The Climate Events of 2020 show how excess heat is expressed on Earth
15 Jan. 2021
The Climate Events of 2020 show how excess heat is expressed on Earth. (NASA)
By most accounts, 2020 has been a rough year for the planet. It was the warmest year on record, just barely exceeding the record set in 2016 by less than a tenth of a degree according to NASA’s analysis. Massive wildfires scorched Australia, Siberia, and the United States’ west coast – and many of the fires were still burning during the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record.
“This year has been a very striking example of what it’s like to live under some of the most severe effects of climate change that we’ve been predicting,” said Lesley Ott, a research meteorologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
Decades of greenhouse gas emissions set the stage for this year’s events
Human-produced greenhouse gas emissions are largely responsible for warming our planet. Burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas releases greenhouse gases – such as carbon dioxide – into the atmosphere, where they act like an insulating blanket and trap heat near Earth’s surface.
“The natural processes Earth has for absorbing carbon dioxide released by human activities – plants and the ocean – just aren’t enough to keep up with how much carbon dioxide we’re putting into the atmosphere,” said Gavin Schmidt, climate scientist and Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City.
Carbon dioxide levels have increased by nearly 50% since the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago. The amount of methane in the atmosphere has more than doubled. As a result, during this period, Earth has warmed by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit (just over 1 degree Celsius).
Climate modelers have predicted that, as the planet warms, Earth will experience more severe heat waves and droughts, larger and more extreme wildfires, and longer and more intense hurricane seasons on average. The events of 2020 are consistent with what models have predicted: extreme climate events are more likely because of greenhouse gas emissions.
Heat waves fanned the flames of extreme wildfires across the globe
Climate change has led to longer fire seasons, as vegetation dries out earlier and persistent high temperatures allow fires to burn longer. This year, heat waves and droughts added fuel for the fires, setting the stage for more intense fires in 2020.
The Australian bushfires that started in 2019 continued into 2020 due to sustained high temperatures, burning vast forested areas and sending smoke around the globe. The heat wave helped the fires grow rapidly, burning over 20% of the Australian temperate forest biome.
Fire-induced thunderstorms called pyrocumulonimbus events resulted in smoke plumes that reached a record-breaking 18 mile (30 kilometer) altitude – crossing into the stratosphere. Smoke released from the bushfires circumnavigated the globe before returning to the skies over Australia.
Hundreds of wildfires burned throughout the western United States this past year, making it the most active fire season on record. Fires in Colorado grew quickly as heat waves enabled the fire to burn faster and hotter. In California, more than 650 fires were actively burning in late August; the largest of these – the August Complex Fire – burned over a million acres.
A heat wave hit the Arctic Circle this summer, with temperatures rising above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of Siberia. This heat wave triggered a wildfire outbreak that reignited “zombie fires” from the previous year.
Zombie fires can occur when fires burn in areas with permafrost, carbon-rich soil that typically stays frozen year-round. Zombie fires burn so deep in the permafrost layer that they can continue to smolder under a blanket of snow throughout winter and can reemerge in the spring.
Wildfires in the Arctic have long-term impacts on Earth’s climate system. Tundra and boreal fires release methane and carbon in these regions that have been accumulating for centuries into the atmosphere. Burning also creates the conditions for continued permafrost layer thaw, resulting in increased greenhouse gas emissions for years to come.
Earth is continuing to lose a key player in the fight against climate change: ice
This year wasn’t a record-breaker for ice loss at sea or on land. But ice plays a key role in regulating Earth’s temperature, and the overall trends show we’re continuously losing ice around the globe.
The planet is losing about 13.1% of Arctic sea ice by area each decade, according to sea ice minimum data from NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. Studies of sea ice thickness have also shown that sea ice is a lot thinner than it used to be.
Sea ice floating in the Arctic acts like an insulating barrier, preventing the ocean from heating the atmosphere. Sea ice is also so bright that it reflects heat energy from the Sun away from Earth. Without sea ice, that energy would be absorbed by the darker ocean waters, leading to even higher sea surface temperatures.
Each year, Arctic sea ice melts and regrows, reaching its minimum extent around mid-September and maximum extent in March. This year had the second lowest Arctic sea ice summer extent on record. Arctic sea ice also got a slow start regrowing this year due to warmer air temperatures, which doesn’t bode well for the sea ice extent in 2021.
