Central Chile is in its eleventh year of drought—the nation’s longest stretch on modern meteorological record. The weather shift has resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 farm animals, strained water supply systems and caused dangerously low reservoir levels, leading Chile’s Ministry of Agriculture to declare agricultural emergencies in over 50 municipalities. The toll is clear, yet the meteorological factors behind the megadrought remain shrouded in mystery. Looking for answers, the National Geographic Society collaborated with Chile’s Ministry of Public Works on a mission to install a weather station on Tupungato Volcano (with a little help from luxury watchmaker Rolex). Located on the border of Chile and Argentina, Tupungato is one of the highest mountains in the Andes—and one of the most vulnerable water towers, with snow and ice that slowly melt to provide water resources downstream.
“There is an urgent need for weather observations from the highest reaches of the planet where large quantities of snow and ice remain but are increasingly threatened by climate change,” Baker Perry, professor at Appalachian State University and expedition co-lead, told National Geographic.
To close the knowledge gap, the team installed a 6-foot (1.8-meter) weather station atop the dormant volcano—more than 21,000 feet (6,400 meters) above sea level. Based on lessons learned from two previous weather station installment projects on Mount Everest, the team knew the station had to be durable enough to withstand high winds, but light enough to be carried up the mountain and assembled on-site. Still, conditions were “pretty brutal,” Perry told ABC News, with very deep snow making it a major challenge to move equipment up the mountain, and the team pinned down by a blizzard at one point. The pandemic also meant adjusting logistics and timelines to allot for quarantine periods and COVID protocols during the expedition.
The team pulled it off, and the station ranks as the highest in the Southern and Western hemispheres. Now, it’s all about collecting data—getting near-real-time reads on temperature, relative humidity, moisture, barometric pressure, incoming solar radiation and reflected solar radiation. Perry and the team also installed temperature sensors into the ground to monitor permafrost over time.
As it’s collected, data will be transmitted to monitoring facilities, with researchers and Chilean officials aiming to collect data over multiple winter and summer seasons to understand how glaciers and the snow in water towers like Tupungato respond to climate change. That information will help improve the models used to forecast how much water these sources will yield in the future. The team will also compare the new station’s data to two lower weather stations recently installed by the Chilean government to compare precipitation patterns in valleys and the summit.
The ultimate goal? “Support and elevate solutions that can help restore balance to our ecosystems,” Nicole Alexiev, vice president, science and innovation, National Geographic Society, said on the organization’s blog.