The drought situation in the Yucatan Peninsula in 2020 is shaping up to be worst in the past 34 years. Three years of below-average rainfall are merging, and groundwater levels are already pummeling to minimum levels, making this year's drought projections similar to major droughts that occurred in 1986 and 1962.
Aside from the devastating consequences of a dry period including extraction of water for agricultural use and human consumption, wildfires are also at high risk, with some of it already started.
February to May is Yucatan's dry season-- the time when farmers traditionally burn and clear fields for crops. However, the situation is also an urban crisis.
"The theory of climate change tells us that extraordinary meteorological events will occur in large urban spots," said meteorologist Juan Vasquez Montalvo from the Autonomous University of Yucatan (UADY) Meteorological Center. "Therefore, Merida will be the city where the hot environment and high temperatures throughout the southeast of Mexico will suffer the most."
"Everything indicates that the 2020 dry season will be the strongest since 1986," Montalvo said, adding that the situation is of utmost significance, considering that this year's dry spell ties in with that of 2019 and a part of 2018 when the rainfall was less than average.
Three years of below-average rainfall are merging, and groundwater levels are already pummeling to minimum levels.
The meteorologist, however, said the cause is still unknown. "What is causing it? We don't know. The explanation may be a cycle that is repeating itself because the atmosphere lives cycles."
"It could be the dry, descending air that is dominating and the high pressures that came this year-long before time, arriving at the end of January, when they normally do so in late March or early April, and these conditions have brought the drought ahead of time," he added.
Montalvo also enumerated signs that the worst of the situation is coming. First, the Maculis trees bloomed in February, instead of in March as what is usual. Also, the Ceiba trees bore fruit prematurely. Moreover, ants have been bringing food to their nests, which is "an omen that a very severe drought is coming, and they are stocking up," he stated.
Montalvo also stressed that the 2020 drought is a major concern to specialists as it is the second year in a row that January to March rainfalls have been below average.
"Last year, there was an atypical drought caused by El Niño event, a dry, descending wind that covered the entire area of the Yucatan Peninsula and part of Central America," said the meteorologist.
"That same air lasted until the summer and prevented cyclones from reaching the area. Hurricanes [have] deviated and that is why Yucatan was saved from the affectation of a tropical cyclone. In fact, not even one came close. There was no warning and not only in the Yucatan Peninsula but also in Central America."
"Although the conditions prevented the arrival of cyclones, it gave way to an atypical drought that was much stronger in Quintana Roo, in the northeast, east and southeast of Yucatan and in the east of Campeche”, Montalvo said.
"The values of the rains were well below the average, even in the rainy season. In Quintana Roo, lagoons were reported to have dried up and water levels dropped. Cozumel, which lives on its own aquifer, had problems with the quality of the water. It began to resent the intrusion of chlorides."
"Difficult conditions prevailed in the rest of the Peninsula, as crops were lost in Yucatan and Campeche and groundwater levels fell considerably."
Montalvo explained that the most significant droughts happened in 1986 and 1962 because rains were practically nonexistent throughout the year, and the total accumulated rain was very low.
Also, winters in Yucatan since 2015 have felt more like summer as hot days dominated over cold ones. The winter situation since then has worsened form 2018 and 2019, with the prevailing wind coming from the southeast instead of the cooler winds from the northeast.
Therefore, this year's dry season characteristics are comparable with that of 1986, when it practically did not rain.
"At that time, the Hydrology coordination of the UADY School of Engineering was carrying out a geohydrological study project for the Mérida I drinking water plant," said Montalvo.
"We detected that the water levels in the water treatment plant had dropped too low and were about to reach the bottom of the suction cone. Fortunately, the latter did not happen."
The team checked the surroundings of the area and discovered that dry water wheels and wells dried up or had low levels of water. In Merida, wells also had a major drop in water levels.
"The one in 1986 was a great drought that had not occurred again," said Montalvo, also noting that in 1962, there was also a rare event of this type. "The drought began to be felt in 1961 and worsened in 1962. The wells began to dry up in Merida and the rest of the State."
In 2015, 2018, and 2019, hot periods lasted very long and temperatures were around 38 to 40 °C (100 to 104 °F). Everything points to the same thing happening this year, from April, if not from the second half of March.
Weather forecast models showed that the temperatures for the rest of March will be above 39 °C (102 °F), therefore, "this drought seems to be one of the strongest in recent years."
"And the worst of the heat is yet to come during the months of April and May, historically the hottest," Montalvo continued. While he stressed that cold fronts have not ended, if they come, they will only cool the temperature but would not bring rain.
Featured image: Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. Credit: storiesbysoumya