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Climate Change Hits the Yucatan, Hard

New America Media, News Analysis, Louis E.V. Nevaer Posted: Apr 22, 2008

Editors Note: The most obvious effects of global warming are the melting polar ice caps, but locust invasions and forest fires in the Yucatan also trace back to climate change issues, writes Louis E.V. Nevaer for New America Media.

MERIDA, Mexico With temperatures already soaring past 100 degrees Fahrenheit this spring, the climate change in Mexicos Yucatan peninsula is another example of how global weather patterns are disrupting life around the world. The changes in the Yucatan mirror those felt in the Northern Hemisphere so that the peninsula is now facing similar environmental problems to those after a major hurricane.

In January 2007, a drier and warmer winter created conditions that resulted in a locust invasion, with dark clouds of insects descending upon the Northwestern area of the peninsula in a sight of Biblical proportions. At that time, Maya farmers in rural villages confronted devastation from a severe drought and ravenous insects.

Were talking about 700 square kilometers (270 square miles) affected by the plague in the municipalities of Tizimipan and Telchac, among others, said Mario Poot, a Maya spokesman for the Campaign Against Locusts in Yucatan. They are now over 50 to 60 hectares that are affected by these swarms of locusts.
LocustsSwarms of locusts could be seen in downtown Merida, January 2007
Photo by Ellen Fields

In a months time, the locusts were gone but fires raged for weeks as bone-dry forests exploded in flames, with plumes of smoke visible on satellite images used by officials working to extinguish the fires. It was not until the middle of May that rains extinguished the last of the fires.

These seasonal summer rains were followed by an extraordinary hurricane season with storm after storm making landfall on the vast rainforests and tropical jungles that cover most of the peninsula, which extends south into Belize and Guatemala.

Nevertheless, last years hurricane season in the Yucatan was severe precisely because it was the mirror opposite of the relentless drought that affected the American South. As we learn in physics, for every action there is an equal an opposite reaction: The high pressure system that kept away the tropical storms that fill up the reservoirs in Americas southeast, steered them far South. While lakes dried up throughout Georgia and the temperate forests in the United States grew parched, in the Yucatan, record storms punished the tropical and rain forests.

A subtropical high pressure system has been responsible for blocking rainfall across much of the Southeast, the U.S. National Climatic Data Center reported in October 2007, to explain the drought that affected Georgia and other Southern states. Last years Southern drought reached record severity in a short time compared to previous severe droughts.

Hurricane Dean swept across the peninsula in August 2007, a powerful Category Five storm that wrecked havoc on the peninsulas habitats. Because the storm steered clear of the resorts of Cancun, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen or Merida, a metropolitan city of one million people the media didnt pay it much attention. But just because Hurricane Deans path included areas of low population densities, and almost no tourist infrastructure, does not mean that it did not inflict significant damage to the peninsulas habitats.

If a tree is felled by a hurricane and no one hears it, its not breaking news on any network. But the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of felled trees created large amounts of dead and dry biomass. The forests have now begun to burn. This springs warmer temperatures are drying out the broken branches in the forests that cover almost four million square miles throughout the peninsula.

It is shaping up to be a long, hot and fiery summer in the Yucatan. Plumes of smoke in the distance are already visible to visitors from the top of the pyramids at Maya cities of Chichen Itza and Uxmal.
OverviewHigh-pressure systems responsible for drought in the Southern United States
pushed hurricanes south to the Yucatan. Photo courtesy of the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2006

The last time the Yucatan faced a similar situation that precipitated an environmental crisis was in 1989, nine months after Hurricane Gilbert the strongest hurricane ever recorded crashed into Cancun. At that time, the tropical forests burned so intensely that ash fell on the beaches of Cancun and Cozumel, Cancuns international airport was forced to close from the smoke, and jaguars, the most endangered of the New World cats, were driven from the safety of their jungles into urban centers.

Now, ranchers are already reporting that jaguars, fleeing the hotter climates and forest fires are encroaching on feeding on cattle. In some extraordinary cases, officials are permitting the shooting of jaguars.

Warmer temperatures and stronger hurricanes are creating stresses on the Yucatans habitats. In 1988, Hurricane Gilberts strength physically altered the coastline on the western and northern areas of the peninsula, disrupting the breeding grounds of the hundreds of thousands of flamingos who nest there.

Seven years after Hurricane Gilbert the disturbances [were] still evident, Roger Steeb, a researcher at the University of New Mexico, reported. Similar disruptions are being reported by other researchers: the nesting grounds of endangered sea turtles are being physically transformed by hurricanes, rain forests are retrenching as the climate warms, the biological cycles of flora are under stress as the drier winters are followed by wetter summers.

Unlike other hurricane prone areas, the Yucatan peninsula is a large, flat limestone land mass, and all of its rivers run underground. So, as the hurricanes crash ashore, and the temperature warms, its water supply remains stable and its aquifers replenished and secured. This ready water supply may be the regions saving grace as fires continue to burn in the many acres of forest.

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