AP, Washington Times: “Experts suspect global warming may be driving wild climate swings that appear to be punishing the Amazon with increasing frequency”

A man rows through a flooded street in Trizidela do Vale in Brazil's northeastern state of Maranhao. Flooding is common in the world's largest remaining tropical wilderness. But this year, the waters rose higher and stayed longer than they have in decades, leaving fruit trees entirely submerged. (Associated Press)Big media struggles with how — or even whether — to explain to the public that the increase in extreme weather we are seeing is precisely what scientists have been predicting would occur because of human-caused climate change (see, for instance, “CNN, ABC, WashPost, AP, blow Australian wildfire, drought, heatwave “Hell (and High Water) on Earth” story “” never mention climate change“).

But the AP and the Washington Times has explained quite well (here) the likely source of Brazil’s double punch — brutal drought followed by brutal flooding, Hell and High Water:

Across the Amazon basin, river dwellers are adding new floors to their stilt houses, trying to stay above rising floodwaters that have killed 48 people and left 405,000 homeless.

Flooding is common in the world’s largest remaining tropical wilderness, but this year the waters rose higher and stayed longer than they have in decades, leaving some fruit trees entirely submerged.

Farmer Nelci de Fatima Goncalves pulls a cow across a cracked field caused by a drought in Passo Fundo, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, last month. Southern Brazilian states far from the Amazon have suffered from an extended drought, caused by La Nina, a periodic cooling of waters in the Pacific Ocean. (Associated Press)The surprise isn’t just the record flooding, it’s that the flooding followed record droughts:

Only four years ago, the same communities suffered an unprecedented drought that ruined crops and left mounds of river fish flapping and rotting in the mud.

Experts suspect global warming may be driving wild climate swings that appear to be punishing the Amazon with increasing frequency.

The BBC also got the story right last month, “Experts say global warming may be behind the wild climate swings that have brought periods of unprecedented droughts and flooding to the Amazon in recent years.”

Interestingly, the same exact swings in extreme weather hit Louisiana in 2005, as I wrote in my book Hell and High Water:

While the U.S. suffered a record-smashing hurricane season that deluged southern Louisiana with rain in the summer of 2005, “the eight months since October 1, 2005 have been the driest in 111 years of record-keeping” in southern Louisiana, the U.S. National Climatic Data Center reported in July 2006.

What makes the AP and the Washington Times story on Brazil so unusual is not only that the Times is a right-wing newspaper, but that the story continues with an extended discussion of the climate issue:

It’s “the $1 million question,” said Carlos Nobre, a climatologist with Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

While a definitive answer will take years of careful study, climatologists say the world should expect more extreme weather in the years ahead. Already, what happens in the Amazon could be affecting rainfall elsewhere, from Brazil’s agricultural heartland to the U.S. grain belt, as rising ocean temperatures and rainforest destruction cause shifts in global climate patterns.

“It’s important to note that it’s likely that these types of record-breaking climate events will become more and more frequent in the near future,” Mr. Nobre said. “So we all have to brace for more extreme climate in the near future: It’s not for the next generation”…

“Something is telling us to be more careful with the planet. Changes are happening around the world, and we’re seeing them as well in Brazil,” President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said this month on his radio program….

“I think we should be preparing for this to become more the norm, and there’s a need to look at what the future Amazon will look like,” said Daniel Nepstad, a tropical forest ecologist and chief program officer for the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s environmental conservation program.

Of course, no story would be complete without some “balance,” some reply to the climate scientists:

“We are used to floods and droughts and know how to coexist with them, but we are not used to them happening so swiftly and lasting so long and causing so much damage,” said schoolteacher Gleicimeire Freire, who distributes aid with the Roman Catholic Church. “This is what is scaring us.”

In southern Rio Grande do Sul state, bordering Argentina and Uruguay, many farmers say the driest weather in 80 years has withered their corn and alfalfa. Winter grass for cattle couldn’t be planted, and milk production has suffered, said Darcisio Perondo, a congressman who represents the state.

“In some villages there wasn’t enough water for people to drink, and in some towns they had to get water from the large rivers and tote it by truck for the cattle,” Mr. Perondo said.

He called the situation a calamity, but isn’t sure whether global warming is to blame.

“Anyone who reads the Bible knows that floods and droughts are cyclical,” he said. “I just don’t know if global warming is causing this.”

Still, this is an excellent story overall.  Kudos to the AP and the Washington Times for informing the public as to what we face on our business as usual emissions path.

