Puerto Williams, Chile, is a small town located on Navarino Island, which is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve where the Pacific and Atlantic meet. It is the most populous town on earth, aside from a few nearby Chilean islands with only a few inhabitants. The region is considered subantarctic, located directly above Antarctica, found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans between 48° and 58° S, and in the Atlantic Ocean between 42° and 48° S.
Despite its remote location, Puerto Williams is becoming a central player in the global fight against climate change. The glaciers in the Darwin Mountains along Chile’s Beagle Channel, like others in the region, are melting rapidly and once reached the sea. However, the town struggles to promote tourism and economic opportunities without destroying the environment.
After a three-and-a-half-hour flight to Punta Arenas in the Strait of Magellan, visitors must board a ferry that makes the 30-hour trip to Puerto Williams once a week. The town is small and local. Unlike the Argentinian city of Ushuaia, just across the Beagle Canal, Puerto Williams has limited amenities, such as one bank, one gas station (closed on Sundays), and one general store selling groceries brought in from mainland Chile. There is only one school, and a dozen small shops are closed most of the time. There are few places to eat or have any entertainment. The hospital is new, but lacks facilities, so in an emergency, weather permitting, patients have to be transported to Punta Arenas on the mainland, including giving birth.
Around 2,000 Chileans live in Puerto Williams. Half of them are Marines stationed at the island’s naval base, and the remaining 25 percent are civil servants. Most of the rest are fishermen who brave the headwaters to catch king crabs. There is also a small indigenous Yaghan community who lived in the area for thousands of years before the Europeans, Chileans, and Argentines settled the area in the mid-1880s, leading to their near-extinction.
However, Puerto Williams is a gem known for its harsh climate and natural beauty. The newly opened Cape Horn Subantarctic International Center (CHIC) is a hub for climate change research with scientists from all over the world studying greenhouse gases, changes in ocean and air temperature, and a range of other indicators that help predict environmental change. The center also teaches biocultural education and aims to promote sustainable tourism.
While Puerto Williams is largely pristine, change is coming. The town needs more economic opportunities to be developed, or young people won’t want to live there. A new jetty is under construction to allow large cruise ships to dock and use the island as a new gateway to Antarctica. However, locals want their environment protected, and progress to include all locals, especially the indigenous Yaghan community. Birdwatching is a popular attraction in the area, and local officials hope that Omora Park will attract bird watchers and scientists, as it is rich in biodiversity. The premise is that Cape Horn will be an important natural laboratory for identifying climate change drivers and changing our relationship with nature.