Climate Lessons from Chile

On this day in 1810, Chile declared its independence from Spain. Chile has also been the subject of recent headlines as the country endured an 8.3 magnitude earthquake, which caused some severe damage and many aftershocks. The event in itself was traumatic, but when considering the 8.8 earthquake the country already endured in 2010, you can imagine that events of this week caused a particular sense of emotional trauma.

I hope that Chile is able to find some reprieve from recent traumatic events and celebrate its independence in the customary fashion: with barbecues, dancing, pisco and empanadas, and most importantly, family. I honor Chile today, a country I was lucky enough live in during my 20’s, on this very special day: it’s día de Fiestas Patrias.

When I was 21 I moved to Valparaíso, Chile, a port city located in the long, skinny South American country that is home to seemingly every climate that exists on our planet. To the north exists the Atacama, the driest desert in the world. To the south are glaciers and penguins. In between these two extremes lies a milder climate bordered by the nearly impassible Andes mountain range. Valparaíso, in Central Chile, is home to palm trees, flowers, and a temperate, Mediterranean climate. It’s name literally means “Paradise Valley.”


Valparaiso, Chile

It’s a city with great allure – one many have never heard of – with cobblestone streets, colorful houses, vistas, ascencores, empanadas. The people there are some of the kindest I’ve ever met with their endearing sing-songy accents. And just as you may not have heard much about this city, you probably have not heard about how climate change is impacting Chile.

Chile is unique in that the country itself is a microcosm of how climate change looks worldwide. Central Chile has a climate similar to that of southern California – and a similar drought that has lasted eight years. This drought contributed to the 2014 “Great Fire of Valparaíso” which destroyed 2,500 homes and left over 11,000 people homeless. It was eerie seeing videos sent from my family of the fire sweeping across the bay, moving from one side to the other. The fire spread quickly because of dry conditions, strong winds, flammable housing materials and moved from hill to hill across the city.


As with other climate disasters, the poor were most gravely affected; their homes burned most often because they consisted of the cheaper, flammable materials. My brother, Carlos, told me that in the hours following the fire both people and animals wandered down the hills disoriented from the fire, no homes and nowhere to go. Neighbors gave them clothes or food, but that was about all they could do. This wasn’t just something that occurred in Valpo; wildfires ravaged other parts of Central Chile that in their normal states are lush and green.

In the northern region, the Atacama desert is known to be one of the driest places in the world (locations across the Atacama receive less than 0.2 inches of rain per year) experienced severe flooding. Unusually warm ocean temperatures in the coastal area – approximately 1°C above average – resulted in high amounts of water vapor, triggering exceptionally heavy rainfall.

The Copiapó River, dry for 17 years, rapidly filled with rainwater and overflowed. Cities in the Atacama and Antofagasta regions of northern Chile saw flash floods rush through the towns. Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, says these events will cost $1.5 billion to repair. The floods claimed the lives of at least 24 people and displaced thousands.

To the south, Chile’s Patagonian glaciers are melting rapidly. The southern Patagonian ice fields are part of the largest mass of ice in the southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica. This rapid melting contributes to global sea level rise. Cornell University researcher Michael Willis noted: “Patagonia is kind of a poster child for rapidly changing glacier systems.” The region, he added, “is supplying water to sea-level at a big rate compared to its size.”

Taken at Latitude/Longitude:-33.043800/-71.626706. 0.38 km North-West Matiz Grande Valparaíso Chile (Map link)

North-West Matiz Grande, Valparaíso Chile

In Chile, just like here in Oregon, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to say “that wildfire was an anomaly” or “wasn’t that storm sure weird?” We’re seeing a trend of unusual, extreme weather brought on by climate change. And while the media may not report on these extreme events very often, they are happening with increasing severity.

These events speak to the urgent need for climate action. As a native Oregonian who left part of my heart in Chile all those years ago, I think of my second home country often in many contexts. In the context of this important climate work we’re doing at OEC, I see extreme climate impacts unfurling in Chile, and draw both inspiration and urgency from these events. What’s happening in Chile represents a microcosm of what’s happening around the globe, and what’s happening in Oregon.

If you haven’t already, join us. Sign the Renew Oregon pledge to transition Oregon away from a pollution-based economy to a clean energy future. Be a part of the movement to make Oregon a leader on climate. Draw inspiration (and urgency) from wherever you’ve traveled, whatever you love, wherever a piece of your heart has been scattered across this planet. For me, it’s Chile. Chile, lindo siempre te llevare en mi corazón.

– Devon Downeysmith, Climate Communications & Outreach Manager

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