Decade-long drought turns Chile’s lake into desert as global warming alters weather patterns

Once the main source of water 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 swimming pools.

Now there is only water left for two pools.

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

Higher air temperatures have meant that snow in the Andes, once a key reservoir of spring and summer meltwater, is not compacting, melting faster or turning straight to steam.

The drought has affected production at the world’s largest copper producer, stoked tensions over water use for lithium and agriculture, and led the capital Santiago to make unprecedented plans for a possible water rationing.

This goat was one of the many victims of the drought.(Reuters: Ivan Alvarado )

“We have to beg God to send us water,” said Amanda Carrasco, a 54-year-old woman living near the Peñuelas Reservoir who remembers catching the local pejerrey fish.

“I’ve never seen him like this.

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

The Andes covered in snow in 2014
The Andes, nicknamed the “water towers” of Chile, in spring 2014. (Reuters: Ivan Alvarado)

The reservoir needs rainfall – once reliable in winter but now at historically low levels – 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 depends on rivers.

“This is especially important considering that decades ago the Peñuelas Reservoir was the only source of water for all of greater Valparaiso.”

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

Climate patterns to blame, say academics

Behind the problem, according to academic studies, is a global shift in climate patterns that accentuates natural weather cycles.

Normally, low-pressure storms from the Pacific dump precipitation on Chile in winter, recharging aquifers and filling the Andes mountains with snow.

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

But the natural warming of the sea off the coast of Chile, which prevents storms from arriving, has been intensified by rising global sea temperatures, according to a global study.

Ozone depletion and greenhouse gases in Antarctica, meanwhile, are exacerbating weather patterns that keep storms away from Chile, a study of variables affecting Antarctic weather finds. .

The Andes are the “water towers” of Chile

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 dating back 400 years shows how rare the current drought is, said Duncan Christie, a researcher at the Center for Climate and Resilience in Chile.

It is totally unmatched in duration or intensity.

He said that meant the Andes – which he called the country’s “water towers” – didn’t have a chance to recover, which meant that as the snow melted in the spring, there had much less water to fill rivers, reservoirs and aquifers.

Three cowboys ride horses on a mountain range
Cattle herders ride horses in Farellones, near the Andes mountain range. (Reuters: Ivan Alvarado )

Civil engineer and water specialist Miguel Lagos traveled to measure snow cover near the Laguna Negra resort in central Chile, about 50 kilometers east of Santiago – as part of a a process for estimating summer water supply.

“There was just nothing,” he said.

“There was so little rainfall and such warm conditions that the snow melted that same winter.”

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

Horses at the ancient lagoon of Aculeo
A horse lays down in Chile’s ancient Aculeo Lagoon, desperate for water.(Reuters: Ivan Alvarado )

But with warmer weather and less snowfall, the top layers of snow were either melting faster or turning straight to steam, Lagos said.

A 2019 study in the International Journal of Climatology that analyzed drought in Chile from 2010 to 2018 said changing weather events could mitigate drought in the future, but much would depend on the trajectory of human emissions having a impact on the climate.

A rancher stands next to a water tank used for his animals.
Farmer Segundo Aballay said his animals would not survive another year of drought.(Reuters: Ivan Alvarado)

Segundo Aballay, an animal herder from the Chilean village in Montenegro, prays for change to come soon.

“If it doesn’t rain this year, we won’t have anything to do,” he said.

Unfortunately for agricultural workers like Mr. Aballay, researchers at the University of Chile predict that the country will have 30% less water in the next 30 years, based on mathematical models and historical data.

dead fish and horse bones lay in a dry lake
Horse and cow bones lie on the ground in Montenegro. (Reuters: Ivan Alvarado )

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

In Laguna de Aculeo, another dry lake south of Santiago, local campground manager Francisco Martinez called back hundreds of people who had come to the area to get out of kayaks or swim in the waters.

Now rusting docks and old boats stand in the barren landscape.

A boat sits on dry land in this aerial image.
Francisco Martinez remembers hundreds of people coming to Aculeo Lagoon to get out of kayaks or swim.(Reuters: Ivan Alvarado )

A strange island in the middle of what was once a lake rises above the dust.

“Now there’s no water, it’s a desert here,” Martinez told Reuters.

“Animals are dying and there is nothing more to do here in the lagoon.”

Reuters

Job , updated

Teresa H. Sadler