The Largest flood in modern history of the Amazon

Otorongo Expeditions
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Earlier this year, the whole of the Amazon river basin experienced a flood like no other. Peru, Colombia, and Brazil were the most affected, over one million people were struck by surprise as the water level just kept coming up, past its historical level. Many people took a lackadaisical approach to the flood thinking it would recede quickly, little did they all know that it was going to keep coming up! The Peruvian national weather service predicted that the water would come up one meter more than usual. Here is the chart from the marine hydrographic service that shows the level at its highest point.the black line is the level of 2012

The majority of people who live on the floodplain basically put together a false floor with planks and logs inside their house to keep dry. One week later many were forced to raise their false floors more or head for high ground.

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Thousands of river dwellers stayed in their houses even though there was a gigantic tumultuous river trying to push their houses down. The walls of some houses were torn off by the water pressure as people lay sleeping. Electric fish and scavenger catfish swim in and out between the floors hunting the swarms of sardine like fish that feed off the refuse from the houses. In Oran, there was a casualty, an innocent little toddler whose parents did not think it was dangerous to persist in their house. The toddler walked over to the edge and fell in, never to be seen again, swept away by the fast current of the muddy river. After that incident, many who were foolishly braving the flood in their houses decided to move to high ground. I still do not understand how some people could stay in their half drowned houses. The sound produced by the river engulfing the houses was horrific, so scary to the point that you would think the house would collapse and wash downstream with the rest of the debris.

We were very lucky at the lodge, to be in a sheltered area that would be the delta of the Oran creek as the flooding increased. There was a tidal like current that shifted back and forth, waxed and waned creating intricate abstract patterns of floating pollen on the surface of the black water. We were one of the few lodges situated high enough to where we were not greatly affected by the flood. We just had to adapt, as long as the water stayed under the floor, we would be ok. I did have a contingency plan to send people to the two story house on the property, and a floating kitchen made of logs and planks. Try to flood a raft, HA!

The slight changes at the lodge due to the flood were as follows.
1. Started using compost toilets in the rooms instead of the flush toilet
2. The doors of the lodge became the loading docks for boats and canoes
3. To go for a hike, you had to get in a boat and go fifty yards to the east to highground
4. We were able to access hard to reach places by boat where not too many people arrive.
5. I had no gardening to do other than keeping my hot peppers afloat in a spent freezer box.
6. Any critters living under the house are now in the rooms and the roof
7. I was fishing from my room, and cast netting bait from the kitchen porch
8. I had a great time wiping out the menacing hoards of fire ants
9. The trees that cannot resist the flooding died quickly and what did make it through the flood alive were killed by a three week drought in August
10. Turtles and caimans that lived in a pond close by dispersed into the flooded forest and rivers.
11. A larger caiman displaced the smaller ones, we heard a thunderous commotion one night as the reptiles fought over territory.
12. At the peak of the flood, if a boat came in too fast, the waves would splash into the house through the floorboards and the doors. It almost seemed as if the lodge were floating in a lake.

20121227-012930 p.m..jpg For years I have been listening to old timers in Oran tell me about the flood of 1998′ (also the year of a huge blizzard that covered the northern USA with over 3ft of snow). They said that the flood of 98 covered the grounds where the lodge is with two inches of water. Oran was covered with an inch of water. Bellavista Nanay was flooded to the plaza, overall not too many people were displaced, seeing how their houses were on stilts and the peak of the flood lasted a week. Locals would set out their fishing nets in the shallow water and harvest bucket loads of fish as they glided through the shallow water. Many areas were not populated as they are now so there was not much coverage of the damage.

The high ground is made of hills uplifted thousands of years ago, the area once was flat as it is a sedimentary deposition basin from the Andes. The uplift created fingers of highground that stretches considerably through the inland jungle and is actually responsible for the modern day divisions of large rivers in the Basin.

The people who were affected the most live in lowland areas that are seasonally flooded each year. Locals prefer to live on lowland mainly for agricultural purposes.

The lowland is younger in the sense that it is newer deposits of nutrient rich sediment from the Andes with tons of organic material that is flooded yearly so the decomposition process is staunched during the flood. This land is much more productive for planting, the difference of value is in the end product, a branch of bananas will grow three times the size in soft nutrient rich lowland whereas the banana fights to get its roots in the high ground. Also, people prefer to live close to their farms to make sure that their produce does not get stolen. So whoever wants to get more for their effort will live near their plot in the lowland to keep opportunists at bay.

( a general rule for planting away from your house is to plant three times more than what you need because of a culture of people that steal from agricultural plots)

Of course, the planting and living in lowland is more productive even though there are much more mosquitoes.

So,the difference between the flood of 1998 and the flood of 2012′ was about 90cm, that’s almost one meter more than the largest recorded flood.

There is a mark on an iron pole in the city of Iquitos on the land of one of the oldest lumber companies, the mark was from 1938 and was supposedly the largest flood event. This year, we surpassed that mark by how much? You guessed it, 90 cm. There was not a single person alive that could honestly say they experienced a flood of such proportions.
20121229-022627 p.m..jpgMarch, April and May were dominated by this flood. I remember clearly on the 28th of march, watching the water cover the stone paths at the lodge, I watched thousands of brycon fish swimming in the shallow black water. We thought that it could not go up any more.
Every inch that the water came up, had to spread over areas with a low gradient of elevation. One inch could flood miles inland and represents hundreds of billions of gallons of input of water.

