Mar 17, 2017

Signals of Climate Change Visible as Record Fires Give Way to Massive Floods in Peru

Peru
by
Robert Scribbler
Last November, wildfires burned through the Amazon rainforest in Peru as  a record drought left the region bone-dry. From Drought Now Spans the Globe. Image: LANCE-MODIS
Last November, wildfires burned through the Amazon rainforest in Peru as a record drought left the region bone-dry. From Drought Now Spans the Globe. Image: LANCE-MODIS

 

We’ve rarely seen this kind of rapid and quick change in climatic conditions.” — Juber Ruiz, of Peru’s Civil Defense Institute

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During September through November, wildfires tore across parts of drought-stricken Peru.

Peru’s Amazon was then experiencing its worst dry period in 20 years. And, at the time, over 100,000 acres of rainforest and farmland was consumed by flash fires. Rainforest species, ill-adapted to fires, were caught unawares. And a tragic tale of charred remains of protected species littering a once-lush, but now smoldering, wood spread in the wake of the odd blazes.

At the time, scientists noted that the after-effects of El Nino had combined with a warmer world to help spur the drought and the fires. And they warned Peru to prepare for more extreme weather in the future as Earth continued to heat up.

Fast forward to 2017 and we find that the moisture regime has taken a hard turn in Peru as the droughts and fires of 2016 gave way to torrential rains. Since January, more than 62 souls have been lost and about 12,000 homes destroyed as flash floods ripped through Peru. Over the past three days, the rains have been particularly intense — turning streets into roaring rivers and causing streams to over-top — devouring roads, bridges and buildings. As of yesterday, 176 districts within the country have declared a state of emergency due to flooding.

The rains come as coastal waters off Peru have seen sky-rocketing temperatures. Sea surface readings over recent months have climbed from an average of 24 degrees Celsius to 29 degrees Celsius. These extremely warm waters are pumping a huge plume of moisture into the local atmosphere. And it’s this extraordinarily heavy moisture loading that is spurring the massive rainstorms now plaguing the state.

Scientists call this phenomena a coastal El Nino. And the last time Peru experienced one was in 1925. Though the coastal El Nino probably helped to spur the extreme rains now plaguing Peru, the peak sea surface temperatures of the very warm waters off Peru have also been increased by the larger human-forced warming of the world (primarily through fossil fuel burning). So many scientists are also now saying that the severe rainfall events now occurring in Peru were likely contributed to by climate change.

New Peru movement leader Verónika Mendoza noted earlier this week:

We know the ‘coastal El Niño’ comes from time to time. We know we are a country that is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. We should have prepared ourselves better.

The climate extremes Peru has experienced — flipping from flash drought and wildfires to flash flood in just 5-6 months is exactly the kind wrenched weather we can expect more and more from climate change. For as the Earth warms, the amount of moisture evaporated from lands, oceans, lakes and rivers increases. As a result, the hydrological cycle gets kicked into higher gear. And what this means it that droughts and fires will tend to become more intense even as rains, when they do fall, will tend to be heavier.