“When the ice has a slow start to regrow, it’s hard to catch up,” said Tom Neumann, glaciologist and Chief of the Cryospheric Sciences Lab at Goddard.
On land, the Greenland ice sheet is continuing to melt, and the record-breaking temperatures of 2020 didn’t help. This year, 23.1 million square kilometers of Greenland’s ice sheet (about 70 percent of the ice sheet’s surface) reached the melting point. Glaciers and mountain ice caps in places like Alaska, South America, and High Mountain Asia are continuing to melt, contributing more than either Greenland or Antarctica to sea level rise, which affects coastal communities around the world.
The situation in the Arctic is a direct consequence of climate change – and a foreshadowing of what’s to come in other places. “The Arctic is like the canary in the coal mine because the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet,” said Neumann. On average, the Arctic is warming three times faster.
High sea surface temperatures intensified storms in the busiest Atlantic hurricane season
This year brought one of the busiest and most intense Atlantic hurricane seasons on record, with 30 named storms.
“We had more named storms than we’ve ever had before,” said Jim Kossin, an atmospheric scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) based in Madison, Wisconsin. More storms and a longer hurricane season are probably a result of regional conditions rather than global warming, Kossin said. However, climate change warms the ocean’s surface and drives storm intensification – the change in windspeeds that, for example, raises a Category 4 storm to a Category 5.That warmer water at the surface acts like fuel, providing energy in the form of heat that the hurricane uses to intensify more quickly. This year’s Atlantic hurricane season brought many examples of storms that intensified quickly: ten of the 30 named storms showed rapid intensification.
The planet is also seeing more slow-traveling hurricanes that stall, bringing prolonged rainfall to an area, likely as a result of climate change. Warmer air holds more water vapor (about 7% more water per 1 degree C of warming). The planet is warming at different rates around the globe, which can reduce the temperature and pressure gradients, thus slowing the winds that push hurricanes.
That means storms are more likely to stall, bringing sustained high winds and dumping massive amounts of rain in one area. Hurricanes Sally and Eta – which respectively made landfall in Alabama in September and Central America in November – were prime examples.
“Global warming won’t necessarily increase overall tropical storm formation, but when we do get a storm it’s more likely to become stronger. And it’s the strong ones that really matter,” Kossin said.
What does the future hold?
This year we experienced firsthand the ways that more heat is expressed on our planet. The large wildfires, intense hurricanes, and ice loss we saw in 2020 are direct consequences of human-induced climate change. And they’re projected to continue and escalate into the next decade – especially if human-induced greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate.
“This isn’t the new normal,” said Schmidt. “This is a precursor of more to come.”
15 Jan. 2021
2020 Tied for Warmest Year on Record, NASA Analysis Shows. (NASA)
Earth’s global average surface temperature in 2020 tied with 2016 as the warmest year on record, according to an analysis by NASA.
Continuing the planet’s long-term warming trend, the year’s globally averaged temperature was 1.84 degrees Fahrenheit (1.02 degrees Celsius) warmer than the baseline 1951-1980 mean, according to scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York. 2020 edged out 2016 by a very small amount, within the margin of error of the analysis, making the years effectively tied for the warmest year on record.
“The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record, typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend,” said GISS Director Gavin Schmidt. “Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important – the important things are long-term trends. With these trends, and as the human impact on the climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken.”
A Warming, Changing World
Tracking global temperature trends provides a critical indicator of the impact of human activities – specifically, greenhouse gas emissions – on our planet. Earth's average temperature has risen more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.2 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century.
Rising temperatures are causing phenomena such as loss of sea ice and ice sheet mass, sea level rise, longer and more intense heat waves, and shifts in plant and animal habitats. Understanding such long-term climate trends is essential for the safety and quality of human life, allowing humans to adapt to the changing environment in ways such as planting different crops, managing our water resources and preparing for extreme weather events.
Ranking the Records
A separate, independent analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concluded that 2020 was the second-warmest year in their record, behind 2016. NOAA scientists use much of the same raw temperature data in their analysis, but have a different baseline period (1901-2000) and methodology. Unlike NASA, NOAA also does not infer temperatures in polar regions lacking observations, which accounts for much of the difference between NASA and NOAA records.
