Climate Change Impacts in Latin America

Latin America’s climate is changing. Precipitation patterns are shifting, temperatures are rising, and some areas are experiencing changes in the frequency and severity of weather extremes such as heavy rains. The impacts range from melting Andean glaciers to devastating floods and droughts.

The two great oceans that flank the continent—the Pacific and the Atlantic—are warming and becoming more acidic while sea level also rises.

Unfortunately, greater impact is in store for the region as both the atmosphere and oceans continue to rapidly change. Food and water supplies will be disrupted. Towns and cities and the infrastructure required to sustain them will be increasingly at risk. Human health and welfare will be adversely affected, along with natural ecosystems.

This photo story shows the devastating impacts across Latin America.

Extreme weather

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Changes in climate and extreme events have severely affected Latin America. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 613 extreme climate and hydro-meteorological events occurred between 2000 and 2013. Hydro-meteorological events include typhoons and hurricanes, thunderstorms, hailstorms, tornados, blizzards, heavy snowfall, avalanches, coastal storm surges, floods including flash floods, drought, heatwaves and cold spells. This has resulted in the displacement of people, numerous fatalities and significant economic losses.

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Tropical storms originating in both the Atlantic and Pacific have devastated parts of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Beyond the damage the storms have caused in coastal areas, their torrential rains inland have accounted for much greater devastation. According to the IPCC, in 1998, Hurricane Mitch alone affected 600,000 people— mostly because of the floods and landslides from heavy rains.

Droughts

Researchers are moderately confident that Amazonia, northeastern Brazil, Central America, the Caribbean, and some parts of Mexico will see increased drought conditions. Of particular concern is the prospect of more frequent extreme droughts in the Amazon, which could push the region to a “tipping point,” increasing the likelihood of a large-scale dieback of the Amazon forest.

Notable recent droughts are those that afflicted the Amazon in 2005 and 2010 and a drought in Southeastern Brazil that has extended from 2012 to late 2015. In addition, existing drought conditions in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean may be intensified by the ongoing strong 2015-2016 El Niño occurring against a backdrop of rising temperatures associated with global warming.

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After four years of below normal rainfall São Paulo, Brazil was experiencing its worst drought in over 80 years by mid-2015. The city’s main water system, the Cantareira reservoir, supports the water needs of 5.3 million people, but by August 2015 it was at record low levels with less than 17% of its normal water capacitydown from the 9 million before the drought. Officials in August 2015 declared the city’s water situation “critical,” and Moody’s Investors Service in early September estimated that the Companhia de Saneamento Basico do Estado de São Paulo had roughly five months of stored water supply remaining.

The situation illustrates the vulnerability of some Latin American cities to drought as climate change alters the frequency and/or severity of drought in the region.

Sea Level Rise

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Oceans expand as they warm and they rise further as they receive huge amounts of freshwater from melting glaciers and ice sheets. The sea level is rising and is rise in sea level will continue do so at an accelerated pace in the future. By 2100, sea level could rise another one to four feet.

The IPCC states sea levels threaten the Latin American population—a large proportion of which lives on the coast—by contaminating freshwater aquifers, eroding shorelines, inundating low-lying areas, and increasing the risks of storm surges, according to one assessment.

An aerial view of the vulnerable Laughing Bird Caye National Park island and coral reef in Belize from 6,000 ft.

Sea level rise & ocean acidification

Much of the coastal area surrounding the Mesoamerican reef and nearby islands is low-lying and vulnerable to sea level rise from climate change. Eroding shorelines have already been documented, which can affect nesting and reproductive success of marine turtles. Rising water temperatures cause more episodes of coral bleaching, which is devastating to reefs and the wildlife that depend on them. Ocean acidification, caused by increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the water, also threatens the coral reefs.