In the Andes, freak cold extracts a brutal toll
Feb. 13, 2012
Climate change alters the environment in complex ways. The Andes, warming for decades, has seen three bitter winters that have left more than 400 dead and aid agencies scrambling.
Experts see the fingerprints of global warming there, too.
By Emily Kirkland
for the Daily Climate
EL HIGUERON, Peru – Carlos Cruz Chanta lives just off a rutted dirt road, almost lost in the mist, outside this village on a steep ridge of jungle-covered mountains. Like his neighbors, he makes his living raising livestock and growing corn, fruit, beans, and coffee.
But the bean harvests have failed recently, and cattle have come down with strange illnesses. Ice has ruined the oranges and avocados. Most worryingly, the cold has taken its toll on his children.
"The children get pneumonia," said Chanta. "This cold is so much for our children."
Over the past three years, bitter cold spells and frosts have made life in El Higueron – and throughout most of the Peruvian Andes – increasingly difficult. As paradoxical as it seems, scientists suspect global warming is to blame.
In 2008 and 2009, frigid temperatures descended on Peru in March and April, almost three months before the start of the Southern Hemisphere winter. The unseasonable cold not only killed livestock but contributed to the deaths of almost 250 children across the country, according to news reports at the time.
The winter of 2010 proved even worse. After temperatures plunged to 46-year lows, the government declared a state of emergency in 16 of the county's 24 regions. In some areas, temperatures reached 24 degrees Celsius below zero, or 13 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. More than 400 people died, most of them children.
Cold, damp weather lowers resistance to respiratory infections like pneumonia and bronchitis. In places like El Higueron, where many children are already under-nourished and health care is difficult to obtain, such sicknesses can be deadly.
"There are health posts, but there's a lack of medicine," Chanta said.
Bone-chilling cold has always been a feature of life in the Andes. But rural residents, government officials, and development workers all say that frosts and cold waves have grown more extreme.
Christopher Hinostroza Quiñonez, the head of disaster management for the town of Yungay in the central Andes, said cold there had intensified, with freezes and hailstorms in the highlands.
"Now, in this season, there are sometimes frosts. It didn't used to be this way," said Raul Ramos Garcia, a farmer from the nearby village of Huachao.
Juser Nunez Peralta, who works in rural development in the southern Cusco region, said frosts had also intensified there.
Gustavo Cajusol works on climate change adaptation for GIZ, the German aid agency, in the northern province of Piura. He said frosts were more common there as well.
"I can't understand it," he said. "The climate is changing."
Climate change can alter atmospheric conditions in complex ways, said Mathias Vuille, a climate scientist at the State University of New York, Albany, who has specialized in the Andes. In some cases, he said, it can lead to greater extremes of both hot and cold.
The Andes is undergoing several potentially contradictory changes as a result of global warming. According to a 2003 study, temperatures have warmed by about 0.34 degrees Celsius per decade since 1974. Glaciers – a crucial summertime water reservoir – are melting, with some researchers suspecting parts of the region have already passed "peak water." And then there's the recent cold.
Jose Marengo, a climate scientist with the Brazilian space agency, INPE, who has also studied the Andes extensively, said global warming could make cold waves less frequent but more severe.
Unfortunately, existing weather records do not allow for detailed scientific studies of extreme cold. Weather stations are few and far between, and historical records are often difficult to access. Many include only monthly or weekly averages, not the hour-by-hour measurements necessary to monitor temperature extremes.
"We're in the Stone Age," said Armando Mendoza, an economist with the Peruvian Center for Social Studies who has done extensive work on climate change policy. "We don't have information."
Extreme cold in the Andes also serves as a reminder that the effects of climate change are often very hard to foresee.
"Everyone's talking about climate change adaptation, but what are we adapting to?" said Vuille, the SUNY-Albany researcher.
Absence of information
Most climate change predictions are made at the global or regional level. Such general predictions are useless in the Andes, where a hundred square miles might include sweltering tropical forest and icy mountain peaks. More detailed predictions are possible but require large quantities of data on weather patterns in previous decades. This information is often missing in Peru and other developing countries.
The situation is even more complicated given the large number of factors that determine climate at the local level. Deforestation, for instance, may cause microclimatic changes that exacerbate extreme cold. Without forest cover, the ground is less insulated, causing soil temperatures to swing dramatically. Over-grazing, which removes vegetation cover, has a similar effect, according to Wim van Immerzeel, who runs a nonprofit climate change adaptation project in Peru's Cusco region.
In the absence of reliable information, aid agencies are doing their best to help rural communities cope with frigid winters. One strategy is building shelters for livestock. Many Andean communities depend on llamas, alpaca and other animals for their livelihoods, and herds can be devastated by frosts and cold temperatures.
Simple covered shelters offer some protection. Martin Scurrah, the former South America regional director for Oxfam America, said that requests for alpaca shelters had increased dramatically in recent years. Oxfam, Save the Children, and the Peruvian government have all responded with programs to construct shelters in rural areas.
The Peruvian health ministry has also run immunization campaigns aimed at preventing respiratory illnesses and has tried to educate parents about the need to seek treatment for young children. In Lima and other big cities, meanwhile, donation drives for sweaters and coats have become annual events.
Still, Mendoza said, it is not enough.
"Children in the Andes are dying," he said, pointing to the need for a comprehensive adaptation program that would cover everything from building materials to health systems.
"Little by little, we have to adapt," Chanta said. "We have to bear it."
Photos and text © Emily Kirkland. All rights reserved.
Emily Kirkland is studying Economics and Latin American Studies at Brown University. She spent the summer of 2011 researching Peru's efforts to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
DailyClimate.org is a foundation-funded news service covering climate change. Contact editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer [at] DailyClimate.org
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