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12 Responses to AP, Washington Times: “Experts suspect global warming may be driving wild climate swings that appear to be punishing the Amazon with increasing frequency”

  1. Craig says:

    Conservative rags like the WSJ and the Washington Times are in far-right field on their editorial pages (more accurately they are sitting in the upper deck right field bleachers). But their reporting is decidedly more mainstream. I chalk this up to the natural inclination of reporters and editors to get stories factually correct. Maybe this article is a sign that the “on the other hand” style of climate change journalism is coming to an end.

  2. nofreewind says:

    You can check for yourself how global warming has affected specific US city temperature station and precipitation, since about 1880 through 2006, right here.
    Temperatures have increased slightly as we know, leveling off in the mid 90’s, however a check of multiple locations doesn’t show any overall precipitation trends.
    Here is the overall US Historical Drought Index. Appears to be a small amt of overall increased drought pattern since 1998, but the drought pattern from 98-2006 is not nearly as pronounced as prior droughts.

  3. Gail says:

    Hey, THANKS for that link, nofreewind!

    This seems to show a clear increase in maximum temps. for my area. Perhaps even if precipitation remains fairly constant (I haven’t had a chance to look at all the charts) maybe increased evaporation could be enough to strees the trees.

    Did you mean to post another link to the overall drought index?

  4. K L Reddington says:

    We send our missionaries down there to Brazil. They cleared the forrests and started habbitation in the clearings. To raise cane for ethanol. Since they never lived there before, they have to be told to build at a higher elevation because it floods. It is also an area that has poor tilling practices. America had more ag runoff before we did minimum tillage. We also have lest dust blowing. In California, after forrest fires, the next medium rains cause mudslides. The trees wee beneficial before they cleared for crops. Our increase in flooding in america is also increased because we have more pavement.

  5. paulm says:

    Bit disturbing….

    What Is Killing Chile’s Coastal Wildlife?,8599,1902885,00.html

  6. Susan says:

    This report came from a local in Brazil on May 7th. She has sent regular reports since, but this one, edited with some of the issues with corruption and incomplete information removed, caught my attention because of the scale, the lack of reporting, and the explanations of connections (though she says her understanding is incomplete, it is more complete than mine). I believe much of the reporting until recently on the flooding in Brazil (including the dam that broke) are from more prosperous areas.

    There are at least 500,000 people forced out of their homes by the flooding. The state of Maranhão appears to be almost completely under water. Ceara is getting to be the same. Salvador in Bahia, where it normally rains a lot anyway, is still getting so much rain that the houses are coming down from the hills almost every day.

    In the coastal states south of the mouth of the Amazon, major highways and bridges are completely washed out (as you may know, their construction leaves a great deal to be desired in the first place ….

    Early this year, there was an incredible amount of rain in southern Brazil, especially near Florianopolis. That area of Brazil has much better infrastructure ….

    There appears to be some kind of stationary front sitting just over the Amazon, from the west to the east, keeping the rain on top of the affected areas. This has been going on for months with no end in sight.

    Interestingly, at the same time, in the far south, the famous Foz do Iguaçu are nearly dry. I was down there 10 years ago, and the flow was greater than Niagara. In that spot there are now just trickles, you can see the bottom of the river …

    Some of this is due to various dams upstream, but also to a lack of rain….

    Here in northeastern Brazil, we should be in the dry season, but it has been raining like it normally would in November during the rainy season. As a result in Bahia, we have had ca. 60,000 cases of dengue fever registered since Jan. 1. Part of this is due to the incredible amount of trash that is lying around ….

    For the past 18 months or so, we did not have the usual ENSO patterns along the equator in the Pacific. I would guess that the flipping of the PDO had a lot to do with this. The question is — how long will the PDO continue to cause this situation?

    Then, there is the increased amount of water vapor in the atmosphere bringing the heavier rains.

    I have lived here about 11.5 years. When I first arrived I was amazed not to hear thunder and lightning during the rainy season. … I am used to hearing a lot of thunder and lightning strikes. But, here in the interior of Bahia, for the first 8 years, I hardly saw lightning or heard thunder at all. In the last two years, it has been very noticeable that lightning and thunder has increased exponentially….