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20121229-022310 p.m..jpgWaking up on he 29th,the water had come up six inches, how incredible! It certainly can’t come up more! Wrong!!!! Later that day, the water came up another six inches leaving everyone in shock. We watched as our plants and rock gardens were covered by the tannin rich waters coming from the Oran creek.

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It is hard to describe the feeling of anxiousness and uncertainty as we watched the water climb centimeter by centimeter every day. If you ever have a chance to visit my lodge, you will notice the scratch marks on the front step that we made two to three times a day as the water advanced skywards.

What else was affected?
Just as the polar bears are treading water in areas that were once pack ice, many terrestrial mammals that could not make it to high ground in areas such as the Pacaya Samiria national reserve ( where no dry land existed during the peak of the flood) had to swim until they could not swim any more,and succumbed to the fatigue of perpetual swimming. Many tourist and locals reported bloated armadillos and baby tapirs floating downstream with no apparent mark of struggle or trauma. They were simply pooped from swimming for two weeks straight. Those that could not find a refuge to stand on such as a floating log or the skirt of the highground were doomed to perish.

The fire ants grouped on the tips of anything dry, earthworms formed living balls of flesh lumps on the highest points of the ground as many fish took turns pulling,swallowing gulps of worms from the seething mass. I walked around what was my pineapple field, there is a small hill where we grow sweet peppers. I looked at the hill and it seemed to be alive. There was a whole colony of red fire ants barely clinging onto the crest of a hill as the wake of my walking threatened to push them out into the field.

My curiosity got the best of me so I made a mini tsunami that pushed them off the hill with each wave. I noticed as the ants drifted off like magnetic lumps attracted to each other. The crest of the hill was exposed. Looking closer at the crest of the hill,I saw thousands of earthworms that the ants were piled upon. Within the mass of earthworms, were larvaes of many species of beetles, moths and other insects. They had all found the highest point and converged upon it. Another inch and they would be fair game for all the fish that awaited more flood water.

As the lumps of ants silently floated with the tidal like current of our sheltered Oran creek delta, schools of fish picked the ants off one by one splashing, smacking their lips at the surface of the water.

This pleased me, seeing how the ants plague my many species of plants. They harass the roots and flowers, some even bring their cattle to graze on the plants and in return,the cattle (aphids) secrete a sugary solution that the ants consume. This staunches growth and promotes disease in the plants. A chunk of my free time was dedicated to the swamping of the ant rafts.

As I have mentioned in other posts, the flooded forest is very important for the aquatic organisms present. Many fish rely on the annual flooding for food and breeding purposes. Many flood plane lakes that were isolated for hundreds of years were engulfed by the waters and opened pathways for fish and caimans to disperse. When the water came down, the concentration of aquatic organisms was evident. Peering out into the mud flats and cattle pastures at night with a spotlight showed hundreds of caimans large and small. each day the water fell. They became more and more reduced in their territories.The sheer quantities of migrating fish impressed even the most seasoned fisherman. The presence of these migratory schools persisted all through the low water season and slowly disappeared as the water levels came up and they dispersed back into the tributaries and lower areas of flooded forest.

The aftermath
Deposits of sand and mud were laid upon cement walkways, in some places over one meter thick. The houses that were half drowned had a dense layer of silt on their floor. Some locals joked that they would cultivate rice in their houses instead of shoveling the mud out.

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Plant life Only plants that can resist prolonged time underwater are found in the lowland areas, it is practically impossible to find a mature high ground plant species in the lower areas due to the annual floods. The area was such as Oran is situated high enough so the average annual floods do not affect the organisms that inhabit the zone. This year the area was covered for almost two months, the majority of cultivated plants stood no chance. Older fruiting trees unaccustomed to the flood environment started to lose leaves after two weeks. After the flood waters went down, you could see where the water “girdled” the trees producing an environment in favor of disease. It was evident that microorganisms were burrowing through the bark and had started to consume the trees from the inside.

What caused this flood?
There is a lot of speculation, but the incidence of extreme weather worldwide is too much of a coincidence to declare this flood a local event. Some say that the synchronicity of the rivers in the foothills of the Andes is the only reason for the flood. When several rivers flood at the same time, it will eventually get backed up downstream and flood whatever land lay behind. It is easy to say that it was just the synchronicity, but it was more than that. Many areas of the northwestern drainage area including the Huallaga river experienced more rainfall than normal and produced destructive landslides that claimed more than usual number of houses and lives. Rainfall is not the only factor that affects the level of rivers, although the tropical glaciers are almost gone, they are responsible for a large volume of water put into the Amazonian system. These glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate which can have a lot to do with the flood levels.

To those who say that climate change is a hoax, please check your facts. This MAY be cyclical although I doubt it. This year has been the year for record breaking worldwide. Record breaking heat, rainfall and other extreme weather. One can only use common sense to figure out that with more heat=more evaporation=more precipitation. You do not have to be a scientist to understand that simple concept. The climate shift is set in motion, I do not believe that much effort on our part can change this on a small timescale. This swing has such a force behind it that to stop it we need an opposite force equal to or stronger than to even begin to reduce. That would take cooperation so I guess I am saying we need to start adapting to our new weather cycles.

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