South America braces for intensified heat waves after record hot winter

October 24, 2023

Bloomberg has released an extensive article by seasoned reporter Laura Millan titled, “South America Was Already Burnt by a Hot Winter. Now Comes Summer.”

This piece delves deep into the unprecedented warmth experienced by South America in the recent winter and spring months.

Laura Millan reported in Bloomberg how a seemingly minor act – a man lighting a fire to heat his coffee on a windy day near Argentina’s second-largest city, Córdoba – led to a catastrophic wildfire. This incident quickly escalated, with the flames nearing Villa Carlos Paz.

Desperate locals tried in vain to combat the blaze, resulting in the evacuation of hundreds. Fueled by spring temperatures soaring to 37C (98.6F) and robust winds, this calamity marked the most significant wildfire the province has seen this year.

El Niño and human activity fuel the flames in South America

This incident was just a sample of the broader impact of a changing climate.

The continent, already reeling from its hottest year on record, faces the triple threat of climate change, the El Niño phenomenon returning after nearly four years, and extensive deforestation propelled by intensive farming.

Izidine Pinto, from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, shared his concerns: “We are seeing record heat events in the southern hemisphere and it’s been a warmer winter in parts of Africa and South America compared to previous ones.”

He added a grave prediction for the coming months: “Strengthening heat waves are going to intensify in South America — there are more hot days and more heat waves coming.”

The detrimental effects of rising temperatures in South America

Several countries in South America have reported alarming temperature spikes, Millan reported. Lima, the capital of Peru, experienced its warmest winter since 1965.

Argentina and Chile also saw temperatures soar up to 20C above average during winter.

Such unusual warmth had dire consequences, melting snow and disturbing river flows vital to agriculture in Chile.

Late in August and into September, another heat wave affected regions spanning from Paraguay to Argentina.

The World Weather Attribution, which analyzes the role of global warming in extreme events, conducted a study and found that this heat wave was 100 times more likely due to climate change.

Their research showed that, without human-caused warming, temperatures during the heat wave would have been cooler by 1.4C to 4.3C.

Brazil, heavily reliant on hydropower, now confronts potential blackouts.

Low water levels and the effects of unauthorized deforestation and burning intensify wildfires in areas such as the Amazonas state.

Pinto explained the environmental mechanics behind this: “Deforested land absorbs more solar radiation because it’s bare, with heat accumulating and reflecting back to the atmosphere.”

This results in water accumulating faster in deforested areas, leading to more erosion, runoff, and floods.

By October, another heat wave struck, with northern Argentina recording temperatures of 45C (113F).

Subsequent wildfires in Córdoba consumed over 5,800 hectares. The situation remains dire as Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil continue to report extreme temperatures.

El Niño’s grip on South America intensifies

Millan’s article included a comment from Lincoln Alves, a researcher at the Brazil National Institute for Space Research, who remarked: “Heat is not something new, we had these events in the past.”

However, he noted an alarming trend in recent decades: “We have seen an increase in the number of events and in the magnitude of these events.”

Although El Niño’s most severe impacts are anticipated in early 2024, the repercussions of high temperatures and reduced rainfall will persist.

Ana Paula Cunha, of the Natural Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters in Brazil, highlighted the concern over rivers reaching historically low levels and the cascading effects of prolonged droughts.

Unfortunately, the true scale of these climatic disturbances may be underrepresented.

Millan notes that many South American countries lack the extensive weather station networks found in developed nations.

This hinders meteorological detection of heatwaves and temperature records.

Political hurdles further complicate matters. President Jair Bolsonaro’s tenure saw a spike in Amazon deforestation, but his successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, pledges to curtail illegal deforestation by 2030.

Meanwhile, Argentina’s upcoming elections present uncertainty regarding the country’s climate policies.

FSJA Comment

South America’s escalating climate situation underscores the urgent need for comprehensive action and global cooperation.

With extensive wildfires, record temperatures, and prolonged droughts, the continent serves as a poignant reminder of the broader challenges we face.

Ensuring robust reporting mechanisms, fostering political will, and prioritizing sustainable practices are paramount.

As stewards of the environment, we must advocate for strategies that mitigate climate impacts and foster resilience, especially in regions as ecologically significant as South America.

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