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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rare storms causing havoc in Argentina

Scientists say that Argentina, which is recovering from a deadly storm in early April, will likely see more storms as climate changes take effect.

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A fierce tornado-producing storm early this month caught the heavily populated metropolitan area off-guard, ripping down trees, knocking out basic services, injuring scores and killing 17. One official called it “the worst storm on record.”

It was the latest in a growing number of intense storms caused by higher heat and humidity in the region, said Pablo Canziani, an Argentine physicist who’s a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
Canziani told The Miami Herald that these conditions are expected to increase in coming years, creating major governance challenges as climate change brings extreme weather to Argentina and its neighbors, which rarely experience deadly tropical storms.
“It doesn’t mean Argentina is going to turn into the Caribbean,” but there will be more weather typically found in the tropics, Canziani said.
Erica Quintana lost almost everything in the April 4 storm. The 28-year-old mother of four took cover under her bed as the wind whipped outside, toppling a nearby billboard that crushed her shantytown home in “Olympian fashion,” she said.
More than a week later, authorities had not visited her neighborhood to document the damage or provide support, she said.
Robert Meliñir, 38, received bags of pasta and sheets of corrugated metal from the Quilmes municipal government — one of the most affected areas, south of Buenos Aires — but it wasn’t sufficient, he said. The metal strips weren’t long enough to stretch across the gaping hole above his living room.
“I’m not interested in a plate of spaghetti,” he said. “I’m interested in a solution.”
In total, officials estimated some 30,000 homes had their roofs blown off.
The warming of oceans and the atmosphere have strengthened the weather system known as the South Atlantic High, which drives moisture west across the Brazilian Amazon, where it bends south toward Argentina, Canziani said.
Over central Argentina, this increased wet air clashes with cold fronts coming up from the South Pacific, he said, causing “squall lines,” such as the recent storm. Neighboring Paraguay and Uruguay are also likely to see an uptick in severe weather, experts said.
After the recent barrage, Luis Viera, the Argentina country representative for the Salvation Army, said his organization was busy distributing food and water in hard-hit areas. But although President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner sent the nation’s armed forces to help clear downed trees and power lines, he called the overall response to the storm “limited” and “lacking resources.”
“There was no massive distribution,” he said.
The recent storm is an example of what Argentina and other developing countries are up against when it comes to climate change, according Nazareno Castillo, the director of Argentina’s Climate Change Office. He says the United Nations’ focus on mitigation through lower greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation to new climate conditions is “very difficult” for developing countries, “because they already lack efficient governments.”
The unsteady climate footing could have contradictory effects on the Argentine economy, he says.
In some scenarios, scientists predict that farmers could grow more wheat, corn, and soy in the country’s fertile pampas region, giving a temporary boost to the local economy, while perhaps endangering wine producers in the Andean region who need longer timetables because grapevines have a multi-year lifespan.
Argentina needs large-scale infrastructure changes, Castillo says, but those changes can’t be implemented now because of continued uncertainty in climate models.
“All of the planning up until now has been based on models that measure extreme events looking backward,” he says, “which, of course, become outdated when extremes change.”
His office focuses instead on raising awareness among Argentines and preparing policymakers on how to best coordinate responses to climate change.
In addition, Castillo echoed the most recent United Nations Human Development Report, which highlights how environmental degradation worsen existing inequities for the world’s poor.
“The fastest way to reduce human risk would be to eliminate poverty,” he said. “But now we need to modify the way we do almost everything in complex ways.”
Geophysicist Gabriela Nicora is building a nationwide map for electrical storms, both to warn people about the storms and to pinpoint the most affected areas after a storm. The map would be important as Argentina expands gas and oil pipelines, nuclear power plants and high-voltage electricity lines.
Nicora’s network plugs into a global lightning network at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“The U.S. has an expansive network for monitoring weather patterns and an early-alert system to give warning about storms,” she said. “It’s something that Argentina doesn’t have but needs as it makes decisions about infrastructure projects of all kinds.”

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