Climate focus: Wildfires and megadrought in Chile

In the past days, wildfires have ravaged central Chile with a death toll of at least 131, and more than 300 people still missing at the time of writing. These fires are the most deadly, but not the first in recent years - six of the most destructive fire seasons on record in Chile have occurred in the past decade. Particularly notable are 2017 and February 2023 when fierce fires raged across the country killing dozens, injuring thousands, and leaving many people homeless. 

The fires come on the back of an extreme heatwave. Chile’s capital Santiago reached 37.3C on 31 January, the country’s third-highest recorded temperature in more than a century. This heatwave has affected large parts of the continent

On top of the long-term global heating trend, temperatures have been pushed even higher by El Niño. This summer heatwave was preceded by an extraordinary winter heatwave across much of South America. In August 2023, temperatures in the Chilean Andes rose as high as 38.9C in mid winter. 

The long-term trend is just as worrying. For over a decade, Chile has been grappling with a megadrought. This is a crisis of climatic change and lack of rainfall, but also a social and economic crisis of water management. Huge amounts of water are consumed by monoculture tree plantations to the south of Santiago and the avocado orchards in the north. Meanwhile the glaciers of the Andes continue to shrink. In 2022, water rationing was introduced in the capital, Santiago, the capital.

In 2022, Chile voted on a proposed new constitution. A key focus of the constitution was protection of the environment, water, climate change and biodiversity. But the proposed constitution was rejected in the referendum.

Meanwhile, neighbouring Argentina has also suffered from three consecutive years of drought, causing an agricultural crisis leading in turn to a deepening economic crisis. A spirit of desperation and anger at the status quo propelled the victory of far-right 'excessive and unstable' libertarian and self-described 'anarcho-capitalist' Javier Milei in 2023 presidential elections, with an agenda of deregulation and austerity

Further reading

Photos of fire damage and brief video report (2024)

More Than a Decade of Megadrought Brought a Summer of Megafires to Chile (2023)

Illapel: Chilean city caught in perfect storm of mega-drought and mining (2022)

Extreme fire weather in Chile driven by climate change and El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO)

Climate change fueling warm ocean 'blob' causing Chile megadrought  (2021)

The satellite image above from NOAA shows smoke from the Feb 2023 fires.