Ushuaia – el fin del mundo (the end of the world)

Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world, at 50 degrees south latitude. True, there is the small town of Puerto Williams that is slightly more south, on the south shore of the Beagle Channel, and there is a small scientific settlement (McMurdo Station) in Antarctica, but Ushuaia is a bustling city of about 70,000 people that takes full advantage of its “fin del mundo” status. It is beautifully situated on the north shore of the Beagle Channel (named for Darwin’s vessel), where it is backed by rugged, ice-sculpted mountains. It seems somehow incongruous to see a busy port with cargo ships, cruise ships, and military vessels, adjacent to such stunning scenery (photo below).


Ushuaia is located in the Argentina province of Tierra del Fuego (land of fire). As in Patagonia, the glaciers that covered the land 20,000 years ago are now very small. While glaciers along the eastern side of the Patagonian Andes carved valleys that are now lakes, on the western side of the Patagonian Andes (in Chile) and to the south (in the Fuegian Andes) glaciers advanced to the sea and, when they melted, the valleys they created filled with ocean water. At the southern end of South America, these deep channels, called fjords, create a vast network of marine pathways. How did explorers first find their way through this maze?!

Located only 7 kilometers from town is the Martial glacier that is visible from just about everywhere in town. This view is from the western side of town, at the CADIC (Centro de Investigaciones Cientificas – more about that below). In front of the glacier is the U-shaped valley that the glacier created when it flowed all of the way to sea level, about 1000 meters below.


Yesterday we walked from town to the glacier, aided only by a short chair lift that was constructed for wintertime skiing. How amazing to look all of the way down the Beagle Channel (view to the southeast – Jay for scale!) and imagine the valley and channel completely filled with ice and only a few small peaks sticking out.


Downslope from the glacier, the bedrock is smoothed and polished, a distinctive feature that says “glaciers were here”. In this photo, Jay is standing on rock that is shiny from the glacial polishing. Other climbers in the background are celebrating their success in reaching the ice!


The bedrock in this area does not polish as well as our granite bedrock in the Sierra Nevadas. This rock is Mesozoic mudstone that breaks apart more easily and doesn’t “take a polish” so well. Still, we were entertained along the way by the deformational features in this metamorphosed mudstone. The sample below shows several sandstone layers that were once horizontal but that were since subjected to high temperatures and pressures deep in the earth.


Speaking of the Mesozoic, we today visited CADIC, where many geologists, oceanographers, and biologists conduct scientific research (much like our U.S.Geologic Survey). Because it is summer here, most of the geologists are in the field or on vacation, but we were fortunate to meet with a paleontologist who was very helpful and who showed as an amazingly large and complete ammonite they had found in Antarctica. Her group also found the first dinosaur in Antarctica – this made international news in the 1980s. These two life forms both went extinct at the end of the Mesozoic Era.


Yes, you penguin lovers, there are penguins here too! Today we visited a penguin colony on an island that seemed very well run – only 80 people/day are allowed on the island and human paths are quite restricted. Still, we were able to get close to these entertaining birds. The majority of the penguins are the Magellanic species, which the type we saw along the Atlantic coast. We were also fortunate to see the Papúa penguins, with their colorful orange feet and beaks (photo below and at the end). These penguins normally live in Antarctica but for some reason decided to relocate to the Beagle Channel.


Even more amazing was one King penguin who is also from Antarctica. He apparently has gotten lost but has at least found another group of penguins to hang out with for awhile. Neither he or the adjacent Magellanic penguins seemed too bothered by the situation. His orange and black coloration is remarkably elegant.



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