Climate Change

Deluge in Puerto Rico, drought in La Plata: WMO paints grim picture of warming Latin America, Caribbean

Extreme weather events in the region over 30 years have led to economic losses and affected countries’ to mitigate and adapt to climate change  

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Thursday 06 July 2023

A map of the region by iStock

A map of the region by iStock

The impacts of global warming and resultant climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean region are becoming more acute, according to the State of the Climate in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2022 report released by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on July 5, 2023.

The major impacts were in the form of increase in average temperatures over the regions in the past three decades, change in rainfall patterns, extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, tropical cyclones, floods and landslides, melting of glaciers and sea level rise.

Many of these impacts precipitated cascading impacts on agriculture, renewable energy generation and other economic activities that cost billions of dollars in loss and damage.

Between 1991 and 2022, the region showed a warming trend of 0.2°C per decade which was higher in Mexico (0.3°C) and the Caribbean. The rate of warming in these three decades was the highest since 1900.

In January, November and December, there were long and intense heatwaves in southern South America.

For Chile, the worst multi-year drought in the last 1,000 years continued in 2022 as it was the fourth-driest year on record for the country. The drought has been going on for 14 years now. In 2022, the rainfall was 20-60 per cent below normal for the country.

The drought in the Paraná–La Plata Basin in south-eastern South America was the worst since 1944. The region is known for its cereal production.

“As in 2021, below-normal rainfall was dominant over the Paraná–La Plata Basin in south-eastern Brazil, northern Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, suggesting a late onset and weak South American monsoon,” said the report. 

The heightened temperatures and low moisture levels led to wildfires in many countries in South America.

In January and February, there was a 283 per cent uptick in wildfire hotspots detected in Argentina and 258 per cent increase detected in Paraguay as compared to the average in between 2001-2021.

In these countries, the carbon dioxide emissions generated by wildfires from January to March were the highest in the last 20 years.

In the Amazonas state of Brazil, home to the Amazon rainforest, emissions from wildfires for the period from July to October were just over 22 megatonnes which were the highest in the past 20 years and five megatonnes more than the previous record of 2021.

Many areas also experienced extreme rainfall and resultant flooding and landslides. In Puerto Rico, several observation stations recorded their highest ever daily rainfall in 2022.

“On February 15, in Petropolis in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 258 mm of rain fell in three hours (greater than the monthly average of 210 mm) and a total of 530 mm of rain was recorded in 24 hours, leading to more than 230 fatalities,” according to the report. 

There were also heavy rainfall events, floods and landslides in other areas of Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia.

Some of these floods and landslide events, especially in the Caribbean, happened because of the impact of tropical storms and hurricanes.

For instance, the rainfall records in Puerto Rico were associated with Hurricane Ian on September 28 and 29. The hurricane also caused rainfall and flooding in Jamaica and Cuba. In Cuba, there was agricultural damage in over 20,000 hectares of land.

Overall hurricane activity in the Atlantic basin was below average, despite an ongoing La Nina event which lasted through the year. The La Nina did have an impact on the heavy rainfall in some regions and droughts in others.

Glaciers in the Andes mountain range of South America also show a declining trend in their ice mass which has been attributed to increasing temperatures and decreasing snowfall, both of which are a consequence of global warming.

In the tropical Andes, glaciers have lost ice mass at the rate of -96 m water equivalent per year between 1990 and 2021. Water equivalent represents the water obtained from melting the snow or ice.

Sea levels in around the coasts of Latin America and Caribbean have also risen in the past three decades at a rate higher than the global average.

“Sea-level rise threatens a large portion of the Latin American and Caribbean population who live in coastal areas by contaminating freshwater aquifers, eroding shorelines, inundating low-lying areas, and increasing the risks of storm surges,” said the report.

The extreme weather events in the region across the year led to economic losses and also affected the ability of the countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

There were 78 meteorological, hydrological and climate-related hazards in the region in 2022, according to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT).

Of these, 86 per cent were storm- and flood-related events and accounted for 98 per cent of the 1,153 deaths reported in the database.

“The US$ 9 billion economic damages reported to EM-DAT were mainly due to drought (40 per cent) and storms (32 per cent),” said the press release issued by WMO.

In Brazil, the agricultural production index declined by 5.2 per cent in first quarter of 2022, compared with same period in 2021, due to a decline in the production of soy and corn.

There were also decreased river flows in the country which led to decrease in hydro power production. This in turn, led to the usage of fossil fuels for energy generation, adding to greenhouse gases to the atmosphere which would cause further warming.

“The top priority areas for climate change adaptation and mitigation in the region are agriculture and food security, and energy. The report addresses these key topics, highlighting the impacts of the persistent droughts in the region on agricultural production and the unexploited potential of renewable energy, especially solar and wind resources,” said Petteri Taalas, the secretary-general of WMO in the press release.

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