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Decade-long drought turns Chilean lake to desert as global warming changes weather patterns – ABC News

Once the main water source for the city of Valparaiso, the Peñuelas reservoir in central Chile has now all but disappeared.

The reservoir once held enough water for 38,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Now, water for only two pools remains.

Amid a historic 13-year drought, rainfall levels have slumped in this South American nation that hugs the continent’s Pacific coast.

Higher air temperatures have meant snow in the Andes, once a key store of meltwater for spring and summer, is not compacting, melts faster, or turns straight to vapour.

The drought has affected the output of the world’s largest copper producer, stoked tensions over water use for lithium and farming, and led the capital Santiago to make unprecedented plans for potential water rationing.

Goat skull in lake bed
This goat was one of the drought’s many casualties.(Reuters: Ivan Alvarado )

“We have to beg God to send us water,” said Amanda Carrasco, a 54-year-old living near the Peñuelas reservoir who recalled fishing for local pejerrey fish.

“I’ve never seen it like this.

What was once the lake bed is now a huge expanse of dried and cracked earth, littered with fish skeletons and animals desperately searching for water.

The Andes covered in snow in 2014
The Andes, dubbed Chile’s “water towers”, during spring in 2014. (Reuters: Ivan Alvarado)

The reservoir needs rainfall — once reliable in winter but now at historic lows — said Jose Luis Murillo, general manager of ESVAL, the company that supplies Valparaiso with water.

“Basically, what we have is just a puddle,” he said, adding that the city now relied on rivers.

“This is especially significant if you think that several decades ago, the Peñuelas reservoir was the only source of water for all greater Valparaiso.”

Dead fish on the ground of former lake
An array of the dead fish that lay on the ground of the former Peñuelas Lake.(Reuters: Ivan Alvarado )

Climate patterns to be blamed, academics say 

Behind the issue, academic studies have found, is a global shift in climate patterns sharpening natural weather cycles.

Normally, low-pressure storms from the Pacific unload precipitation over Chile in winter, recharging aquifers and packing the Andes mountains with snow.

The remains of the Peñuelas Lake
What remains of the Peñuelas Lake.(Reuters: Ivan Alvarado)

But naturally occurring warming of the sea off Chile’s coast, which blocks storms from arriving, has been intensified by rising global sea temperatures, according to a global study.

Ozone depletion and greenhouse gasses in the Antarctic, meanwhile, exacerbate weather patterns that draw storms away from Chile, according to a study on variables affecting Antarctic weather.

The Andes are Chile’s ‘water towers’ 

Snow on the Andes
Snow on the nearby Andes mountain range has been a key factor in keeping lakes and reservoirs full in the past. (Reuters: Ivan Alvarado )

Analysis of tree rings going back 400 years shows the rarity of the current drought, said Duncan Christie, a researcher at the Centre for Climate and Resilience in Chile.

It is totally unrivalled for duration or intensity.

He said that meant the Andes — which he called the country’s “water towers” — were not getting a chance to replenish, which in turn meant that as the snow melted in spring, there was far less water to fill rivers, reservoirs and aquifers.

Three cowboys ride horses up a mountain range
Cattle ranchers ride horses at Farellones, close to the Andes mountain range.  (Reuters: Ivan Alvarado )

Miguel Lagos, a civil engineer and water specialist, travelled to measure snow cover near the Laguna Negra station in central Chile some 50 kilometres east of Santiago — part of a process to estimate summer water supply.

“There was just nothing,” he said. 

“There were so few precipitation events and such warm conditions that the snow melted that same winter.”

As snow compacts, it creates new layers which help to keep it colder for longer. 

Horses at the former Aculeo lagoon
A horse lays down at the former Aculeo lagoon in Chile, desperate for water.(Reuters: Ivan Alvarado )

But with warmer weather and less snowfall, top layers of snow were melting faster or turning straight to vapour, Mr Lagos explained. 

A 2019 study in the International Journal of Climatology that analysed Chile’s drought from 2010 to 2018 said shifting weather events could ease the drought in future, but much would depend on the trajectory of human emissions impacting climate.

A rancher stands next to a water container used for his animals.
Rancher Segundo Aballay said his animals would not survive another year in the drought.(Reuters: Ivan Alvarado)

Segundo Aballay, an animal breeder in the Chilean village of Montenegro, is praying change comes soon.

“If it doesn’t rain this year, we will be left with nothing to do,” he said.

Unfortunately for agriculture workers like Mr Aballay, researchers at the University of Chile predict the country will have 30 per cent less water over the next 30 years, based on mathematical models and historic data.

bones of dead fish and horses lay in dried up lake
Horse and cow bones lie on the ground in Montenegro. (Reuters: Ivan Alvarado )

“What we call a drought today will become normal,” said Mr Lagos. 

In the Laguna de Aculeo, another dried-up lake south of Santiago, local campsite manager Francisco Martinez recalled hundreds of people coming to the area to take out kayaks or swim in the waters.

Now rusting piers and old boats sit in the barren landscape.

A boat sits on the dry earth in this aerial image.
Francisco Martinez recalls hundreds of people coming to the Aculeo lagoon to take out kayaks or swim.(Reuters: Ivan Alvarado )

An eerie island in the middle of what was once a lake rises above the dust.

“Now there is no water; it is a desert here,” Mr Martinez told Reuters.

“The animals are dying and there is nothing to do here in the lagoon anymore.”

Reuters

Posted , updated 

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