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Climate Change Could Soak Up Brazil's Freshwater Wealth

Marcelo Leite

SÃO PAULO — When it comes to freshwater, Brazil, home to somewhere between 12% and 16% of the world’s total supply, is a very wealthy country.

Inhabitants only use 0.7% of the 43,000 cubic meters of water per year that could, theoretically, be available to each and every one of them. In this regard, Brazil contrasts sharply with places like Algeria and Palestine, which use nearly half of their available resources, or Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have to desalinate seawater to meet their needs.

Brazil’s situation is not, however, quite as enviable as it would seem. The first problem lies in the location of these resources. Water is most abundant in the uninhabited parts of the country and in the most protected forests, particularly in the Amazon, but is in short supply where it is most needed, namely the southeast and northeast regions, home to 70% of the population.

Supply problems have been complicated further still by this year’s drought in São Paulo. Another serious drought — in Brazil’s semi-arid region — occurred between 2012-2013.

Changing weather patterns due to climate change could make matters even worse. Because of increasing emissions of CO2 and other so-called greenhouse gases, the Earth’s atmosphere retains more heat close to its surface, causing the temperatures of higher air masses to increase.

The energy contained in the atmosphere is what fuels the winds and the storms. Climate simulations predict that additional radiation will alter circulation patterns. As a result, some regions could see more frequent and more severe droughts while others will be faced with floods that might also be more intense during abnormal rain episodes.

The Brazilian Panel on Climate Change (PBMC), a committee representing some of the country’s top climatology experts, has come up with its own projections of what the climate could be like in Brazil’s various regions.

The panel predicts that by the end of the century, temperatures in the Amazon could jump 5 to 6 degrees Celsius and that precipitation could decrease by 40% to 45%, with a 10% drop already in the next five years. Temperatures in the northeast region could rise 3.5 to 4.5 degrees, with a 50% drop off in precipitation, and in the south, temperatures could rise 3 degrees with a 35% to 40% increase in rainfall, according to the PBMC.

Researchers cannot say with certainty whether the recent drought episodes in the southeast and northeast regions, or the tragic floods that affected Rondônia state earlier this year, are directly connected to climate change, either globally or locally. But the possibility cannot be ruled out either.

What is certain is that these disasters — and the heavy economic costs they imply — are a good demonstration of what we can expect in the coming decades assuming global warming worsens. They are also a reminder that Brazil, despite its current water wealth, must do more to adapt to the challenges, which will affect one of the most basic human needs: water to drink, to clean and to plant.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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