The Climate Crisis Should Have Bagged The 2020 Headlines

From storms in the Atlantic, wildfires in California, killer floods in Asia and Africa, melting of the Arctic and bushfires in Australia, 2020 was more than a disastrous year with the pandemic.

If it were not for the global coronavirus pandemic that infected or killed millions and ruined economies, perhaps the climate crisis would have bagged the most headlines in 2020.

This year, nature struck relentlessly with record-breaking and deadly weather and climate-related disasters.

With the most named storms in the Atlantic, the largest-ever area of California burned by wildfires, Australian wildfires generating a persistent smoke-charged vortex rising up to 35 km altitude, killer floods in Asia and Africa, and a hot, melting Arctic, 2020 was more than a disastrous year even without the pandemic.

It was a year of disasters and climate change from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas was a big factor, scientists said, despite a dip in emissions thanks to the pandemic slowdown.

US obliterated the record

The United States didn’t just set a record for the most disasters costing at least $1 billion (adjusted for inflation), the nation obliterated the record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

By September, the year 2020 had tied the old record of 16 billion-dollar disasters and when the count is completed in early January, officials figure it will be 20, likely more.

Only three states weren’t part of a billion-dollar weather disaster (Alaska, Hawaii, and North Dakota), and all the coastline, from Texas to Maine, except for a tiny part of Florida, was under a watch or warning for a hurricane, tropical storm or storm surge from those systems in 2020, according to US weather officials.

With 30 named storms, the Atlantic hurricane season surpassed the mark set in 2005, ran out of storm names, and went deep into the Greek alphabet, making meteorologists reconsider how they name future storms, officials said.

Ten of those storms rapidly intensified, making them more dangerous. A dozen made landfall in the US, easily smashing the old record of nine. And Louisiana got hit five times. At one point, the American Red Cross had 60 New Orleans hotels filled with refugees.

Record California fires 

With a devastating 20-year megadrought and near-record heat, California had at least 16,907 square kilometres (6,528 square miles) burned by wildfire, doubling the previous record area burned.

Five of the six largest wildfires in California history have been in 2020. Oregon and Colorado had immense fire damage, too. More than 10,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed and at least 41 people killed.

Between fires and hurricanes, the American Red Cross provided a record 1.3 million nights of shelter for disaster-struck Americans, four times the annual average for the previous decade.

“Since April, we’ve seen a large disaster occur somewhere in the country every five days,” said Trevor Riggen, the Red Cross vice president in charge of disasters. “It has really been a non-stop pace, and not all those disasters make the news.”

It was such a busy and crazy year that a derecho that savaged the Midwest somehow flew under the radar, despite damage nearing $10 billion, and is barely remembered.

Other billion-dollar severe storms, often with tornadoes and hail, struck the US in January, February, twice in March, three times in April, and another three times in May.

All these US disasters have “really added up to create a catastrophic year”, said Adam Smith, an NOAA applied climatologist. “Climate change has its fingerprints on many of these different extremes and disasters.”

“Nature is sending us a message. We better hear it,” United Nations Environment Programme Director Inger Andersen told The Associated Press in an interview. “Wherever you go, whatever continent, we see Nature socking it at us. The warmest three-year period we’ve ever seen. The Arctic temperatures, the wildfires, etc, etc.”

“The state of the planet is broken. Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, earlier this month, denouncing a “suicidal” failure to combat global heating.

“Next year, we have the opportunity to stop plunder and begin healing,” he said. “Covid recovery and our planet’s repair must be two sides of the same coin.”

Over 220 disasters globally 

Worldwide, more than 220 climate and weather-related disasters hurt more than 70 million people and caused more than $69 billion in damages.

Over 7,500 people were killed, according to preliminary figures from the international disaster database kept at the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.

Of the disasters the group tracks, including earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides, 85 percent to 90 percent are climate and weather-related, said Director Debarati Guha-Sapir.

Unlike the United States, which saw a rare break in 2020 from increasing non-hurricane flooding, worldwide “floods is your biggest problem,” Guha-Sapir said. “It’s a huge mistake to underestimate floods.”

Floods killed more than 1,900 people in India in June and affected 17 million people, according to the centre’s data. Other flooding and associated landslides in Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and again in India killed at least another 1,250 people.

African floods killed nearly 600 people. And flooding along the Yangtze River and the Three Gorges Dam in China killed at least 279 people in the summer and caused economic losses of more than $15 billion, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Hue, Vietnam had a record 103 inches (261 centimetres) of rain in October, according to the WMO.

