Worst drought yet hits Amazon rainforest

Large parts of the Amazon rainforest are at their driest in living memory, a direct consequence, scientists say, of the severe hurricane season off the United States Gulf coast.

Rainfall has been significantly below average this year along the Rio Solimoes and the Rio Madeira, two of the major Brazilian tributaries that flow into the Amazon, causing water levels to drop to record lows. Rivers and lakes are drying up, revealing huge sandbanks and making navigation difficult for boats. Since many towns are only accessible by river, medicine, food and fuel are running out in some communities.

“There is no rain here because the air is descending, which prevents the formation of clouds,” said Ricardo Dellarosa, of the Amazon Protection Organisation (Sipam) in Manaus.
“The air is descending here because the air is rising very intensely in the north Atlantic, creating storms and hurricanes. What goes up must come down.”

Gilvan Sampaio of the National Institute of Space Research said the north Atlantic is slightly warmer than usual, which has shifted the tropical weather system further north. A secondary factor, he added, is that cold fronts that usually come from the south of Brazil at this time of year have not been arriving.

“These cold fronts have been heading straight into the ocean, instead of heading north towards the Amazon.”

Even though the river levels in the south-western Brazilian Amazon are always low at this time of year, the scale is much worse than usual and has hit areas never previously affected.

“It’s the worst it’s been in 60 years,” said Elpidio Gomes da Silva Filho, head of the Administration of West Amazon Waterways. “The journey along the Madeira should take six days. Now it is taking 15 because only small boats can pass.”

The Association of Municipalities in Amazonas state describes the situation as critical in about 10 districts, which have a combined population of about 300 000 in an area roughly the size of France.

In towns such as Humaita, 640k south of Manaus on the Rio Madeira, the lush landscape has drastically changed.

“A beach has been born in the middle of our town,” said Jose Edmee Brasil, the president of the town council. “Before this year I’d never seen the river less than 10m deep—now its only 2m. This is the biggest drought in our history.”

At Tabatinga, 960km west of Manaus on the border with Colombia, rainfall is almost 70% down from last year. According to Sipam’s quarterly bulletin, released last week, the dry spell is expected to continue into October—hitting the south of Amazonas especially hard.—Guardian Unlimited Â

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