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Amazon at record low — communities isolated, commerce stalled

Amazon at record low — communities isolated, commerce stalled

Amazon at record low — communities isolated, commerce stalled
Rhett A. Butler,
October 11, 2005

Residents of a small community of houseboats in the Brazilian Amazon basin remain isolated as the river that provides their only means of communicating with other towns has dried up in the worst drought in the last 40 years, near the city of Manaquiri, Amazonas State, October 9, 2005. Brazil said on October 11 that it will use the Army to help deliver drinking water, food and medicine to river dwellers in the Amazon, as sinking water levels have made boat travel impossible and dried up drinking water supplies. Picture taken October 9, 2005.

The Amazon River in Peru and parts of Brazil is at its lowest level in 30 years of record keeping. While variable water levels are characteristic of the Amazon river ecosystem, the increasingly extreme fluctuations are of great concern. Low water levels are wreaking havoc on the shipping industry in the region. In Iquitos, a city in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon which is only accessible by plane or boat, ships and barges are having difficulty navigating the river, resulting in serious shipping delays. Local officials in Peru are blaming deforestation of the upper reaches of the Amazon in the Andes for the fall in river levels, although it is likely that larger forces are at least equally important. Warmer ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific and low sunspot activity is also affecting weather in the region, while warming in the north Atlantic — which has helped trigger an unusually strong and destructive hurricane season — may be preventing the formation of rain clouds over the Amazon Basin.

Local officials in Peru are blaming deforestation of the upper reaches of the Amazon in the Andes for the fall in river levels. Forest clearing impacts rainfall by disrupting the local water cycle. Under normal conditions, forests add to local humidity through transpiration — the process by which plants release water through their leaves. Moisture is transpired and evaporated into the atmosphere where it contributes to the formation of rain clouds. Scientists estimate that 50-80% of the moisture in the central and western Amazon remains in the ecosystem water cycle. However, when forests are cut, as is the case in Peru, less moisture is evapotranspired into the atmosphere, resulting in the formation of fewer rainclouds and less rainfall.

There is also concern that drought and low water conditions will only worsen in coming years as more forest is cleared and glaciers in the Andes continue to retreat. Glaciers, which are the source for as much as 50% of the water in the upper Amazon, are fast disappearing in Peru. According to a 1997 study by the Peruvian government, the country’s glaciers have shrunk by more than 20% in the past 30 years. Further, the National Commission on Climate Change in Lima projects that Peru will lose all its glaciers below 18,000 feet in elevation in the next decade and possibly all its glaciers within the next 40 years. The impact on the Amazon, when combined with deforestation, could be devestating to the region’s climate, water cycle and economy.

Related articles from Reuters and the Associated Press

Amazon Rainforest Suffers Worst Drought in Decades
by Terry Wade
October 11, 2005

MANAQUIRI – The worst drought in more than 40 years is damaging the world’s biggest rainforest, plaguing the Amazon basin with wildfires, sickening river dwellers with tainted drinking water, and killing fish by the millions as streams dry up.

A river boat owner and his dog stand on the deck of their stranded boat as a minor branch of the Rio Negro river, one of the two main tributaries of the Amazon River, flows by reduced to a stream during the region’s worst drought in decades, in the port of Manaus, capital of Brazil’s Amazonas State, October 7, 2005. The world’s biggest rainforest is suffering its worst drought in 40 years, a month before the rains are expected to begin, causing 16 cities to be declared on alert or in crisis as forest fires and health problems rise.

“What’s awful for us is that all these fish have died and when the water returns there will be barely any more,” Donisvaldo Mendonca da Silva, a 33-year-old fisherman, said.

Nearby, scores of piranhas shook in spasms in two inches of water — what was left of the once flowing Parana de Manaquiri river, an Amazon tributary. Thousands of rotting fish lined the its dry banks.

The governor of Amazonas, a state the size of Alaska, has declared 16 municipalities in crisis as the two-month-long drought strands river dwellers who cannot find food or sell crops.

Some scientists blame higher ocean temperatures stemming from global warming, which have also been linked to a recent string of unusually deadly hurricanes in the United States and Central America.

Rising air in the north Atlantic, which fuels storms, may have caused air above the Amazon to descend and prevented cloud formations and rainfall, according to some scientists.

“If the warming of the north Atlantic is the smoking gun, it really shows how the world is changing,” said Dan Nepstadt, an ecologist from the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Research Institute, funded by the US government and private grants.

“The Amazon is a canary in a coal mine for the earth. As we enter a warming trend we are in uncertain territory,” he said.

Deforestation may also have contributed to the drought because cutting down trees cuts moisture in the air, increasing sunlight penetration onto land.

Other scientists say severe droughts were normal and occurred in cycles before global warming started.


