The slow-motion disappearance of winter as South America knows it has picked up pace. In a season the region associates with cold, rain and the snow-covered Andes, several cities from central Chile to southern Brazil have broken records for high temperatures. Rather than addressing the scenario as a winter heat wave concentrated last week, experts analyze the figures as an alteration that, if measures are not adopted, will increase over the years as a result of the climate crisis. Added to this global warming is the El Niño phenomenon, associated with changes in the atmosphere and fluctuations in the temperature of the eastern and equatorial Pacific, particularly affecting the south of the world.
There are several anomalies registered in different corners of the region. Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, experienced the hottest beginning of August in the 117 years that data exists, with temperatures above 30°. Some areas of southern Brazil touched 39° and in the Paraguayan region of Chaco the thermometers touched 37°, a daily maximum not seen since 1981. Localities in Peru and Ecuador have also broken their own records.
Chile, meanwhile, suffers the highest temperatures in the last 72 years. In Vicuña, in the northern region of Coquimbo, last week it reached 37°, the second highest temperature at the national level that has been recorded between June and September since 1951. The high temperatures have had effects on the melting of snow in the mountainous area. The Minister of the Environment of the Government of Gabriel Boric, Maisa Rojas, reviewed what the year has been like in the South American country: fierce fires in February, floods as a result of torrential rains in June and a winter with temperatures never seen in certain localities. “To do? We know the solution: urgently stop burning fossil fuels ″, wrote the minister in her networks.
The climatologist Raúl Cordero explains that the situation responds to the fact that the temperature of the tropical Pacific Ocean, off the coasts of Ecuador and Peru, presents the warmest temperatures in the last 25 years. “We still have to see more heat in the north of Chile, in the north of Paraguay and in the south of Brazil,” he warns by phone from the Netherlands. The academic from the University of Santiago states that, although the historical records are worrisome, it is not the only thing to pay attention to. He gives Iquique, 1,700 kilometers north of Santiago, as an example, which chains almost 60 consecutive days with temperatures considered very high due to the warmth of the waters of the tropical Pacific.
“Climate change causes temperatures to rise every year, but the El Niño phenomenon causes records to be broken,” says Cordero. El Niño, product of a relationship between atmospheric temperature and sea currents, raises thermometers, but also generates more water vapor and more rain. “This is a rare El Niño because there has not been much rainfall. It has had little influence on the high temperatures,” says Alex Godoy, director of the sustainability center at the Universidad del Desarrollo. “What we are seeing here is a change in the pattern of frequencies and intensity of temperatures. It is not an isolated phenomenon”, adds the member of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.
The International Research Institute for Climate and Society reported in mid-July that El Niño went from a weak intensity (temperatures between 0.5 and 1° in the waters) to moderate (between 1 and 1.5 °C). They also project that it will weaken in the spring of 2024. Public health and climate change academic Yasna Palmeiro-Silva, from University College London, projects that South America will not only have a very short winter with abnormal temperatures, but also a very short spring. “We should have quite summery days from September. Since 2010, the region, particularly Chile, no longer has four distinct seasons, but rather a winter and a long summer, with very short autumns and springs”, points out the Chilean researcher from London.
The hope of climatologists is that it rains in the second half of August and the first half of September. “We are gradually saying goodbye to winter,” laments Cordero, “it is not even remotely as rainy as before. In the last decade it has rained 30% less than in previous decades in Chile”, he adds. The low temperatures and the lack of rain decrease the reservoirs in the Andes mountain range and it can become facing the South American summer (January-February), directly impacting agriculture and generating water scarcity in the population. In June, Chile registered intense rains that gave a break to the “mega-drought” that plagues the central region of the South American country, considered the longest -13 years- and serious in a thousand years, according to the report State of the Climate in America Latin America and the Caribbean of the World Meteorological Organization.
Hot winters, short springs and autumns, and dry summers alter the natural cycles of ecosystems that allow South America, among other things, to develop an agricultural and fishing sector. “What the models suggest,” Palmeiro-Silva points out, “is that with this heat wave in winter the soil dries up, the snow melts much faster and there is no source of fresh water for the summer. In addition, the summer is very dry, which affects agriculture, water for human consumption and makes the vegetation much drier. If the vegetation is dry and high temperatures are recorded, forest fires occur. The appeal that one of the authors of the latest Lancet Countdown report on South America and climate change is that the authorities, already alerted, prepare for weather events of such magnitude.
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