September 3, 2010 / 10:52 PM / 7 years ago

Amazon may be headed for another bad drought

LIMA, Sept 3 (Reuters) - Drought has cut Peru's Amazon River to its lowest level in 40 years and it is already below the minimum set in 2005, when a devastating dry spell damaged vast swaths of South American rainforest in the worst drought in decades.

Scientists in Peru and Brazil say the lack of rainfall, which is typical for this time of year, should continue for a few more weeks until the start of the rainy season.

But there is some concern that the dryness could persist as what is shaping up to be an intense hurricane season in the Atlantic sucks humidity away from the Amazon.

"The formation of hurricanes is very much related, more hurricanes means less rain for us," said Marco Paredes, head of Peru's meteorological service in Iquitos, some 500 miles (800 km) from the capital of Lima. "It's an inverse relationship."

The headwaters of the river start in Peru and its meteorological service said on Friday the height of the river in the Amazon city of Iquitos has fallen to 347 feet above sea level (105.97 meters), 19.6 inches (50 cm) less than where it was in the previous severe drought.

Officials worry the intensity and frequency of droughts could become more severe.

"This situation is critical," Robert Falcon of Peru's civil defense agency said of expected food shortages and outbreaks of illness. "The scientists are already saying that because of climate change these events will become more frequent."

Falcon is bracing for a drought like the one that hit five years ago, when sinking water levels severed connections in the lattice of creeks, lakes and rivers that make up the Amazon's motorboat transportation network.

Thousands of people, fish and boats were stranded as rivers ran dry to expose cracked dirt on their banks.

At the time of 2005 drought, scientists said it stemmed in part from a hurricane season that broke numerous records and caused the catastrophic Katrina storm that devastated New Orleans.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has forecast 14 to 23 named storms this year, with 8 to 14 developing into hurricanes, nearly matching 2005's record of 15. It expects the lack of rainfall to persist.

"Forecasts are indicating that this situation (of little rainfall) will continue for the next two or three weeks, so that the level of water will drop by about 20 to 30 centimeters (8-12 inches) from where it is now," Paredes said. (Reporting by Patricia Velez and Alfredo Loayza; Editing by Terry Wade and Sandra Maler)

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