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Hurricanes that arrive before time, rains below or above normal, landslides that drag populations, droughts that condemn the year's harvest and impose thirst and blackouts.
Latin America and its climatic variability, added to the extreme events cooked up under the effects of global warming, are a challenge to which the region seems to be trailing.
“There is talk of a future of extremes, but it is already happening,” warns Peruvian climatologist José Antonio Marengo, director of the Brazilian Natural Disaster Monitoring and Alert Center, lead author of the State of the Climate in Latin America and the Caribbean study. the World Meteorological Organization.
The WMO recently presented its second review of the climate on this side of the planet,
in an effort to provide a regionalized view of the changes that are being experienced in different geographies.
This 2021 weather log, analyzed by Marengo and three other specialists, allows us to list the ten main climate challenges facing the region.
1. La Niña, El Niño and the extremes
"It rains less and less in general, but when there are precipitation events they are extreme," says Chilean meteorologist Bárbara Tapia, also author of the WMO study.
And she continues: "That it rains 200 millimeters in one day is something that no city can stand."
Something that citizens of Santiago de Chile, Mexico City, Sao Paulo or Caracas know well.
During 2021, precipitation in the region was below normal in many areas of the region, with anomalies between 20% and 60% below normal in some regions of Chile, and between 30% and 50% below normal in the southwestern Peruvian Andes, says the WMO study.
In central Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, western Colombia, the central Amazon, French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana, on the other hand, it rained above normal.
Between the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022, floods and landslides with loss of homes, deaths and displacement were also recorded in the Brazilian states of Bahia and Minas Gerais.
What El Niño and La Niña phenomena do to one region, they produce the opposite effect to another.
There is evidence on the influence that climate change could have on these two phenomena in the tropical strip of the Pacific, which are the great regulators of the climate in that region, but it is still an ongoing discussion.
For Rodney Martínez, WMO representative for North, Central America and the Caribbean, both are an example of tropical climate variability that is already very strong and dominant, a phenomenon that, in his opinion, should be viewed from an adaptability perspective.
“The scientific community is increasingly able to predict these slow-onset phenomena three or four months in advance, which is a great opportunity to capitalize on excess water, for example, and guide agricultural production,
or prepare for a drought.
You have to see them from that perspective and use all the information that is very abundant”.
The peasant who made a desert bloom
One year warmer than another
The increase in temperature is a trend, even though in 2021 it was less due to the influence of the La Niña phenomenon, which brought more rain to the region.
The average rate of temperature increase was about 0.2°C per decade between 1991 and 2021, compared to 0.1°C per decade between 1961 and 1990, the time interval that is regularly used for make these comparisons.
But if a more recent average is used as the reference, the one recorded between 1981 and 2010, the increase is greater: 0.5°C in Mexico, 0.35°C in Central America and 0.36°C in South America, details the WMO report.
In several places in Argentina, heat wave conditions were recorded during 2021 between six and eight days in a row.
Some 2 million hectares burned in the Pantanal region of Brazil, the second highest figure since 2012. “The study does not count it because it focuses on Latin America, but in 2021 Canada and the United States recorded temperatures above 40 degrees in parks that were intended for skiing,” says Martínez.
Children cool off in a fountain, in Buenos Aires, on January 13, 2022, during a heat wave. ALEJANDRO PAGNI (AFP)
Warming waters also fueled an intense hurricane season in 2021, which had the third-highest number of named storms on record (21), including seven hurricanes.
The fragility of the Caribbean
The increase in temperatures in the seas and oceans is differentiated.
“In the Caribbean Sea, sustained warming is affecting marine ecosystems, one of which is the coral reefs that are part of a more complex ecosystem related to fisheries, particularly artisanal and survival fisheries,” says Martínez, an oceanographer.
The southeast Pacific, on the other hand, does not respond with the same speed to the signals of climate change as the other oceans, this being one of the scientific questions that have not yet been resolved.
In 2021, a phenomenon had a devastating impact on the small nations of the Caribbean and implies a climate challenge.
It is sargassum, a brown algae that originates in the Sargasso Sea of the Atlantic Ocean and drifts to the coasts, compromising tourist activity.
"Sargassum is a manifestation of the warming of the seas and an alteration in the provision of nutrients for these algae due to pollution that favors their growth," explains Venezuelan biologist Bibiana Sucre, advisor to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Nature.
In addition to a massive arrival of sargassum, the Caribbean suffered extreme events, hurricanes, the covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath.
“Between 2020 and 2023, between 53,000 and 75,000 million dollars of losses are calculated due to all these factors in the Caribbean,” says Martínez.
A group of people in Cuba walks through a flooded street due to heavy rains in 2019. YAMIL LAGE (AFP)
The Amazon and the point of no return
Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest doubled compared to the 2009-2018 average, reaching its highest level since 2009. A forest area of 12,000 square kilometers was lost, 22% more than in 2020. Beyond these data, a very delicate analysis weighs on this ecosystem, which is the point of no return.
