Danny And The Drought: How El Niño Left The Caribbean Parched
Remember Hurricane Danny roaring out in the Atlantic last week with 115-mile-an-hour gusts? When it reached Puerto Rico this morning it was wheezing.
That’s a big relief for the Caribbean islands – but it also reflects a big problem out there.
The same abnormal climate conditions that helped deflate Danny are also responsible for the some of the worst drought the Caribbean has seen in two decades.
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“The last drought monitor report classified 34 of our municipalities under extreme drought conditions,” says Franciso Martínez, vice president of operations at Prasa, the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority in San Juan.
Martínez notes the island’s rainfall this year is more than 40 inches below normal. Twelve of the 22 rivers that supply its reservoirs are all but dried up – and this summer Prasa has had to adopt dramatic water-rationing measures.
“We have around 100 million gallons per day deficiency," says Martínez. "It’s affecting the metropolitan areas where we have our largest number of population. So you’re talking about 1.3 million people.”
"El Nino is making the atmosphere push down over the Caribbean, and warm air can't rise as easily or as far to produce rainfall."
Or about 40 percent of the island’s total population. And Puerto Rico is already struggling with perhaps the worst financial crisis in the history of that U.S. commonwealth.
“The agricultural losses, the commercial losses, the economic impact is severe," says Martínez.
Puerto Rico’s neighbors are just as hard hit. Jamaica is also rationing water service. The Dominican Republic has suffered frequent hydro-electricity outages this summer. Last week Cuba put its civil defense system to work trucking water around that parched island.
So what’s causing such an acute and widespread lack of rainfall? Scientists point to the mysterious weather system known as El Niño.
“El Niño is the largest source of year-to-year variability in the global climate system," says Amy Clement, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
And she’s not exaggerating. The current El Niño has left fields and rivers dehydrated from Australia to Brazil.
El Niño is caused by warmer than usual water in the eastern Pacific. Peruvian fishermen nicknamed it El Niño, or The Child, because it often occurs in December when the birth of Jesus is celebrated.
In regions like the Caribbean, El Niño can throw a monkey wrench into normal climate patterns – especially precipitation.
“It’s making the atmosphere basically push down over the Caribbean," says Clement. "When El Niño happens, warm air just can’t rise as easily or as far in order to produce the rainfall.”
Big drought patches that look like burnt toast cover Clement’s computer map of the Caribbean. It’s evidence, she says, that island basins are especially vulnerable climate dysfunction.
“When you live on an island," she says, "your fresh water resources, there’s no getting around it, they’re going to be limited.”
What’s worse: Many scientists believe climate change, especially global warming, is making El Niño occurrences more frequent and prolonged.
That’s a reminder that the Caribbean has begun to feel like a climate-change doormat. Besides drought, the region has ominous sea-level rise to worry about. Not to mention the fact that global warming is believed to make the hurricanes that do hit their islands more intense than usual.
“So we’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at adaptation strategies, building early warning systems,” says David Farrell, director of the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology in Barbados. The institute is part of the Caribbean Community, or Caricom, and it’s urging those nations to invest more seriously in climate change preparedness.
“Building new infrastructure," says Farrell, "whether it is additional dams, whether it is water storage facilities.”
But a big problem is the region’s poverty. The Caribbean is home to seven of the world’s 10 most indebted nations. As a result, says Farrell, “We have been looking at the international community in terms of putting together the financing that is required to implement some of the strategies that will mitigate these challenges that we see developing in the long term.”
In the short term, the remnants Danny should dump enough rain on the Caribbean this week to help improve the drought – as should Tropical Storm Ericka, which is following close behind and could actually become a hurricane over the basin.
Meanwhile, Martínez of the Puerto Rico water authority says this El Niño episode shouldn’t last much longer.
"The forecast is that we're going to experience this drought condition until late October," he says. "And it seems that we're going to be able to get into a normal pattern again sooner than that."
And hope all the while that El Niño doesn't become the new normal.