Friday, August 01, 2008

Signs of the times

A state of emergency has been declared in 11 of 25 provinces in Peru, affecting over five million people, in response to a severe unseasonable cold spell, known locally as El friaje.

According to a local report, thousands of acres of food crops have been lost. Smallholders in high-altitude areas whose livelihoods depend completely on raising alpacas have found pastures covered in snow which has frozen over, making grazing impossible. Unable to find adequate food, the alpacas have become weak and susceptible to disease,

The cold arrived well ahead of the usual season – in March and April, instead of June and so bad has the situation become that the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation has mounted an urgent relief programme, bringing aid to hard-pressed farmers.

A similar programme is being mounted for some 18,000 alpacas in the country's Pilpichaca en Huanvavelica district (pictured), with the supply of anti-parasitic medicines, antibiotics and vitamins. These are being used to treat animals that have been weakened or fallen ill as a result of the unexpected cold snap.

Nor is this unusually cold weather confined to South America. New Zealand is reporting exceptional snow conditions and, in Australia, the local media is reporting that August is shaping up as a dream peak month for skiers with snow in the NSW Snowy Mountains lying four feet deep. More is expected.

In Melbourne, residents have suffered their coldest July nights since 1998, while Queensland has also experienced unusual snowfall.

This follows recent reports from Anchorage, where the coldest summer ever is expected after recording the fewest days ever in which the temperature managed to reach 65 degrees.

Even sunny Norway is claiming good snow conditions on their high mountains, breaking records for the number of visitors enjoying the skiing. And, further south, the district of Zabljak in Montenegro has experienced lower than normal temperatures, with snow still lying on mountain farms above 4,000 feet.

With the slowdown of the ice melt in the Arctic, record ice levels in the Antarctic, these are yet more possible indictors of a cooling. And, although nothing here can be taken as definitive, the Peru experience suggests that the adverse effects of cooling can be significantly greater than any notional harm from global warming.

Policy-makers would be unwise to ignore these signs – but, of course, they will.