The mystery of weather forecasting in Cuenca and why there are several winters each year
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 just accept it.
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 expats and those planning trips to Ecuador is the difficulty finding accurate online weather forecasts. 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 one showers in five months.
There’s a reason for the lousy forecasting. Accurately predicting the weather on the equator, beyond several hours in advance, is almost impossible.
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, rotating in opposite directions, and die out, preventing the organization of the strong weather fronts to which residents in high and low latitudes are accustomed. Strong high-pressure ridges or low-pressure troughs are rare.
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 also produce weird weather, including intense hail storms that leave heavy accumulations. On average, Cuenca gets one or two of them a year.
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 “official” 30-year records, in fact, that present slightly different data. The highest temperature ever recorded was 81 Farenheit, 27 Celsius, according to Univesity of Cuenca data, or 83F, 28C, according to national weather service records. The lowest temperature is either 29F, -1.6C, or 30F, -1C. In general, daily high temperatures average slightly below 70F while lows average in the low 50sF.
Average annual rainfall ranges from 28 to 33 inches, depending on which 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. On several occaions in recent memory, snow and ice have stopped traffic on the Cuenca-Guayaquil highway at higher elevations.
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%.
Ecuador is not the place for sun lovers. Cuenca averages 1,875 hours of annual sunshine, slightly above the national average of 1,831, which is to say it’s a little sunnier than San Francisco and Seattle, but about 40% 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. Parts of Ecuador’s coast are among the least sunny areas, enduring a so-called “gray season” from June to November when the sun can a be a no-show for days on end.
Forget the seasons
Expats and tourists quickly learn that winter and summer mean something different than they do in the northern hemisphere. When it is cool and rainy, it’s winter, or invierno. When the sun shines, it’s summer, or verano, although the March to May rainy season is sometimes called winter for its duration. Pleasant days are occasionally referred to as spring, or primavera, but you almost never hear about autumn, otoño.
By the way the locals dress you could easily assume prolonged periods of cloudy and rainy weather could be confused for a North American winter. You’ll see them bundled in arctic jackets and mufflers when the temperature is in the low 60s or high-50s and if you strike up a conversation, the topic will quickly center on the frigid temperatures. When it’s sunny and 75, on the other hand, you’ll see them in polo shirts and, occasionally, shorts, and the talk will invariably be about the heat wave.
So what’s the weather forecast for tomorrow? Please don’t ask.