    The expansion of the Hadley cells might also have something to do with the present problem of the stationary front hanging over the Amazon — I am certainly no expert in this so you would need to consult someone who really knows about these things. This expansion of the Hadley cells occurs both to the north and to the south of the equator. So much attention is being focused on the consequences of their northward expansion and pushing the jet stream further north over the North American continent, causing drought in the U.S. Southwest, that we often forget what effects may be occurring south of the equator. This expansion is pushing the southern winds further south as well.
    While the PDO is called decadal, in fact, its periodicity is not so predictable and can have cycles of 10 to 40 years.
    END quote

    I know this material may go to Joe Romm more directly at some point, with more information from the continuation of this weather, but hope the author won’t mind my posting it here.

  7. Earlier this year, southern Brazil, now in drought, was having a flood that left 78,000 homeless in Santa Catarina state.

    Please don’t hand out President Lula’s kool aid. He does nothing but cut the current secretary for the environment off at the knees. The previous one resigned for this reason.

    Lula is in the pocket of the lumber companies and is doing nothing to prevent further exploitation of the Amazon or to prevent deforestation.

    He is all talk.

    And do not forget the long reach of the industry-paid global warming denialists.

    Patrick Michaels was down here last year giving lectures with every single denialist talking point, long debunked.

    To my intense disgust, Veja Magazine (a bit like Time Magazine) interviewed Michaels and gave his interview premier placement in its first 3 pages (printed with a yellow background) where they place interviews with prominent and knowledgeable people.

    Let us also not forget that Chilean indigenous people are fighting as I write, with deaths in the dozens, to prevent the dictatorial government there from clear-cutting the Amazon and putting in roads to allow the Brazilian hydroelectric company, Eletrobrás, to come in and build hydroelectric dams. Eletrobrás is 52% owned by the Brazilian federal government.

    Let me state this again — Lula is the worst environmental president Brazil has ever had.

    Brazil is stuck with him until January 1, 2011.

  8. Steve Bloom says:

    Tenney, you said Chilean, but I suspect you meant to refer to Peru or Ecuador.

    Re the local report Susan forwarded, the attribution to the PDO (Pacific Decadal Oscillation) should be taken with a large grain of salt. I’m sensitive to seeing such claims made for the PDO since it’s a favorite denialist talking point.

    The PDO is a rather subtle north Pacific phenomenon, and doesn’t drive much of anything. It would be more plausible to speak in terms of something affecting both Amazonian climate trends and the PDO, although I’m not aware of any basis for doing so.

  9. Dave says:

    Hard to believe the right-wing Washington Times is the only media covering this story. The mainstream media repeatedly blows its coverage of global warming. And this is why the debunked denier/delayer memes are allowed to become so widespread. I’ve seen several denier/delayer types recently opine that the Arctic ice is in recovery mode and not as bad as the past few years. Umm, actually it’s lower than 2008 and just about even with 2007 (the year of the record low minimum extent). Maybe another record breaking ice melt season will finally take the wind out of some of the denier/delayers. At least those who have been adamant that we’re experiencing global cooling.

  10. Steve you are right, it is Peru, I had Chile on the brain because a friend was talking to me today about moving there, sorry.

    You are also most likely correct about the PDO — but the Intertropical Convergence Zone is not following the polar equator as it should be doing. At this time of year, it should be much further north.

    Looks like there will be a year-round rainy season this year.

    There are over 300,000 flooded out in the tiny state of Maranhão.

    The northeastern coastal cities of Bahia are being flooded out.

    There are over 100,000 flooded out in the state of Minas Gerais.

    I am not seeing any numbers on Amazonas state, but it must be well over 100,000.

    Listen, it took over a month for the government to send 3 tiny helicopters to deliver aid to people in Maranhão — aid for at that time, 380,000 people.

    The national TV networks don’t even mention the 500,000 Brazilian citizens flooded out of their homes, with no potable water, God only knows what kind of food, no electricity, schools closed, hospitals flooded out, no medicines, no doctors, no anything, and nothing on the way, except more rain.

    Yet the federal government is allocating many billions for the construction of sports venues because they want Brazil to be considered for the 2016 Olympics!!!!!!!

    Do you have any idea what it means to drink filthy contaminated river water for two months? What about all the people with diabetes and high blood pressure who have not been able to receive their meds for the past two months?

    When the richer, whiter and more European Brazilians were flooded out of their homes in southern Brazil, earlier this year, the national TV networks showed the story every night on the news.

    But for the 500,000 darker-skinned, more African and Indian Brazilians in the north and northeast, the national TV network, Globo, shows NOTHING!

  11. paulm says:

    This is a global phenomena as there were extreme floods in Africa around the same latitude recently as well.

  12. Susan says:

    Steve and Tenney, I’m a fool who rushes in where angels fear to tread, and am glad you all got working on the facts. Thanks!