Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – There is more to water than meets the eye, especially with the apparent abundance of water in some areas and the lack of it in others. Sometimes we just have to know where to look for, not necessarily with divining rods, but rather with good inquiry and sound science.

Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.
Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.

In 2011, a subterranean river running between two to four kilometer deep was discovered underneath the Amazon River, shadowing almost its entire length. The underground river, named Hamza after the scientist from the Brazilian National Observatory who announced its discovery, sprouts water in an almost perfect horizontal fashion from two kilometer deep, finally discharging its content in the mouth of the Amazon.

Hamza accounts for three percent of the total water flux of the river, and it is now considered one of three types of river systems in the Amazon Basin. The Amazon River not only has a shadow but also a reflection on the atmosphere called an aerial river, making the Amazon a one hundred percent integral hydric river sandwich.

Large-scale moisture transports over South America have been coined with the name aerial rivers and aerial lakes, gaining water through evaporation and losing water through precipitation. The Amazon aerial rivers are pushed to northern and southern latitudes, accounting for the rain in different regions of the Americas.

In the Northern Hemisphere aerial rivers are known as atmospheric rivers, which are narrow conveyor belts of rainstorms that stream in from the Pacific to west coasts of various countries. They can flow approximately two kilometers above the ocean and can extend for thousands of kilometers.

These atmospheric phenomena are directly related to events like the mega-drought in the Amazon in 2005, when the evaporated water was transported to other latitudes. Approximately seventy million hectares of general forest canopy were permanently changed by forest dieback.

Atmospheric rivers are also synonymous for mega-floods. The last known one took place in California in 1861, when it poured for about 43 days creating an inland sea in the Central Valley, destroying the economy and subsequently bankrupting the state. Such floods have been occurring every couple hundred years for the past two thousand years, according to sediment sample studies.

Atmospheric rivers are typically not incorporated in weather and climate models, according to Scientific American, and they emerge as atmospheric ephemeral occurrences in the global atmospheric water cycles. Scientist and researchers are still trying to figure out the patterns of aerial rivers that can practically cripple a city or provide constant fresh water to its people and ecosystems for long periods of time.

The United States is investing heavily in hundreds of meteorological stations to better understand the nature of atmospheric rivers that could be a blessing or a catastrophe in disguise.

Aerial lakes that sit on Rio’s coastline are frequently hit by “frentes frias” or cold fronts, making the vertically integrated tropical moisture discharge relentlessly on land and causing floods and landslides that kill scores of people during the rainy season. While it has been raining a lot in Rio this past month, hydroelectric energy in Brazil has been suffering from the lack of rain, and the future is not certain for some of the hundreds of dams across the country.

The Northeast region of Brazil and those families that need water for subsistence agriculture have also been struck by drought. The agriculture juggernaut in Brazil is responsible for sucking up 92 percent of the country’s water usage and forcing regions in the Northeast to ration water.

The São Francisco River, the fourth longest in South American, is presently being diverted to bring more water to this bone-dry area. While we can manipulate the terrestrial rivers, such as the São Francisco, can we manipulate the very real aerial rivers and lakes?

Will this land diversion create a change in the aerial system that affects other parts of the country or even the Globe? Where is the water in Brazil coming from and going to?

2013 is the mandated UN International Year of Water Cooperation. Brazil, including the private sector, needs to invest more in atmospheric research, technology and environmental monitoring in order to provide early warning systems for flooding and droughts. This knowledge is critical to ensure the future of industries and communities, and Brazil needs to invest heavily on researching these recently discovered atmospheric phenomena.


Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and a BA from Hampshire College. Alfonso lives in Rio de Janeiro, and he can be reached at: Ecobrasilis@gmail.com.


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