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Experts raise concerns after extreme weather kills hundreds, wreaks havoc on local economies: 'We didn't expect this'

The weather extremes have taken a tremendous toll.

The weather extremes have taken a tremendous toll.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Latin America was hit hard in 2023 by the effects of a strong El Niño and an overheating world. The combination proved to be deadly. 

What's happening?

A recent report from the World Meteorological Organization details the impacts on Latin America of unusual warming in the eastern Pacific Ocean and our world's hotter atmosphere. This region generally has limited weather and climate services. 

The report notes that the climate extremes experienced there, like drought, heatwaves, and flooding, impaired economic development and killed hundreds of people. Hurricane Otis caused catastrophic damage when it made landfall on October 25 near Acapulco, Mexico. 

It was a Category 5 hurricane with sustained winds of 165 mph, reported the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It was the costliest hurricane to ever hit Mexico, noted the agency. The damage estimates were between $12-16 billion. 

The heat in 2023 also caused unprecedented coral bleaching, and large numbers of coral were unable to survive. 

"So we didn't expect this," coral researcher Lorenzo Alvarez-Filip told Inside Climate News. "We didn't know how a reef affected by such a heatwave would look, even though we've seen the news, the papers, all the scientific knowledge from Australia and other places. But here, we didn't know.  We haven't inspected that, and it was something new."

Why is what happened in Latin America last year important?

While El Niño is a natural weather phenomenon, rising global temperatures may have led to an increase in these extreme weather events, which have become more severe. That's true even for years when El Niño isn't active.  

The weather extremes have taken a tremendous toll on Latin America's economy. The Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters' Emergency Events Database tracked 67 meteorological, hydrological, and climate-related hazards that impacted the region in 2023, as the WMO report stated. There was an estimated $21 billion of economic damage, mainly because of storms.

Food insecurity rose, too. Last year, nearly 14 million people suffered acute food crisis Phase 3 or above, meaning assistance is urgently required, according to the WMO report. 

Other dangerous impacts mentioned in the report include more exposure to deadly heatwaves, worsening air pollution, and "expanding the geographic distribution of diseases such as malaria."

What's being done about the situation in Latin America?

The report lists multiple strategies Latin America has been using to cope with the effects of a warming world, including strides in the health sector to increase climate resilience. The WMO notes that 12 of the Americas' 35 nations are creating Health National Adaptation Plans. 

The report also notes that more countries "are integrating meteorological data into health surveillance, focusing on diseases and extreme weather impacts." This should help the health sector with its strategic decision-making, resulting in the protection of human life.  

As individuals, we can also do our part to reduce planet-warming pollution that is contributing to extreme weather. Dirty fuels are the main reason why our planet is overheating. Switching to LED lightbulbs and taking less polluting forms of transportation when possible — like trains or e-bikes — are some ways to help make a difference.

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