Mid-winter in Georgia, frontal systems are arriving at regular intervals like MARTA trains at Peachtree Center Station. Throughout all this, it seems to be a bit warmer than during other February months we’ve had in the past. The National Weather Service attributes it to La Niña conditions, which means colder water in the “east central equatorial and tropical Pacific.” This geographic word salad is easier to digest if we call it “the coast of Peru.” The ocean water there is presently colder than normal. Through interaction with surface and high-altitude winds, the U.S. South gets somewhat warmer conditions than usual. But it also reinforces the status of the Peruvian Coast as the driest place in the world.
Visualize this screen capture that I got from Google Maps/Streetview. A straight 2-lane road stretching endlessly into the distance. To the left, the dark blue Pacific Ocean. A lone Mercedes behind us, the only other vehicle in sight. To the right, miles of low mountains, consisting of pale brown to grey rocks and some sand. Even immediately next to the shore, the area is a bone-dry desert. Not one tree, shrub or even blade of grass can be seen anywhere. This is the Panamericana the legendary highway running through North and South America from Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of Argentina to the northern end of Alaska.
La Niña is currently reinforcing the condition that has cold water pushing upward from greater depth toward Peru’s shoreline. This makes the air above it get heavy. It sinks, eliminating all chance for rain. But that doesn’t make for great beach weather with sun and surf. Temperatures are in the 60’s, and the sky is a persistent “gunmetal gray,” as Mark Greany’s novel once called it. Even with hundreds of miles of beachfront, Peru’s Atacama Desert doesn’t feature busy clusters of stores offering bright-colored t-shirts, swim fins, sea shells and fuzzy animal whales that squeak when they are squeezed. Instead, the saltpeter industry is dominant. Potassium nitrate is the salt found in abundance there. It’s a powerful fertilizer, and careless application can burn plants instead of feeding them. But it’s also known as an ingredient for explosives, which has made an impact on Peru’s history. At 68 degrees Fahrenheit, the beach water looks solitary and quiet as La Niña is casting a heavy sky over it.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.