By Steff Gaulter
This year, autumn was strangely absent from Argentina. The weather switched from hot to cold, almost in the blink of an eye. Locals were left wondering what happened to the illusive season.
The locals usually enjoy autumn. The weather gradually becomes cooler and the leaves on the trees put on a spectacular display of colours. This year, however, because winter arrived so suddenly, the display was short-lived and the colours weren’t as vibrant as usual.
Autumn is also usually a fabulous time to visit Argentina. In the north, home of the impressive Iguazu Falls, it is usually far too hot in the summer. Meanwhile in the south, where the stunning Perito Moreno glacier is found, it is too cold in the winter. Therefore if you plan on travelling around this vast country, then autumn is the perfect time to do so.
However, this year autumn was strangely lacking. In April, the average maximum temperature in Buenos Aires was 20.6C, the lowest April average ever recorded. Then in May, it didn’t get above 16C in the entire month, making it the fourth coldest month on record, and Buenos Aires wasn’t alone. Across the country the weather was much cooler than usual, and it was all caused by an area of high pressure that developed in southern Argentina.
To see a region of high pressure in southern Argentina isn’t unusual. They sometimes develop over the region during the cooler months and bring a rather cold blast to the country. These cold spells are known as friagens and can reach as far north as the Amazon basin. In 2013 one of these friagens delivered snow to southern Brazil. In the city of Curitiba, capital of the Parana state, this was the first time it had snowed for 38 years.
Although cold spells aren’t usual in Argentina, the strange thing about the recent weather was the length of time that it persisted. Usually a region of high pressure over southern Argentina would be expected to last four or five days, but this one simply refused to budge. Weeks upon weeks passed by and still the area of high pressure remained and cold air continued to dominate the country.
As the temperatures dropped, the demand for heaters suddenly soared. The surge in demand for electricity soared and the network struggled to cope. The country’s Energy Minister, Juan Jose Aranguren, described the network as being on the brink of collapse after years of lack of investment. The previous government had demanded the electricity companies provided electricity at vastly subsidised prices, leaving no money to improve production or distribution. In the last few months, as the demand for heating increased, numerous powercuts were reported throughout the country.
Despite the annoyance of the powercuts, there is one rather large benefit to the prolonged cold spell. During the heat of the summer, the mosquito population had exploded, and with it the spread of mosquito-borne diseases. Now the cold weather has set in, it is culling the mosquitoes and therefore reducing the transmission of diseases.
The Aedes aegypti is a mosquito that can transmit both the Zika virus and dengue fever. Zika has been in the headlines recently for its sudden spread across Latin America. The virus has been linked to microcephaly, where babies are born with unusually small heads and incomplete brain development. Fortunately there have only been a handful of reports of Zika in Argentina and so far all of them have been in the northwestern province of Tucuman; so far it hasn’t spread.
Dengue, however, is far more common. This is a painful, debilitating disease and the list of symptoms is scarily long. High fever, severe joint and muscle pain and nausea are just some of the effects of the disease. Generally younger children and people who have never had the infection usually have milder symptoms, but those who catch dengue more than once are at greater risk and the condition can be fatal. Alarmingly there is no cure for dengue, and people are simply advised to take painkillers.
By the end of March, some reports suggested that as many as 38,000 cases of dengue had been reported in Argentina since the start of the year. Misiones was worst-hit. This northern province attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, all flocking to see the immense waterfalls of Iguazu. Misiones is also where my sister-in-law lives and she was one of the many people in her city who came down with the disease. She said it was like being struck down by the worst flu you could imagine, and the worst part was the immense pain she suffered behind her eyes.
Now that the temperature has dropped and remained low for several weeks, the mosquito population has diminished considerably. This has stopped, or at least severely reduced, the spread of Zika and dengue. This is definitely good news, and if a particularly cold winter is what it takes to beat these tropical diseases, then Argentina should count itself lucky.
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