonised by humans, approximately 10,000 years ago, and was not settled by Europeans until the latter half of the 19th century.

Interest in the region’s natural history largely began with Charles Darwin‘s Beagle voyages in the 1830s. Darwin famously said of the area that:

‘A single glance at the landscape was sufficient to show me how widely different it was from anything I had ever beheld.’

Gold rushes in the late 19th century led to the foundation of a number of towns in the region, but population density is still markedly low, even by South American standards. The largest towns in the region are Punta Arenas (pop. 120 000), on the Chilean mainland, and Ushuaia (pop. 57 000), in Argentinian Tierra del Fuego.

The region is very much a region of two halves. The northern part of the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego is characterised as Patagonian steppe grassland, but elsewhere the landscape is largely dominated by vast Nothofagus forests and a variety of globally distinctive peatlands. As Darwin observed, almost with an air of resignation, when weighing up the merits of two rare sections of flat land in southern Tierra del Fuego:

‘In both places, and everywhere else, the surface is covered by a thick bed of swampy peat.’

Of course the sheer abundance, combined with the distinctive ecological characteristics of these peatlands, makes them fascinating prospects for research. Developing our understanding of these unique ecosystems during the past, present and future is a key challenge for the PATAGON project.