Alarming Amazon Drought – River Hits New Low

Dec 8, 2010 by

Alarming Amazon Drought – River Hits New Low

The Negro River halted Nov 19 2010

From The National Geographic

Hard-hit by a months-long drought, a waterway within the Amazon Basin trickles to a halt in Manaus, Brazil (see map), on November 19, 2010.

The Negro River (right), a major tributary of the Amazon River, dropped to a depth of about 46 feet (14 meters), the lowest point since record-keeping began in 1902.

About 60,000 people in the Amazon have gone hungry as falling river levels paralyzed transport and fishing. Millions of dead fish have also contaminated rivers, leading to a shortage of clean drinking water, the Reuters news agency reported. (How much do you know about drinking water? Test your knowledge with a quiz.)

Caused by El Nino a cyclical warming of tropical waters in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean, such a severe drought usually occurs once in a century. But the 2010 disaster comes just five years after the latest Amazon “megadrought,” according to Reuters.

The drought also fits within predictions of climatic extremes this century due to global warming, Reuters reported. (Explore an interactive map of global warming’s effects.)

Fisher working on stranded boatA fisher (left) works on his boat stranded on the Negro River in northern Brazil on October 22, 2010.

Droughts can actually contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. That’s because the vast Amazon rain forest acts as a carbon sink, soaking up about two billion tons of atmospheric carbon a year, according to Reuters. But when trees die or wither, as occurred during the 2005 Amazon drought, the forest switches from a carbon sink to a carbon source.

For instance, the 2005 drought alone released more greenhouse gases than the annual emissions of Europe and Japan combined, Reuters reported.

Manaus's Brito Bridge, BrazilUsually submerged by the Negro River, a bank under Manaus’s Brito Bridge (right) became a recreation spot on October 26.

But for most Brazilians, the drought is no walk in the park. With thousands of boats stranded on the parched riverbeds, many isolated communities have become dependent on emergency aid, according to Reuters.

Stranded fishing boat in BrazilA boat lies deserted (left) on the banks of the Negro River on the outskirts of Manaus on October 23, 2010.

Natural disasters in the Amazon have sparked an exodus of environmental migrants to cities in recent years.

“It’s a consistency of extremes,” Joao Messias, vice mayor of the small city of Manacapuru, told Reuters. “Our city here is literally full. It has filled up a lot after these big floods and droughts.”

Amazon petroglyphs exposed by droughtA fisher reportedly discovered prehistoric etchings, shown in this November 15, 2010 photo (right), when water receded from the banks of the Negro River, according to the Hindu newspaper.

Archaeologists suggest the 7,000-year-old engravings, which feature images of faces and snakes, may be more evidence that the Amazon was once home to large civilizations, the Hindu reported. (Also see “‘Lost’ Amazon Complex Found; Shapes Seen by Satellite.”)

Fishing village devastated by droughtFishers and other residents gather on the drought-affected banks of the Taruma River (left) near Manaus on October 24, 2010.

In the small town of Caapiranga, also near Manaus, residents cut off from boat transport told Reuters that food had doubled in price since the drought began. Compounding the disaster, many farmers also said their cropland has yet to recover from 2009 floods.

Extraordinary drought conditions in BrazilA boat squeezes through a narrow channel near Manaus (right) on November 5, 2010.

Desperate for food, some residents have scooped up rare manatees from shallow rivers, Reuters reported.

fishing boats stranded in drought-stricken Brazilian river bed
A boat rests amid debris in Manaus (left) on September 15, 2010.

The drought has also sparked a surge in wildfires, particularly in the state of Mato Grosso, which means “thick forest,” according to Reuters.

There have been 36,700 forest fires in Mato Grasso so far this year, compared with 8,135 in 2009, Reuters reported. The blazes have destroyed cattle pastures, killed livestock, and burned down some of the region’s remaining original forest.

People walking across muddy drought-stricken river bottomPeople walk the muddy bottom of the Negro River (right) on October 26, 2010.

Many complex climate models suggest that Amazon rainfall may change little over this century, Reuters reported.

That’s why scientist Rosie Fisher, of Colorado’s National Center for Atmospheric Research, was shocked when she saw a map showing Amazon rainfall at less than half its annual rate so this year.

“The map that I’m looking at now looks like the extreme bit of my scenario, and it’s happening right now. I’m genuinely quite alarmed by this,” Fisher told Reuters.

(Do you know how climate change may affect the world’s freshwater? Take a quiz.)

Stranded houseboat in drought-stricken Brazil

A lone house stands out against a dry riverbed in Cadajas (left) on October 25, 2010.

A prolonged drought may harm Brazil’s crops. For instance, farmers in the Amazon’s fertile Matto Grosso state are highly dependent on Amazon rain to grow their crops, which are extremely profitable because normally so little irrigation is needed.

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