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In Mexico, a drought has thrown the reliable rainy season out of whack

June 22, 2011 |  3:56 pm

Rain clouds downtown mexico city daniel hernandez

On Tuesday evening, this metropolis got some weather that was remarkable for all the wrong reasons.

Clouds gathered up and darkened by late afternoon, and by dusk, cold droplets ended their long journey from the sky on the city's endless fields of parched concrete. Mexico City had been asking for it, and it finally rained. 

Rain in June in Mexico, of course, is not a newsworthy event. The rainy season is usually well under way by now. But this year, due to a national drought, the rainy season is more than five weeks late and counting. A subdued anxiety has taken hold among some residents.

Could it be? we asked. Have the rains finally started?

The answer is a bit of "yes" and also a bit of some troubling "no." Tuesday's storm was deceptive. Chilly and soft, the rain was in fact residual moisture from Hurricane Beatriz, which hit the country's southern Pacific coast over the weekend and eventually made it up to high central Mexico as a weakened tropical depression. 

It was not "normal rain" for this time of year: subtropical downpours that are sudden and brief, hitting like clockwork nearly every afternoon between mid-May and late-October. Except for a freak hailstorm in April, the 2011 rainy season has so far been decidedly un-rainy (link in Spanish). Forecasts each morning have almost become a mocking thing, showing potential rainfall in the afternoon that never materializes, day after day.

Mexico is currently facing a drought that has affected nearly every region of the country, reports the National Meteorological Service. After last year's unusually wet and deadly rainy season, there has been little rainfall since October. According to Martin Ibarra, head of the weather service's long-term forecast office, the drought started in the northeast of the country and spread downward for months, sparking substantial forest fires in Coahuila state and record temperatures everywhere else.

"There are years that the country will be wetter than usual, like last year, and years that will be drier than usual," Ibarra said in an interview. "This is a rain deficit."

In Mexico City, officials explain, the bowl-shaped valley and famous pollution layer that sits over its urban sprawl work to trap warm air below the clouds. This intensifies the daily afternoon rainfall in the wet season. The drought seems to have thrown this reliable cycle out of whack. 

"It's an alarming signal," said Gabriela Vargas, general director of Sembradores Urbanos, a Mexico City urban gardening project. "If the drought continues, it could affect rice cultivation, for example."

Cue the Tlaloc references.

Poets, journalists, and New Age believers of all sorts often invoke the "rain god" when he acts up, bringing floods, or "abandons" the city, during drought. "Oh Tlaloc," wrote a columnist in the daily Milenio earlier this month (link in Spanish). "You among the Aztecs, or more like above them, meaning in the sky ... have the mercy to send us here in the borough of Alvaro Obregon, or at least in the Colonia Florida, a vigorous rain that will shake the windows."

"Doesn't matter if it's an acid rain like those we're used to here in Smog City!" the writer added.

Wednesday's weather disappointed again. Clouds hovered, but once more, no rain. By 5 p.m., the hot high-altitude sun bored through the cloud cover, suggesting the respite brought by Beatriz may have been a mere interlude in more of the same.

Ibarra, the weather service official, told La Plaza that the outlook for the end of June looks promising. If all goes well, the seasonal rains will arrive — however late — and the drought could then be declared over.

In fact, the dry spell has been helpful overall to the country's agricultural sector, said Roberto Vazquez, an analyst in the government's agriculture and fishery information service. Because last year was so rainy, cultivated topsoil has been able to retain moisture through the drought. That means no risk to crops that would be damaged by too much rain, and likewise, no risk to crops that would be damaged by too long a drought.

"If it rains at the end of this month, which we expect it will, then the cycle will be saved," Vazquez said.

All part of Tlaloc's plan? We can only look up at the skies and guess.

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Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Pedestrians stream past the Palacio de Bellas Artes in downtown Mexico City, with deceptively dark clouds overhead, Wednesday, June 22, 2011. Credit: Daniel Hernandez / Los Angeles Times

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