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Water pleads with God: Lake in Chile turns into desert, raises alarm about climate change

Water pleads with God: Lake in Chile turns into desert, raises alarm about climate change

PINUELAS, Chile, June 13 (Reuters) – Until 20 years ago, the Pinuelas Reservoir in central Chile was the main source of water for Valparaíso, holding enough water for 38,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. Water remains for my swimming pool only now.

A vast expanse of dry, cracked land that was once the bottom of a lake filled with skeletons of desperate fish and animals searching for water.

Amid a historic 13-year drought, precipitation levels have plummeted in this South American country that hugs the continent’s Pacific coast. Higher air temperatures mean that snow in the Andes, once a major storehouse of meltwater for spring and summer, is not compressing or melting faster or turning directly into steam.

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The drought affected mine production at the world’s largest copper producer, raised tensions over water use for lithium and agriculture, and prompted the capital, Santiago, to make unprecedented plans for potential water rationing.

“We have to beg God to send us water,” said Amanda Carrasco, 54, who lives near Pinuelas Reservoir and remembers fishing in the waters to catch local biggeri fish. “I’ve never seen it like this before. There was less water before, but not like there is now.”

Jose Luis Murillo, general manager of ESVAL, the company that supplies water to Valparaiso, said the reservoir needed rainfall – which used to be reliable in winter but is now at historic lows.

“What we have is just a pool of water,” he said, adding that the city now relies on rivers. “This is especially important if you consider that several decades ago the Penuelas Reservoir was the only source of water for all of Greater Valparaíso.”

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Academic studies have found that behind the issue is a global shift in climate patterns that is sharpening natural weather cycles.

Typically, low-pressure storms from the Pacific dump precipitation over Chile in winter, recharge aquifers and fill the Andes with snow.

But naturally occurring warming in the sea off the coast of Chile, which is preventing storms from arriving, has been intensified by rising global sea temperatures, according to the international study On sea temperature and lack of precipitation. Meanwhile, the depletion of the ozone layer and greenhouse gases in Antarctica is exacerbating weather patterns that are drawing storms away from Chile, according to the study On the variables that affect the weather in Antarctica.

“water towers”

Analysis of tree rings dating back 400 years shows how rare the current drought is, said Duncan Christie, a researcher at the Center for Climate and Resilience in Chile. It is absolutely unparalleled in duration or intensity.

This, he said, meant that the Andes – dubbed the country’s “water towers” – didn’t get a chance to replenish themselves, which in turn meant that as the snow melted in the spring, there was far less water to fill rivers, reservoirs and aquifers.

Miguel Lagos, a civil engineer and water specialist, traveled to measure snow cover near the Laguna Negra station in central Chile about 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of Santiago — part of an operation to estimate summer water supplies.

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“There was nothing,” he told Reuters. “There were so few precipitation events and conditions so warm that the snow melted in the same winter.”

As the snow solidifies, causing new layers to form, this helps keep it cooler for longer. But Lagos said that with warmer weather and less snowfall, the upper layers of snow melt faster or turn directly into steam, a process called sublimation.

A 2019 study In the International Journal of Climatology that analyzed droughts in Chile from 2010 to 2018, she said changing weather events could mitigate future droughts, but much would depend on the trajectory of human emissions affecting the climate.

Segundo Aballay, an animal fancier in the Chilean Montenegrin village, is calling for change to come soon.

“If it doesn’t rain this year, we will have nothing to do,” he said. “Animals are getting weak and dying day by day.”

Unfortunately for agricultural workers like Aballai, researchers at the University of Chile predict that the country will have 30% less water over the next 30 years, based on mathematical models and historical data.

“What we call drought today will become normal,” Lagos said.

In Laguna de Aculeo, another dry lake south of Santiago, local camp manager Francisco Martinez mentioned hundreds of people who have come to the area to take a kayak or swim in the waters.

Now there are rusty docks and old boats in the arid landscape. A spooky island in the middle of what was once water rises above the dust.

Now there is no water, Martinez told Reuters. It is desert here. “The animals are dying and there is nothing to be done here in the lake anymore.”

(Alexander Villegas reports). Additional reporting by Rodrigo Gutierrez. Editing by Adam Jordan and Rosalba O’Brien

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