Climate change is having an extreme and early impact in South America
In just three hours on February 15, the city of Petropolis, nestled in the forested mountains above Rio de Janeiro, received more than 10 inches of rainfall – more than any recorded in a single day since authorities began keep records in 1932. The landslides that followed swallowed the lives of over 200 peopleand left nearly 1,000 homeless.
A report released Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) corroborates what many on the ground are seeing with their own eyes. Global warming alters the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as El Nino and La Nina, the natural warming and cooling of parts of the Pacific that alters weather patterns around the world. These events have also become harder to predict, causing additional damage, according to the report.
“Climate change is expected to transform existing risks in the region into serious key risks,” the report said.
Until 2020, there was plenty of water, swamps, stagnant lakes and lagoons in Argentina’s Ibera Wetlands, one of the largest such ecosystems in the world. But a historic drought in the Parana River has dried up much of it; its waters are at their lowest since 1944. Since January, it has been the scene of raging fires.
And this week, 70% of the remote town of Jordao in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest was submerged by two overflowing rivers. It shattered the lives of thousands of people in the region, including in 32 indigenous communities.
Central and South America is the second most urbanized region in the world after North America, with 81% of its population residing in cities. In this context, forests play a vital role in stabilizing local climates and helping the world meet the ambitious temperature goals set by the 2015 Paris Agreement, experts say.
The entire Amazon rainforest stores between 150 and 200 billion tons of carbon in vegetation and soil, according to Carlos Nobre, a prominent Brazilian climatologist who has studied the biome for several decades.
“It’s a huge reservoir,” Nobre told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “If you lose the forest, that carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, goes into the atmosphere. It is very important to maintain the forest.
But most governments in the region ignored IPCC warnings and did not stop the destruction. Many South American leaders have remained silent on illegal logging and mining activities in sensitive regions. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has gone further, outright encouraging it both with his words and by weakening environmental agencies and regulation.
Even in Colombia, where President Iván Duque tried to curb illegal logging, a recent increase in forest fires led more than 150 international scholars and activists last week to send a letter urging the government to take a more aggressive stance.
Indeed, local prosecutors and police say the area is increasingly dependent on conservation activists, either to prevent deforestation that is driving drastic climate change, or to deal with the consequences of degradation of the climate. environment.
Alejandra Boloqui, 54, manages a private nature reserve in Argentina’s Ibera wetlands and helps firefighters in their desperate fight against the blazes. Last week, she recorded on her phone a scene that overwhelmed her with sadness: a dozen alligators fleeing the flames and walking on a dirt road in search of water.
“When I started filming them, I cried. It felt like they were telling me, ‘I’ve been left homeless, I’m leaving,’ Boloqui told the AP.” It caught my attention seeing so many alligators moving around together during the day. … They are very slow-moving reptiles that move at night to avoid the heat.
Along with many other animals, they found temporary refuge in a nearby lagoon that had dried up due to lack of rain and has since been artificially filled with solar-powered water pumps.
Local authorities attributed the fires to the burning of pastures for cattle ranching, banned since December. IPCC experts point out in the report that droughts set the stage for rapidly spreading fires.
Last year, the southern and southeastern regions of Brazil had to deal with worst droughts in nine decades, raising the specter of possible energy rationing given the grid’s reliance on hydropower plants. Simultaneously, in Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon, rivers swelled at unseen levels over a century of record keeping, flooding streets and homes and affecting some 450,000 people in the region.
This week, with most of the Amazon city of Jordao submerged under water, indigenous leader and ranger Josias Kaxinawá is working to provide whatever support he can to dozens of communities. He spent all day Wednesday rescuing people and their property using his small boat equipped with an outboard motor.
The Jordao and Tarauaca rivers come together during the rainy season, something Kaxinawá and its neighbors did not expect for several weeks. But this time, unlike last year, the showers came not only too soon, but also suddenly, he told the AP.
“We are living our worst moment. Floods, rains, winds. Climate change creates more problems for us. We are losing a lot of things, boats, appliances, all the crops we grew last year,” Kaxinawá said by phone from Jordao, adding that he had never seen so much rain in his area. “We worry about the future,” he said.
He added that the small town’s agricultural production is “virtually completely destroyed”.
This is consistent with the IPCC report, which indicates that changes in the timing and magnitude of rainfall as well as temperature extremes are impacting agricultural production in Central and South America.
“Impacts on rural livelihoods and food security, particularly for small and medium-scale farmers and indigenous mountain peoples, are expected to worsen,” the report said.
The Acre state government said at least 76 families had lost their homes in and around Jordao, most of them indigenous and now living in a local shelter. But Mayor Naudo Ribeiro admitted the tally was understated.
“It was too fast, there’s no way to prepare when it happens like this,” Ribeiro told local media.
More than 3,400 kilometers (2,100 miles) away, in Petropolis, the Brazilian city ravaged by landslides last week, Mayor Rubens Bomtempo had made a similar comment to reporters days earlier.
“It was totally unpredictable,” Bomtempo said. “No one could predict rain as heavy as this.”
The IPCC report suggests that events like these will continue to rock the region.
___ Savarese reported from Sao Paulo and Rey from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
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