Heatwaves and droughts 

Extremes, including heatwaves and droughts, hit all over the world. Siberia reached a record 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees) as much of the Arctic was 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees) warmer than average and had an exceptionally bad wildfire season.

Arctic sea ice shrank to the second-lowest level on record and set a few monthly records for melt.

Death Valley saw the warmest temperature recorded, 54.4 degrees Celsius (129.9 degrees), on Earth in at least 80 years.

The pace of disasters is noticeably increasing, said disaster experts and climate scientists. The international database in Belgium calculated that from 1980 to 1999, the world had 4,212 disasters affecting 3.25 billion people and costing $1.63 trillion, adjusted for inflation. From 2000 to 2019 those figures jumped to 7,348 disasters, 4.03 billion people affected, and $2.97 trillion in damage.

“Disasters are very much becoming a chronic condition in this country,” said Riggen, who has noticed the change since 2006 when he joined the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina.

‘It was an exhausting year’

Climate change figures in the growth of disasters, especially wildfires worsened by drought and heat, said Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann.

“I didn’t expect to see a season with 30 named storms in my lifetime,” Mann said, noting that hurricanes were fuelled by a natural La Nina cooling of parts of the central Pacific combined with human-caused warming of water temperatures.

National Hurricane Center Deputy Director Ed Rappaport said: “It was an exhausting year.”

Some major climate findings of 2020

1. Emissions fell by record 7 percent in 2020

Carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 fell by 7 percent, the biggest drop ever, as countries around the world imposed lockdowns and restrictions on movement to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Global Carbon Project.

The pandemic-struck year saw emissions cut by an estimated 2.4 billion metric tonnes, shattering previous records of annual declines, such as 0.9 billion metric tonnes at the end of World War II or 0.5 billion metric tonnes in 2009 when the global financial crisis hit.

Researchers say the emissions are down mainly because more people stayed home and travelled less by car or plane this year.

2. World set for 3C warming by 2100

Earth is still on course to warm more than 3 degrees Celsius by the century’s end despite a dip in greenhouse gas emissions caused by the pandemic and pledges to curb pollution.

In its annual assessment of emissions levels, the UN’s Environment Programme found that 2020’s 7 percent fall in carbon pollution would have a “negligible impact” on warming without a broad and rapid shift away from fossil fuels.

3. 2020 one of three hottest years ever recorded

This year is on course to be one of the three warmest ever recorded and could even top the record set in 2016, according to the UN.

The past six years, 2015 to 2020, are set to make up all six of the hottest years since modern records began in 1850, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization said in its provisional 2020 State of the Global Climate report.

4. Deforestation in Brazilian Amazon surges to 12-year high

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon surged again over the past year, hitting a 12-year high, according to Brazil’s space agency, that drew a chorus of condemnation of President Jair Bolsonaro’s government.

A total of 11,088 square kilometres of the forest was destroyed in Brazil’s share of the world’s biggest rainforest in the 12 months to August, according to the Brazilian space agency’s PRODES monitoring programme, which analyses satellite images to track deforestation.

That is equivalent to an area larger than Jamaica and was a 9.5 percent increase from the previous year when deforestation also hit a more than decadelong high.

5. Arctic endured one of its hottest years in 2020

Every year for the past 15, environmental scientists working under the aegis of a US government agency issue a report on the state of the Arctic, and this year’s edition confirms an alarming trend: the North Pole is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the planet.

The year 2020 did not beat the record set in 2012, but it got so close there is no reason to feel encouraged.

The sea ice floating in the Arctic Ocean melts in summer and freezes again in winter.

The problem is each year it is melting a bit more in the warm weather and refreezing a bit less.

6. Dimming Sun’s rays could ease climate impacts in Africa

Dialling down the Sun’s heat a notch by injecting billions of shiny sulphur dioxide particles into the stratosphere could curtail devastating drought across parts of Africa, new peer-reviewed research has reported.

This form of solar radiation management would slash the risk of another “Day Zero” drought in Cape Town, South Africa – a city of 3.7 million which ran out of water in 2017 – by as much as 90 percent, according to a study published last week in Environmental Research Letters.

7. Greenland’s largest glaciers likely to melt faster than feared

The three largest glaciers in Greenland – which hold enough frozen water to lift global sea levels some 1.3 metres – could melt faster than even the worst-case warming predictions, research has shown.

