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Extreme weather battered Latin America and Caribbean in 2020

A fire consuming land deforested by cattle farmers near Novo Progresso, in the Northern state of Para in Brazil, 23 August, 2020. The Amazon has lost about 17 per cent of its area, according to environmentalists. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Droughts, fires and hurricanes ravaged the Latin American continent in 2020 as climate change continued to worsen extreme weather events.

Last year was packed with devastating weather extremes for the Latin American and Caribbean regions, according to a report released by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on Tuesday. Intense droughts across the region worsened food insecurity levels, floods and hurricanes destroyed the homes of many, and fires destroyed an important part of nature’s carbon sinks.

The report comes a week after the UN climate panel released a landmark report warning that raising global temperatures would continue to worsen these kinds of disasters without swift actions to bring down greenhouse gas emissions and protect populations from the effects of climate change.

Read also: IPCC: Humans to blame for unprecedented and irreversible changes in climate

The more than 3,000 page assessment of the latest climate science forecasts catastrophic consequences for the Latin American continent in the decades to come, with temperatures expected to climb at a higher rate than the global average.

Rising sea levels will continue to cause coastal flooding in low-lying areas and oceans will continue to acidify, posing a threat to marine life and the livelihood of those who depend on it for food and work. Glaciers in the Chilean and Argentinean Andes will continue to recede, threatening a vital freshwater source for local populations.

Record breaking temperatures. Temperature rise is already palpable in the region. According to the WMO report, for South America, 2020 was its second warmest year on record while it was one of the three hottest years on record for Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean, leading to major heat waves across the region.

Several islands including Aruba and Dominica saw their warmest year on record and mean temperatures in Granada, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and other islands reached record highs.

In Central America, back-to-back hurricanes Eta and Iota wreaked havoc last November leaving millions without a home and in need of help in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala in the midst of an already devastating Covid-19 pandemic.

Read also: ‘We’ve run out of superlatives’: WMO warns on unprecedented hurricane season

The southern Amazon and the Pantanal – the world’s largest tropical wetland area sprawling across Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil – suffered their worst drought season in 50 years. The Pantanal saw its most devastating fire season on record, with 26 per cent of the region being destroyed by the flames. The southern Amazon had around 574,000 fires, toppling 2019’s record number of 509,000 fires.

Both wildlife refuges are vital carbon sinks that help keep global temperatures down by absorbing greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. Over half the world’s remaining primary forests are in Latin America and the Caribbean, storing around 104 gigatons of carbon, according to the report.

A recent study found that the Amazon forest was now emitting more greenhouse gases than it was able to sequester as a result of deforestation and droughts.

“Fires and deforestation are now threatening one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, with far-reaching and long-lasting repercussions,” WMO secretary general Petteri Taalas said in a statement.

People facing food insecurity. The Caribbean region, including Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Northern Colombia, Panama and North Western Venezuela, suffered from severe droughts, threatening crops and food production. The low levels of precipitation are a major worry for the region, where many countries are among the world’s top places under water stress.

This week, Haiti, which has just been hit by a 7.2 earthquake that has killed at least 1,500 and injured thousands more, is bracing for the impact of tropical storm Grace, which could trigger mudslides and floods, complicating efforts to rescue people still trapped under the rubble.

At the same time, countries in the region are underprepared as their early warning systems for hazards are not developed enough, especially in South and Central America, the WMO report warns.

Other natural ecosystems could also serve to reduce the impact of disasters and mitigate climate change, such as mangroves, which can act as natural shields from tides and storms while absorbing carbon emissions. But these coastal ecosystems have declined by 20 per cent in the past two decades, making restoration and conservation essential tools to guard the region from future climate impacts, according to the WMO.