The Ecuadorians have a saying ‘Abril, aguas mil.’ (And lodo=mud.) The direct translation is roughly: April – a thousand waters (and I added the part about the mud). You get the idea – it’s basically the same sentiment as ‘April showers bring May flowers.’ True to form, the atmosphere has delivered us aguas mil this month. For that matter, March was also a month of aguas mil. I have become accustomed to donning rain gear, boots, and marching out of the house with my giant umbrella (mi sombrillo gigante!) that I purchased on a street corner in a moment of soggy desperation sometime back in March. Everyday I wish we could send some of this deluge off to California, where people actually need the water.
Last week on Tuesday, there was a flood on the Rio Yanuncay. It wasn’t even raining in Cuenca. But there was enough rain further up in the mountains to soften a wall of mud holding a pond full of water. On Wednesday morning, I went for a run along the Yanuncay to find parts of the trail loaded with soft mud and woody debris left behind from subsiding waters. The water rose 3-4 feet in places – topping it’s banks to flood parts of the trail.
People who saw the flood say it happened in a matter of minutes. The water was clear one minute, and in the next came a wall of mud and debris. On Saturday, Charito, Robin and I drove out into the countryside to have lunch at our favorite restaurant with comida tipica – Mama Michi’s. Mama Michi’s is the open air restaurant alongside the Yanuncay just outside of town that serves the guinea pigs and chickens roasting on the bar-b-que spit. The waitress there told us about the flood. Fortunately, Mama Michi’s patio was far enough above the flood level, but our waitress told us that the river turned to mud, and whole trees came barreling past. The mud choked the trout, and the river was full of belly-up fish.
It’s not uncommon for these floods to carry off people’s farm animals – cows, chickens, and cuyes (guinea pigs). The flood on Tuesday, sadly, also carried off an 80-year-old lady who was washing her clothes in the river and couldn’t get away in time. They still haven’t found her. That’s the second fatality attributed to raging rivers in the past few weeks. For many people, even in central Cuenca, the river is still a big part of their lives, and it’s not uncommon to see people fishing and washing their clothes in the river. Landslides are also an issue, and one took the lives of 6 people up in the mountains over the weekend.
I spend a lot of time here talking with people about the weather, obviously. But not just at work. Everyone is eager to share their impressions of weather and the changing climate. Most non-academic Ecuadorians I’ve talked with seem to have the idea that the climate has undergone a big change just in the past 3-4 years. I’m told that it used to be easy to predict the weather here in the mountains. Rain in March through May, then cool winds in June, July and August. Rains beginning again in earnest in October, and so on. But now people feel that the weather is unpredictable. That the seasons change in a matter of minutes. And when it rains, it all comes at once, causing lots of problems.
Everyone feels that they are personally witnessing unequivocal evidence of climate change – happening right before their eyes. (Unlike in the US, where whether or not you ‘believe’ in climate change seems to depend on your political affiliation or religious beliefs. Here, the topic of climate change transcends all those things. People of all faiths, political affiliations, and educational levels understand that it is happening and is impacting their lives.)
But it’s hard to verify the precise nature of the changes these people are experiencing without observational data. What they say about the ‘normal’ annual cycle of weather and climate agrees with what we know about the movement of the atmosphere in this region. We are at the mercy of what’s known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). You can think of this as a band of rainfall that roughly encircles the Earth along the Equator, and moves north and south depending on the season. In the Southern Hemisphere summer months (December, January, February), this band of rainfall moves south, following the warmer temperatures that provide energy for these storms.
Winds blow from east to west across northern Brazil in the region of the ITCZ, carrying moisture up the east slope of the Andes and into Ecuador. In June, July and August, the ITCZ moves north, where it sits over the northern coast of South America. The Amazon dries out a bit, winds change direction, and here in the Andes of Ecuador, it tends to be windy, cool, and dry.
But, apparently, this pattern is no longer consistent. This February, for example, my first month in Ecuador, was warm and dry. People were surprised by the lack of rain. March, on the other hand, was wetter than anyone could remember. Was it the wettest March ever? It’s hard to say when you don’t have consistent observations going back more than 2 or 3 years. The records that do exist, all show a warming trend – same as you find in most places in the world. But precipitation is much more difficult to record and predict. The upshot of all this is that there is a lot of work to be done!
In the meantime, to celebrate my halfway-point in Ecuador (3 months), and take advantage of another holiday weekend (yes, I know, there was one two weeks ago, and now we have Labor Day this Friday) I’m headed off for a couple of days to a place with slightly warmer temperatures (above 63F please), a hammock, and hopefully a little less rain. I’m ready to dry out and warm up!
Incidentally, we woke up to a little earthquake this morning. Charito tells me that according to local lore, this is the herald of a changing season and that we can expect sunshine and dry days starting later this week….After all, May is right around the corner – and no one ever says ‘Mayo, aguas mil‘.