SANTIAGO – While in the southern and central regions of Chile temperatures rise to 40°C, the northern, usually drier regions are suffering from torrential rains. More than 1,000 people have been evacuated, deaths have been reported and infrastructure is heavily damaged. How is it possible that, whilst the rainy south experiences a heat wave, the north suffers from rainfall?
Where Chileans in the south are going out to beaches, riverbanks and swimming pools to escape the summer heat, Chileans in northern regions such as Arica, Tarapacá, Antofagasta and Atacama are praying for the rain to stop.
People referring to the north often explain it as “one of the driest places on Earth”, causing some to believe a little rain will do no harm. But as the past days have shown, the amount of water that has fallen in the north has caused rivers to break their banks, roads to overflow and dams to break, resulting in mud slides, damaging houses and infrastructure.
A large majority of citizens of the city of Calama has no electricity, and other cities have no potable water. For today, the National Emergency Office (Onemi) predicts up to 25 mm of rain in the three northernmost regions. On the slopes of the Andes, thunderstorms are expected and in various regions a Code Red Alert has been issued, as authorities warn of floods, rock- and mudslides and heavy winds.
Invierno Altiplánico or Infierno Altiplánico?
All together: for the last few days, Chileans and tourists in the north are finding themselves in unusual weather conditions. The extreme weather conditions can be explained in one word: the Altiplanic Winter, or the Invierno Altiplánico. Tourist sites downplay the phenomenon by mentioning this Andean Winter brings occasional rain, and the level of rain Chile is experiencing this year is extreme, but all together it is nothing new to the northern regions. So, what is the Altiplanic Winter?
The Altiplanic Winter takes place on what we call the Altipláno: a mountain plateau connecting Peru and Bolivia in the north with Chile and Argentina in the south. Although the mountain range, apart from snow fall at the highest peaks, is considered to be dry, every first months of the year rainfall ensues.
Hot air, generated in the first months of summer, forms rain clouds that drift from Bolivia toward the northern regions of Chile and Argentina. These clouds often bring heavy rainfall with them, thunderstorms and lightning, making up for spectacular photos above the desolate steeps of the Andes. But for hundreds of tourists stuck in the north, and even more Chileans who are without electricity, water and food, it is waiting until this extreme Altiplanic Winter comes to an end.
Editor-In-Chief Boris van der Spek is the founder of Chile Today. He worked in Colombia, Surinam and the Netherlands as reporter and works with international media during major events, like the social crisis, the elections and the Pope’s visit.