In the main river port of Manaus, dozens of boats lay stranded in the cracked dirt of the riverbank after the water level receded. Pontoons of floating docks sit exposed on dry land. People drive cars where only months ago they swam.

An hour from where it joins the Rio Negro to form the Amazon River, the Rio Solimoes is so low that kilometers (miles) of exposed riverbank have turned into dunes as winds whip up thick sandstorms. Vultures feed on carrion.

Another major Amazon tributary, Rio Madeira, is so dry that cargo ships carrying diesel from Manaus cannot reach the capital of Rondonia state without scraping the bottom. Instead, fuel used to run power plants has to be hauled in by truck thousands of kilometers (miles) from southern Brazil.

Dry winds and low rainfall have left the rainforest more susceptible to fires that farmers routinely start to clear their pastures.

In normal dry seasons, rains arrive often enough to put out blazes that escape from farms and spread to the forest. This year, the forest is catching fire and staying aflame.

In Acre state, some 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of forest have burned since the drought started and thick black smoke has on occasion shut down airports.

“It’s illegal to burn but everyone around here does it. I do it to get rid of insects and cobras and to create fresh grass for my cows,” a man who would only identify himself as Calixto said while using bundles of green leaves to smother flames and control fires near a highway.


A municipal worker cleans up garbage left behind by the receding Rio Negro river, one of the two biggest tributaries of the Amazon River, as boats remain stranded during the region’s worst drought in decades, in the port of Manaus, capital of Brazil’s Amazonas State, October 7, 2005. Drought in the Amazon rain forest, normally one of the world’s wettest regions, shows the weather cycle is swinging to one extreme rather than signaling climate change, local meteorologists said Thursday.

The drought has also upset daily life in communities scattered throughout the basin’s labyrinth of waterways.

“We closed 40 schools and canceled the school year because there’s a lack of food, transport and potable water,” said Gilberto Barbosa, secretary of public administration in Manaquiri. People whose wells have dried up risk drinking river water contaminated by sewage and dead animals.

Sinking water levels have severed connections in the lattice of creeks, lakes and rivers that make up the Amazons motorboat transportation network.

Many people in Manaquiri’s 25 riverine communities are now forced to walk kilometers (miles) to buy rice or medicines.

Cases of diarrhea, one of the biggest killers in the developing world, are rising in the region. Many fear stagnant water will breed malaria. In response, the state government has flown five tons of basic medicines out to distant villages.

It will be two more months before the river fills again during the rainy season. Even then, residents fear polluted water will float to the top, causing sickness and economic plight.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Manuel Tavares Silva, 39, who farms melons and corn near Manaquiri, a town 149 km (93 miles) from Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state.

Brazil declares disaster areas in Amazon
Worst drought it decades drying key rivers
The Associated Press
Monday, October 10, 2005; Posted: 8:17 p.m. EDT (00:17 GMT)

Four Brazilian cities in the Amazon jungle state of Amazonas have been declared disaster areas as the worst drought in 60 years dries up rivers that thousands of families depend on to receive food and medicine, authorities said Monday.

By declaring Manaquiri, Atalaia do Norte, Anori and Caapiranga disaster areas, the state government will be able to receive federal aid.

A boat makes tries to make its way through a section of the Amazon River suffering from lower water levels near Uricurituba, in northern Brazil, on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2005. Four Brazilian cities in the Amazon have been declared disaster areas as a continuing drought has dried up rivers and cut off thousands of families from access to food and medicine, authorities said Monday, Oct 10, 2005. (AP Photo/A Critica, Euzivaldo Queiroz).

Officials are mainly concerned with the dwindling supplies of medicine in these cities, where more than 42,000 people live, Roberto Rocha of the Amazonas state Civil Defense Department said by phone.

In Manaquiri, the hardest hit of the four cities, small rivers have all but disappeared, cutting off some 2,000 families from regular supplies of medicine and food, Rocha said.

With the rivers drying up, drinking water has also become scarce, said fire department official Col. Mario Belota, a coordinator of the state’s relief efforts.

He said workers have been sent to dig wells in Manaquiri, about 1,645 miles (2,650 kilometers) northwest of Sao Paulo.

“The little water that exists in the rivers is polluted,” he added.

Belota also fears a yellow fever epidemic in the region because vaccines are not reaching the region on a regular basis.

Another 17 cities and towns declared a state of alert and the federal government may be asked to provide help by furnishing boats and helicopters, Belota said.

Many cities in the vast Amazon region have little or no road access and rely on rivers for transportation. But a shortage of rain during several months caused the level of the Amazon River to drop to 51.8 feet (15.8 meters) on Monday, far below the average low of 58.1 feet (17.6 meters), said the Brazilian government’s Geological Service.

In Tabatinga, near the Colombian border, the Solimoes River, a major Amazon tributary, has dropped to 5 feet (1.5 meters), the lowest ever recorded, the Geological Service’s Jayme Azevedo da Silva said.

