Unlike India facing intense heatwaves or France battling drought, Brazil this week has witnessed some of the most chilling temperatures ever seen in its southern states. Experts are not ruling out climate change and say that the extraordinary weather conditions are catalysed by the subtropical storm Yakecan.
In his 2009 mockumentary “Cold Tropics”, Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho portrayed the unimaginable. Recife, a tropical city in the northeast of Brazil, is suddenly hit by a cold wave that pushes temperatures to impossible lows. Inhabitants are forced to adapt, penguins make an unlikely appearance and the global scientific community is left aghast.
This week, Mendonça’s fictional world became a reality in southern Brazil.
While Recife and other parts of the northeast continue to enjoy temperatures of around 28 degrees Celsius, thermometers in southern states have reached unprecedented lows.
The Federal District, just south of Brasilia, recorded its coldest temperature in history at 1.4 degrees Celsius on Thursday and Sao Paulo broke a new record with 6.6 degrees on Wednesday morning, temperatures unheard of since 1990 in Latin America’s largest city.
Belo Horizonte, the capital city of Minas Gerais, recorded its lowest temperature in 43 years at 4.4 degrees. And further south in Santa Catarina, tourists and locals flocked outside to see rare snowfall first-hand after the state recorded temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius for several days. Snow hasn’t hit Santa Catarina in 15 years.
Several cities in Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, Porto Alegre, and Sao Jose dos Ausentes states received snowfall, caused by subtropical storm Yakecan, prompting people to gather on streets to enjoy the rare phenomenon pic.twitter.com/1ky5QkDxEA
— Reuters (@Reuters) May 19, 2022
The arrival of cold fronts in the south is quite common this time of year, but it is rare for these temperature drops to arrive with such fervour and to reach as far north as they have now.
Meteorologists are saying the cold wave is a result of the Yakecan subtropical storm, initially called a cyclone, hitting southern Brazil and Uruguay.
“In autumn, it’s natural for polar air masses from the Antarctic region to travel closer to the equator, bringing down temperatures,” Brazilian meteorologist Josélia Pegorim told FRANCE 24. “But in combination with the Yakecan storm, which is relatively stuck in place due to its unusual atmospheric configuration, a kind of barrier has been created leaving the masses of cold air somewhat trapped inside the country.”
Climate change and global warming play a role in this unique phenomenon, too. Just as polar air masses travel south towards the equator, warm winds move towards the poles. But with global temperatures rising, these movements are no longer balanced.
“What allows the air masses to move is the temperature difference between the tropics and the poles,” meteorologist Giovanni Dolif told Brazilian TV channel Globo. “But temperatures in Antarctica are not rising as much as on the tropical belt, like in Brazil. So the movement of these masses intensifies to try and compensate for the imbalance, resulting in stronger winds, storms and cold waves in places where they didn’t previously exist.”
There is still one month to go until winter officially begins in the tropical country. But for now, the National Institute of Meteorology (INMET) has issued a cold wave alert blanketing the entire southern half of Brazil, warning people of potential health risks the temperature drop can cause.
And the INMET’s warning signs are not baseless. On Wednesday, a 66-year-old homeless man died in Sao Paolo after falling ill in a food distribution queue. According to local media, he had spent the night in the street.
To try and curb further tragedies, Sao Paolo’s City Hall has announced it will provide 2,000 additional shelter beds to increase its total capacity to 17,000. But the streets of this megacity are home to about 32,000 people without shelter, a number that has risen by a third since before the Covid-19 pandemic.
The INMET has also warned of “possible consequences” the cold wave could have on agriculture in one of the world’s biggest food producers. Arabica coffee prices soared last June, for example, when the country faced similar cold spells that destroyed crops. Brazil is the largest producer of coffee in the world.
Since 2011, there have been 15 subtropical storms like Yakecan in Brazil. According to the National Centre for Natural Disaster Monitoring and Alerts (CEMADEN), seven of them took place between 2020 and 2022.
Meanwhile, extreme weather and climate events around the world have become five times more frequent over the last 50 years.