Until 2000, the main driver of sea-level rise was melting glaciers and the expansion of ocean water as it warms.

But over the last two decades, the world’s ice sheets atop Greenland and Antarctica have become the single largest source of sea-level rise.

Researchers found that Jakobshavn Isbrae lost more than 1.5 trillion tonnes of ice between 1880-2012, while Kangerlussuaq and Helheim lost 1.4 trillion and 31 billion tonnes from 1900 to 2012, respectively.

8. Warmer seas keep hurricanes stronger for longer

Warmer seas caused by climate change are making hurricanes stronger for longer after landfall, increasing the destruction they can wreak on impact, a new study has found.

Researchers warn the finding suggests inland communities – which may be less prepared than coastal regions to face hurricanes – are increasingly at risk.

9. Air pollution linked to 15 percent of coronavirus deaths

Long-term exposure to air pollution may be linked to 15 percent of Covid-19 deaths globally, according to research that highlights the health risks posed by greenhouse gas emissions.

Previous research has shown how air pollution from exhaust fumes and factories takes two years off the life expectancy of every man, woman, and child on Earth.

Now experts in Germany and Cyprus say they have estimated the proportion of deaths from coronavirus that can be blamed on the exacerbating effects of air pollution.

Their study, published in the journal Cardiovascular Research, drew on health and disease data from the US and China relating to air pollution, Covid-19, and SARS, a serious lung disease similar to Covid-19.

10. Climate change on track to wipe out polar bears by 2100

Climate change is starving polar bears into extinction, according to a finding that predicts the apex carnivores could all but disappear within the span of a human lifetime.

In some regions, they are already caught in a vicious downward spiral, with shrinking sea ice cutting short the time bears have for hunting seals, scientists reported in Nature Climate Change.

Their dwindling bodyweight undermines their chances of surviving Arctic winters without food, the scientists added.

11. Plastic ‘has entered’ Antarctic terrestrial food chain

Scientists have found bits of polystyrene in the guts of tiny, soil-dwelling organisms in the Antarctic, raising concern that microplastics pollution has already “deeply” entered the world’s most remote land-based food systems.

While the infiltration of microplastics throughout the oceans is well-known, researchers said their findings provided the first evidence of contamination in the Antarctic terrestrial food chain.

“Plastics have, therefore, entered even some of the most remote soil food webs on the planet, with potential risks for the whole biota and ecosystems,” said authors of the study, published in the journal Biology Letters.

12. Paris climate goals failure ‘could cost world $600 trillion’

Nations’ failure to fulfil the promises they made in the Paris climate agreement to make drastic emissions cuts could cost the global economy as much as $600 trillion this century, a new analysis has shown.

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, an international team of climate experts simulated the costs of global cooperative action under a variety of scenarios.

They found that the world would gain $336-422 trillion by 2100 if action was taken to keep warming to 2C and 1.5C respectively.

But if they fail to achieve the Paris temperature goals, countries stand to lose up to $600 trillion ($126-616 trillion) by the century’s end.

This amounts to an average loss of 0.57 percent of national GDP annually to 2100.

13. Permafrost collapse is speeding climate change

Permafrost in Canada, Alaska and Siberia is abruptly crumbling in ways that could release large stores of greenhouse gases more quickly than anticipated, researchers have warned.

Scientists have long fretted that climate change – which has heated the Arctic and subarctic regions at double the global rate – will release planet-warming CO2 and methane that has remained safely locked inside Earth’s frozen landscapes for millennia.

It was assumed this process would be gradual, leaving humanity time to draw down carbon emissions enough to prevent permafrost thaw from tipping into a self-perpetuating vicious circle of ice melt and global warming.

But a study published in Nature Geoscience says projections of how much carbon would be released by this kind of slow-and-steady thawing overlook a less well-known process whereby certain types of icy terrain disintegrate suddenly – sometimes within days.

“Although abrupt permafrost thawing will occur in less than 20 percent of frozen land, it increases permafrost carbon release projections by about 50 percent,” said lead author Merritt Turetsky, head of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research in Boulder, Colorado.

14. Scientists turn CO2 into jet fuel

Scientists at Oxford University successfully turned CO2 into jet fuel, raising the possibility of conventionally-powered aircraft with net-zero emissions.

The experiment was conducted in a laboratory and still needs to be replicated on a larger scale. Scientists are hopeful that it could be a climate game-changer.

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