Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Amazon may be headed for another bad drought

The Amazon, the world's biggest river, is at its lowest level in over 40 years near its source in northeastern Peru, causing havoc in a region where it is used as the only form of travel, authorities said. Drought has cut Peru's Amazon River to below the minimum set in 2005, when a devastating dry spell damaged vast swaths of South American rainforest in the worst drought in decades.

Scientists in Peru and Brazil say the lack of rainfall, which is typical for this time of year, should continue for a few more weeks until the start of the rainy season.

Low levels have brought economic havoc in areas of Peru that depend on the Amazon for shipping, by denying boats a navigable river as well as usable ports and harbors. (At right: steamship grounded. Courtesy: Greenpeace)

At least six boats became stranded for lack of river flow over the last three weeks and several shipping companies have been forced to suspend service, said regional civil defense chief Roberto Falcon.

River trips between Iquitos and other Amazon towns that normally take around 12-15 days now last twice as long, officials said.

Even with the end of the dry season close to its end, there is some concern that the dryness could persist as what is shaping up to be an intense hurricane season in the Atlantic sucks humidity away from the Amazon.

"The formation of hurricanes is very much related, more hurricanes means less rain for us," said Marco Paredes, head of Peru's meteorological service in Iquitos, some 500 miles from the capital of Lima. "It's an inverse relationship."

The headwaters of the river start in Peru and its meteorological service said on
Friday the height of the river in the Amazon city of Iquitos has fallen to 347 feet above sea level, 19.6 inches less than where it was in the previous severe drought. (Left: Amazon level in previous drought; Courtesy Mongobay.com)

Officials worry the intensity and frequency of droughts could become more severe.

"This situation is critical," Robert Falcon of Peru's civil defense agency said of expected food shortages and outbreaks of illness. "The scientists
are already saying that because of climate change these events will become more frequent."

Falcon is bracing for a drought like the one that hit five years ago, when sinking water levels severed connections in the lattice of creeks, lakes and rivers that make up the Amazon's motorboat transportation network.

Thousands of people, fish and boats were stranded as rivers ran dry to
expose cracked dirt on their banks.

At the time of 2005 drought, scientists said it stemmed in part from a hurricane season that broke numerous records and caused the catastrophic Katrina storm that devastated New Orleans.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has forecast 14 to 23 named storms this year, with 8 to 14 developing into hurricanes, nearly matching 2005's record of 15. It expects the lack of rainfall to persist.

"Forecasts are indicating that this situation (of little rainfall) will continue for the next two or three weeks, so that the level of water will drop by about 20 to 30 centimeters (8-12 inches) from where it is now," Paredes said.

Reuters,"Amazon may be headed for another bad drought", accessed September 3, 2010
TerraDaily, "Amazon at lowest level in over 40 years in Peru: experts", accessed September 3, 2010

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