The mystery of weather forecasting in Ecuador and why there are several winters each year

Apr 6, 2018

By Sylvan Hardy

Like many aspects of life in Cuenca, the weather is a source of continuing befuddlement for expats. The locals don’t understand it either, they have just accept it.

On a sunny day in Cuenca, the temperature can reach a scorching 78 degrees.

You’ll notice that there’s no “news, sports, and weather” on the six o’clock TV news broadcasts in Cuenca — there’s only news and sports. Neither will you find much in the way of weather forecasts in the local newspapers.

A common complaint of those planning trips to Ecuador is the difficulty finding accurate online weather forecasts for Cuenca and Ecuador generally. Internet weather sites, such as Weather.com and Yahoo Weather, often carry the same report day after day, almost always predicting a chance rain. During the record-setting 2010 record drought, online forecasts predicted rain every day even though Cuenca only had two showers in four months.

There’s a reason for the lousy forecasting. Accurately predicting the weather on the equator, beyond several hours in advance, is almost impossible.

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Weather here is determined by a number of factors, the most prominent being the equatorial or inter-tropical convergence zone, often referred to by sailors at sea as “the doldrums.” This is the area where northeast and southeast trade winds converge and die out, preventing the organization of the strong weather fronts to which high and low latitudes are accustomed. There are rarely strong high-pressure ridges or low-pressure troughs in these parts.

Without strong high- and low-pressure differentials, you’ll also notice that weather patterns (cloudy, drizzly sunny or rainy) can last for days.

High altitudes in much of Ecuador can produce weird weather, including intense hail storms that leave heavy accumulations. On average, Cuenca gets one or two of them a year.

High-altitude hail storms can leave foot-deep accumulations.

Forecasting is made even tougher in Ecuador given that the country is bordered on one side the world’s largest ocean and on the other by the world’s largest jungle, and is bisected by the world’s second largest mountain range. To add another twist, one of the world’s strongest ocean currents, the Humboldt, runs several hundred miles off-shore.

For the record

Even weather records present a problem as no two correspond exactly. For Cuenca, there are two 30-year records, in fact, that present slightly different data. Based on a compilation, Cuenca temperatures average slightly below daily highs of 70F and lows of 50F. The highest temperature ever recorded was 81F, while the lowest was 29F.

Snow in the Cajas Mountains, 15 miles west of Cuenca.

Average annual rainfall ranges from 28 to 34 inches, depending on which “official” record you look at, roughly the average for the Northeastern U.S., with March, April and May being the wettest (above four inches for each) and July and August being the driest (about one inch per month).

No snow has been recorded in Cuenca in the past 50 years but as much as 12 inches has fallen in the Cajas Mountains, just a few miles west of town.

Average relative humidity is about 60%, but due to cool temperatures, the dew point keeps things comfortable. On sunny days in dry weather, it’s not uncommon to see humidity levels drop below 20%, and low humidity is a frequent complaint of some expats.

Ecuador is not the place for sun lovers. Cuenca averages 1,875 hours of annual sunshine, slightly above the national average of 1,841, which is to say it’s sunnier than San Francisco and Seattle, but about 30% less sunny than Miami. The desert areas along the coast and near the Peruvian border are not much sunnier due to the clash of ocean and land air masses.

Although the 30-year historical weather record is not available online, the Washington Post has a seven- to 10-year average, that correlates fairly closely with the 30-year and 50-year averages.

Forget the seasons

Although the current weather is called winter for its coldness, most of what most expats have learned in the U.S., Canada or Europe doesn’t apply in Ecuador.

If it rains or is cloudy or exceptionally cool, like now, it’s winter. A few days later, when the sun is out and people are complaining about the scorching 75-degree daytime highs, it’s summer. Expect several summers and winters each year.

And please don’t ask why.

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