The level of the Amazon rises and falls regularly, but this year the dry season has been more severe than usual. The fires that farmers and ranchers use to clear the forest have helped raise the temperature in the western Amazon, da Silva said, helping to quickly evaporate the little rain that fell this year.

Rainfall in July was 1.21 inches (30.8 millimeters), 65 percent less than the average of 3.44 inches (87.5 millimeters). In June and August rainfall was about two-thirds the normal amount.

Water levels are expected to rise in early November at the start of the rainy season.

Extreme drought drops Amazon river to record low levels
By Peter Blackburn, Reuters
October 7, 2005

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (Reuters) – Drought in the Amazon rain forest, normally one of the world’s wettest regions, shows the weather cycle is swinging to one extreme rather than signaling climate change, local meteorologists said Thursday.

Water levels on two major Amazon tributaries — Madeira and Solimoes — dropped to record- and 38-year lows respectively, creating long delays in river traffic, the main form of regional transport.

Dry weather also fanned huge forest fires, notably in the remote western state of Acre.

But weather forecasters added that elsewhere in continental sized Brazil, seasonal spring rains had started in the south and were spreading northwards through Brazil’s major coffee belt and gradually into soybean areas in the center-west.

“The Amazon drought shows extreme climate variability, not climatic change,” said Jose Marengo, researcher at the Weather Forecasting and Climatic Studies Center (CPTEC), part of the National Institute of Space Research (INPE).

A topographic map of a section of the central Amazon River Basin near in Manaus, Brazil. Dark blue indicates channels that always contain water, while lighter blue depicts floodplains that seasonally flood and drain, and green represents non-flooded areas. Image courtesy of the Global Rain Forest Mapping Project.

Marengo said that normal rains were forecast for the south Amazon — the states of Acre, Rondonia, southern part of Para state and northern part of Mato Grosso state.

“Rain is forecast in Acre in the next couple of weeks,” he said, adding that the region is normally dry between June and September and wettest in December and January.

But we are a bit worried that there could be less rain than usual at the mouth of the Amazon, around Belem, he said, noting that extreme climatic events were occurring more frequently, “We could be seeing the first symptoms of changing cycles.”

Meteorologists discounted a link between unusually severe hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and drought in the Amazon.

Dry weather in the Amazon is linked to warmer ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific and to low sunspot activity, said Expedito Rebello, head of applied meteorology at the government’s National Institute of Meteorology in Brasilia.

“It’s a phenomenal drought and could be linked to a warmer Pacific and little sunspot activity,” Rebello said, noting extremely low water levels in the Amazon.

But he added that the weather cycle would reach a low next year and then start to moderate.

Paulo Etchitchury, director of private meteorologists Somar, said that the Pacific should start to enter a cooler period next Brazilian summer and this could result in a weak La Nina weather pattern.

“It won’t affect summer rains and it’s still very early to talk about next winter,” he said, adding that La Nina doesn’t necessarily signal a cold winter and extra risk of frost damage to Brazil’s coffee crop, the world’s biggest.

Brazil was in a transitional period between the dry May/August winter and rainy spring which started in south Brazil in September, Etchitchury said.

He said that this year weather conditions are in general seasonally normal in Brazil’s main farming areas, except that drought in the Amazon could affect Mato Grosso, Brazil’s main soy state.

“Rains in the south are replenishing a water deficit and providing reserves for summer soy and corn harvests, he said, adding, “Last September was hot and dry and people were worried about drought damage to crop flowering.”

Related articles

Fires rage in Bolivian rainforest – 23-September-2005

Fires have burned more than 1700 square miles (4450 square km) of Amazon rainforest and pasture in Bolivia, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency in two provinces.

Number of Amazon forest fires in Mato Grosso, Brazil fall 44% – 21-September-2005

The Brazilian National Institute for Spatial Research (INPE) reports that fires have fallen 44% in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil when compared to last year’s figures.

Tropical deforestation affects rainfall in North America – 20-September-2005
NASA research has found that deforestation in the tropics affects rainfall patterns in North America. Deforestation in the Amazon region of South America influences rainfall from Mexico to Texas and in the Gulf of Mexico. Similarly, deforesting lands in Central Africa affects precipitation in the upper and lower U.S Midwest, while deforestation in Southeast Asia was found to alter rainfall in China and the Balkan Peninsula.

NASA Satellite Data Used to Assess Amazon Deforestation – 15-September-2005
The Amazon, a vast tropical forest stretching across South America, is so large that is virtually impossible to study the evolving landscapes within the basin without the use of satellites. Scientists have used satellite imagery of the Amazon for more than 30 years to seek answers about this diverse ecosystem and the patterns and processes of land cover change. This technology continues to advance and a new study shows that NASA satellite images can allow scientists to more quickly and accurately assess deforestation in the Amazon.

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