El Niño already making its mark on Latin America

The El Niño climate phenomenon is said to be approaching, with many Latin American countries already experiencing extremes of rainfall with drought and flooding, which El Niño could aggravate further.

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An indigenous Wayuu community surveys the drought-ridden scenery in La Guajira state, northern Colombia. Photo courtesy of Efe.

Scientists and meteorologists have been warning for some time that an El Niño event – when water surfaces in the eastern Pacific off the coast of Peru and Ecuador become warmer than average, with knock-on climatic effects reaching many parts of the world – has been showing signs of development. Now, with extreme weather events mainly in the form of heat waves and extended drought hitting many parts of Latin America, experts believe that the effects of El Niño are already starting to make themselves felt across the continent.

José Daniel Pabón Caicedo, head of the Centro Internacional de Investigación sobre el Fenómeno de El Niño (CIIFEN – International Research Centre on El Niño), told the Spanish news agency Efe that recent drought in various northern and central regions of Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as extreme rainfall and flooding in some southern parts such as in Paraguay, are evidence of the El Niño phenomenon beginning to develop. However, some other experts are suggesting that the extreme weather experienced by Latin American regions have been longer term and outdate the more recent ocean warming activity, pointing out that El Niño is projected to kick in properly around September and peak around the new year.

A graphic from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows sea surface temperatures beginning to rise off the coast of Western South America between April and June 2014.

Many areas affected

Colombia has been among the countries most badly struck by the lack of rainfall. The eastern state of Casanare suffered a devastating drought earlier this year, but now many more states in the north of the country, as well as other western, central and eastern regions, are suffering even more. 22 out of Colombia’s 32 states are under some level of alert, with northern Caribbean regions on red alert due to the rock-bottom water levels in rivers and reservoirs.

The water shortages are affecting hundreds of thousands of people who now have limited access to clean and potable water, while in the La Guajira state on the northern tip of the country, 15 indigenous children are reported to have died through diseases related to a lack of clean drinking water, causing an outcry among the region’s populous indigenous communities. Farmers are also losing livestock by the tens of thousands as watering holes for cattle dry up, leaving farming communities with their livelihoods ruined.

Venezuela has also suffered widespread drought in its southern states in particular, with 9 out of 23 in total affected. Water rationing has been enacted by the government, while the country’s Cattle Federation has warned that as much as 20% of the entire country’s livestock is at risk after the lack of water hindered the sowing of seeds for pasture. There are also fears that Venezuela’s notorious shortages in food and essential household items could be aggravated by the conditions, with potential social and political implications.

In Brazil, unusually low rainfall has left areas from the country’s northeast to São Paulo in the south with record low water reserves. Authorities have taken to such unorthodox measures as “bombarding” clouds in order to stimulate rainfall – a tactic also known as “cloud-seeding” which works by releasing particles such as silver iodide or dry ice, which encourage condensation within the clouds, leading to rainfall. So far, according to authorities, this method has led to reservoirs filling up by an additional 11.5bn litres of water, equivalent to 1.2% of their overall holding capacity.

Central America has also been ravaged by drought, with El Salvador losing almost 7m sacks of corn as a consequence of the lack of rainfall on farmland. Guatemala and Costa Rica have also been affected, with the latter’s Pacific Guanacaste region – an agricultural and tourist hotspot – carrying a rainfall deficit of 50% since April, while July has seen less than 2% of the average monthly rainfall. Mexico is also reporting that 43% of its territory is currently affected by some level of drought, with over 700 municipalities across the country having experienced significant lack of rainfall.

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the scale, Paraguay has been battered by incessant rainfall that has seen widespread flooding, especially along the Río Paraguay which earlier in July reached record levels of around 7.5 metres – where 5.5m is the level generally accepted as the limit over which the river is at severe risk of flooding. More than 250,000 people have had to evacuate their homes at some stage, including more than 80,000 in the capital Asunción, around which the Río Paraguay flows. Neighbouring parts of Argentina and Brazil have also suffered flooding, with tens of thousands of people affected in these two countries as well.

As well as drought, Latin America has also seen some instances of extreme rainfall leading to severe flooding, such as in Asunción, Paraguay. Photo courtesy of AP.

The threat of El Niño and climate change

Whether or not the shifts in climatic conditions that have led to an extreme lack of rainfall in many parts of Latin America (and extremely intense rainfall in and around Paraguay) have really been driven by El Niño, hardly anyone is in any doubt about the medium-term implications, looking ahead to the rest of the year and into 2015. El Niño will likely lead to more extreme weather once it does properly get going, which will either aggravate the unusual weather patterns already seen across the region, or at the very least will give communities and authorities in affected areas very little time to recover from the current drought (and floods) before El Niño kicks in.

This is certainly a warning that has been heeded by authorities, with President Juan Manuel Santos telling fellow Colombians that they may not get any respite from the heat and lack of rain until well into next year. Likewise, with the Paraguayan floods having come during what should normally be the dry season, authorities have admitted that even if the rains do continue to die down (as they have done in the last couple of weeks), river levels are still highly unlikely to have recovered by October, when the rainy season – which may well be more intense than usual as a result of El Niño – normally begins.

Finally, while climatologists generally accept that the El Niño phenomenon itself is not driven by climate change – although its impacts may be exaggerated in the future as a result – experts are pointing out that the effects of an El Niño event on regional climates may well be a sign of things to come as climate change becomes an ever-greater threat to global climatic and weather systems. Just as periodically warmer ocean surface temperatures drive the effects of El Niño, so too warmer oceans in the future are said to be likely to lead to more extreme weather and rainfall levels.

The threat of climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean is viewed as particularly high, not only because of geographical considerations but also because of the importance that agriculture and nature-based tourism plays in the region’s economies. It is for this reason that locals and governments across Latin America and the Caribbean are likely to take the recent drought and flooding very seriously, not just with an eye on what the following year or so is likely to bring, but also as far as the longer term future of the region’s climate is concerned.

Graphics from the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showing projected temperature and rainfall changes in Latin America if climate change continues throughout this century.

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