“Scientists who have worked with the forests of the Amazon, which is not only a reservoir of carbon and a producer of oxygen for the planet, but also a regulator of the region's water, have pointed out that if it exceeds 20 or 25% of deforestation, this ecosystem will begin a savannah process,” says Sucre, also director of Provita, an organization that is part of the Amazon Georeferenced Socio-environmental Information Network (Raisg).
This year may be crucial for this ecosystem.
Currently, 40% of the Amazon has environmental protection figures, which is insufficient to avoid reaching the point of no return.
There are initiatives to raise that percentage to 80%, which are being pressured to achieve the necessary political commitments within the new United Nations Global Biodiversity Framework, in which the protection of 30% of the planet by 2030 is being debated. for the Amazon it would not be enough.
“This must be understood as a spiral: if we deforest, more greenhouse gases are generated, the temperature increases, the sea level rises and the glaciers melt,” says Sucre.
The slow agony of the Brazilian Amazon from a bird's eye view
The southern megadroughts
The drought impacts the region in the stomach with the affectation of the crops and the limitations for the transport of the crops due to the low flows of the rivers.
Also in access to basic goods such as electricity generated through water sources, one of the most used resources in the region.
The current "megadrought" in the central region of Chile is considered by experts to be the longest - it is already 13 years old - and serious in a thousand years, the report says.
“It has been necessary to adapt to changes due to lack of water in the central region for agricultural activity.
Wine production now takes place more and more in the south of the country,” says Tapia.
The desalination of water is beginning to be considered in northern Chile to supply the resource in mining operations.
For the rural communities of the central zone of the country, shortages and supply with trucks are beginning to be part of the normality.
Bones of animals that died due to droughts in Montenegro, Santiago region (Chile), on April 21, 2022. IVAN ALVARADO (REUTERS)
The worst drought since 1944 has also been recorded in the Paraná-Plata basin, between Brazil and Argentina, which during 2021 caused a reduction in soybean and corn production, which affected world markets.
In South America as a whole, dry conditions led to a 2.6% reduction in the cereal harvest compared to the previous season.
"The Paraná River
on which Argentina depends to export 80% of its agricultural products, was affected by the low water flow due to the drought," says the WMO.
Less fresh water with melting ice
Glaciers in the tropical Andes have lost more than 30% of their area since the 1980s. Some glaciers in Peru have lost more than half.
For many cities, the retreat of glaciers due to melting represents the loss of an important source of fresh water that is currently used for domestic use, irrigation and hydroelectric power generation, warns the study.
When planting starts late
The rain came late in 2021 and planting was delayed in Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay.
The report states that this climatic particularity reduced the 2021 cereal harvest in South America by 2.6% compared to the previous year.
In the Caribbean, rice harvests in some areas of Cuba were affected by rainfall deficits.
Haiti, where 4.5 million people already live in food insecurity, decreased rainfall in central areas affected crop growth.
Added to these are 7.7 million people in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua who also experienced high levels of food insecurity in 2021.
To compile the data for the State of the Climate in Latin America and the Caribbean report, scientists had to do "archaeology" on different sources, despite the significant participation of regional and national institutions and UN agencies.
"We have more and more possibilities to predict our tropical climate, but science has a challenge that is the exchange of data", warns Rodney Martínez.
“We still have data from institutions in the region that are not available to global research groups and models.
We need a more fluid exchange”, he states.
Adaptation amid inequality
More than a third of Latin Americans are poor, which is equivalent to about 209 million people.
They are also more exposed to the effects of climate change.
“Extreme events are met with more poverty in informal sectors and high population growth.
That vulnerability combined with a changing climate is the perfect equation to have more effects, delaying development, deepening inequity, and making it more difficult to meet the goal of reducing extreme poverty,” says Martínez.
People waiting for the bus in Bolivia. Santiago Urquijo Zamora (Getty Images)
The authors of the report warn that in general climate adaptation has not occurred, or rather it is reactive.
"If adaptation had been achieved, there wouldn't be so many dead every time it rains," says Marengo.
Sucre points out that although the effects of climate change are evident, it is an issue that seems even more distant compared to the economic challenges left by the pandemic and global conflicts such as the war in Ukraine.
The WMO report also refers to another challenge associated with populations.
The Andes, northeastern Brazil and the countries of northern Central America are the regions most sensitive to climate-related migration and displacement, a phenomenon that has increased in the last eight years.
From monitoring to warning
“Unlike developed countries that are investing in their meteorological services, in the region, in the era of climate change, when we see that these events are impacting development, the budget for investment and operation of stations and radars is being reduced to have the data for monitoring and prediction, without analyzing the impact that this will have on the safety of the population,” says Martínez.
According to the evaluation made by the WMO, South America is the region with the most deficiencies in multi-hazard early warning systems, an essential tool for effective adaptation to climate change.
It is predicted if it will rain tomorrow, but in many countries disaster alerts are not issued regularly;
that is, when this meteorological data intersects with the vulnerabilities of each locality and the behavior of other phenomena.
Marengo also alludes to some institutional weaknesses very typical of Latin America that are a challenge ahead.
“Every time a mayor changes, they change all the Civil Defense officials you trained and you have to start over from scratch,” says the expert.
"We also have politicians who don't believe in climate change."