It’s hard to make too many sweeping statements when you’re talking about a continent as massive as South America, home to the soaring peaks of the Andes, the lush rainforests of the Amazon basin, and the stunning formations of the Atacama Desert. Not to mention a population that reached over 430 million people in 2020, according to the UN.
But here’s one we can safely make: Climate change will transform the continent and life on it for many. From more frequent flooding events to megadroughts and vanishing water supplies, the consequences of rising temperatures could have devastating outcomes for South America – and the people who call the region home.
But the good news is that we have the tools to fight back. Let’s take a look at what South America faces, and how we can all play a role in solving this crisis.
The Amazon is burning
In the summer of 2019, wildfires raged across the Amazon rainforest, capturing international attention and sparking outrage. And while these fires were startling in their scope, research indicates that they may have been just a preview as Amazon wildfires could become more common – and even more devastating. That’s because as the climate becomes hotter and droughts become more frequent and more severe, wildfires are expected to become larger and more damaging as well.
This is especially concerning because Amazon fires not only destroy the rainforest home to Indigenous peoples and countless wildlife and plant species – they actually accelerate climate change. The Amazon is a vital carbon “sink,” meaning that it takes in massive quantities of carbon dioxide and emits relatively little by comparison. Except when it doesn’t.
The result is a one-two punch that both reduces the number of carbon-absorbing trees in the world, and releases the carbon in the trees as they burn. It's one of the reasons that protecting the Amazon from deforestation and fires is so important.
Water is life
There’s another reason that scientists are deeply concerned about what climate change means for South America. Because vital water sources are, well, disappearing.
In 2014, the key water reservoirs for São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil, dipped below 10% thanks in part to drought. Scientists believe that an increased frequency of droughts of a similar magnitude will make this type of crisis more likely, putting the drinking water for millions of people at risk.
And in Bolivia, the country’s second-largest lake has completely disappeared, with the changing climate and too much irrigation as the most likely contributors.
Researchers believe the decade-long drought afflicting parts of South America, including Chile and Western Argentina, is in part the result of rising ocean temperatures driven by climate change.
But while the climate crisis will mean damaging droughts and water crises for some, it may also be driving extreme flooding events for others. As temperatures have risen globally, researchers have found rainfall totals increased in countries including Paraguay, Uruguay, and southeast Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro, climate-fueled floods in 2013 set off landslides through populated areas. And in 2011, Bogota saw three times its typical rainfall, triggering dangerous floods that forced the evacuations of hundreds of buildings.
While any flood can be dangerous, they can be especially dangerous for people living in packed urban centers. Even more so for poorer residents like the 1.5 million living in Rio’s famed densely populated favelas.
Inland from these coastal cities, the glaciers of the Andes mountains are also feeling the impacts of the climate crisis. As temperatures rise, these vital glaciers are rapidly melting, leaving the communities that rely on their runoff for the water they drink — and the water that feeds farms and creates hydroelectric power and more — in a dangerous position.
From 2000 – 2016, the Andes glaciers in Peru shrank by about one-third. And in parts of the Andes, glaciers are losing about three feet of thickness each year.
In total, the Andes have lost more of their glaciers (relative to their size) to the climate crisis than any other mountain range on Earth.
And it’s happening in every part of South America. Patagonia’s glaciers are melting the fastest, and account for about 83% of glacial loss in South America. But even smaller patches in Colombia and Venezuela have seen melt off too.
The impacts of this melting are seen both locally and on a global scale.
Disappearing glaciers puts water supplies for both small towns and major cities in real danger. Experts estimate that 4 million people, including those in large cities like La Paz, are at risk of facing water shortages driven by shrinking glaciers in the future.
And all the water trapped in these melting glaciers has to go somewhere. So where does is it go? Into our rising oceans. Glacial melting is a major source of rising sea levels, meaning that what starts in the Andes won’t stay there. We’ll all feel the impacts of South America’s shrinking glaciers.
Indigenous communities bear the burden
As the Amazon experiences continued deforestation and droughts, the lush areas that have long sustained Indigenous communities could become increasingly dry, presenting a potentially existential threat to the people who have called the region home for centuries or more. In Guyana, some Indigenous communities have already begun to abandon their savannah homes as drought strikes.
There’s a particular cruelty to this, as the millions of Indigenous people living in South America did next to nothing to cause the climate crisis. In fact, the knowledge and expertise found within these communities offers crucial opportunities to combat this emergency. But if bold action isn’t taken, their way of life may forever be altered.
Rewriting the books on tropical cyclones
For hundreds of years, hurricanes were known to have seven primary basins, where residents became used to dealing with tropical cyclones and buildings are often built with these storms in mind. And as our climate changes due to fossil fuel pollution, stronger and more severe storms are becoming more common in those basins. But something else has happened too: the South Atlantic has begun to witness occasional hurricane-force storms for the first time.
In 2004, for the first time on record, a hurricane-force storm came ashore in Brazil. Driven in part by high water temperatures, Hurricane Catarina came as a shock to the world. But the storm would not be the last to hit the South Atlantic basin.
In the years that followed Catarina, several other powerful cyclones have formed in the south Atlantic. While most of these systems thankfully remained below hurricane strength and avoided land, they serve as a powerful reminder about the dangers of warming ocean waters.
More volatility means more migration
These changes aren’t just about natural systems: millions of people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake. And experts predict that the devastating effects of the climate crisis will drive many in South America to leave their homes in search of safer conditions.
A main contributing factor is the continued development of massive metropolitan areas known as megacities. An estimated 86% of South Americans live in urban areas, meaning that resources are needed in high quantities in hyperlocal areas. As climate-fueled droughts threaten farms and water supplies dry up, urban areas could start facing issues of real food and water scarcity.
Naturally, when these threats arise, people living in urban centers may decide to do what anyone would: look for a more secure life somewhere else.
As the World Meteorological Organization puts it: “The increase and intensity of sudden onset natural hazards such as droughts, extreme temperatures and heavy rains are likely to be the most immediate impacts of climate change on cities, linked with mobility. The urban population in South America is concentrated in areas of high vulnerability to environmental and climate hazards.”
But as with most aspects of the climate crisis, the need to migrate will not be felt equally. Poorer communities are expected to be hit hardest. They’re less likely to live in homes able to weather extreme storms and floods, less likely to be able to have the resources to deal with more frequent disasters, and more likely to face instability during instances of scarcity.
Ultimately, the urban poor of South America may be most at risk for the worst impacts of the climate crisis. And they may face the hardest choices about migrating.
We can still change course
When we talk about the climate crisis, we’re not talking about the future. As the spike in extreme weather and climate events show, the crisis is here.
The question is whether we do everything we can to turn the tide and prevent the worst effects of this crisis, or whether we stand by and let it happen.
We know where we stand. And we hope you’ll stand with us.
That means getting involved and taking action – and we’re here to help.
This July, Climate Reality is offering our first-ever online climate advocacy training for Latin America. Presented in Spanish and English, this free training is your opportunity to join the Climate Reality Leadership Corps to make a difference in your community.
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