Like all scientific data, these temperature findings contain a small amount of uncertainty – in this case, mainly due to changes in weather station locations and temperature measurement methods over time. The GISS temperature analysis (GISTEMP) is accurate to within 0.1 degrees Fahrenheit with a 95 percent confidence level for the most recent period.
Beyond a Global, Annual Average
While the long-term trend of warming continues, a variety of events and factors contribute to any particular year’s average temperature. Two separate events changed the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface. The Australian bush fires during the first half of the year burned 46 million acres of land, releasing smoke and other particles more than 18 miles high in the atmosphere, blocking sunlight and likely cooling the atmosphere slightly.
In contrast, global shutdowns related to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic reduced particulate air pollution in many areas, allowing more sunlight to reach the surface and producing a small but potentially significant warming effect. These shutdowns also appear to have reduced the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions last year, but overall CO2 concentrations continued to increase, and since warming is related to cumulative emissions, the overall amount of avoided warming will be minimal.
The largest source of year-to-year variability in global temperatures typically comes from the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a naturally occurring cycle of heat exchange between the ocean and atmosphere. While the year has ended in a negative (cool) phase of ENSO, it started in a slightly positive (warm) phase, which marginally increased the average overall temperature. The cooling influence from the negative phase is expected to have a larger influence on 2021 than 2020.
“The previous record warm year, 2016, received a significant boost from a strong El Nino. The lack of a similar assist from El Nino this year is evidence that the background climate continues to warm due to greenhouse gases,” Schmidt said.
The 2020 GISS values represent surface temperatures averaged over both the whole globe and the entire year. Local weather plays a role in regional temperature variations, so not every region on Earth experiences similar amounts of warming even in a record year. According to NOAA, parts of the continental United States experienced record high temperatures in 2020, while others did not.
In the long term, parts of the globe are also warming faster than others. Earth’s warming trends are most pronounced in the Arctic, which the GISTEMP analysis shows is warming more than three times as fast as the rest of the globe over the past 30 years, according to Schmidt.
The loss of Arctic sea ice – whose annual minimum area is declining by about 13 percent per decade – makes the region less reflective, meaning more sunlight is absorbed by the oceans and temperatures rise further still. This phenomenon, known as Arctic amplification, is driving further sea ice loss, ice sheet melt and sea level rise, more intense Arctic fire seasons, and permafrost melt.
Land, Sea, Air and Space
NASA’s analysis incorporates surface temperature measurements from more than 26,000 weather stations and thousands of ship- and buoy-based observations of sea surface temperatures.
NASA measures Earth's vital signs from land, air, and space with a fleet of satellites, as well as airborne and ground-based observation campaigns. The satellite surface temperature record from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument aboard NASA’s Aura satellite confirms the GISTEMP results of the past seven years being the warmest on record. Satellite measurements of air temperature, sea surface temperature, and sea levels, as well as other space-based observations, also reflect a warming, changing world.
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Fossil fuels caused 8.7 million deaths globally in 2018, new research reveals
by Guardian News, agencies
Air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil was responsible for 8.7 million deaths globally in 2018, a staggering one in five of all people who died that year, new research has found.
Countries with the most prodigious consumption of fossil fuels to power factories, homes and vehicles are suffering the highest death tolls, with the study finding more than one in 10 deaths in both the US and Europe were caused by the resulting pollution, along with nearly a third of deaths in eastern Asia, which includes China. Death rates in South America and Africa were significantly lower.
The enormous death toll is higher than previous estimates and surprised even the study’s researchers. “We were initially very hesitant when we obtained the results because they are astounding, but we are discovering more and more about the impact of this pollution,” said Eloise Marais, a geographer at University College London and a study co-author. “It’s pervasive. The more we look for impacts, the more we find.”
The 8.7m deaths in 2018 represent a “key contributor to the global burden of mortality and disease”, states the study, which is the result of collaboration between scientists at Harvard University, the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London. The death toll exceeds the combined total of people who die globally each year from smoking tobacco plus those who die of malaria.
Scientists have established links between pervasive air pollution from burning fossil fuels and cases of heart disease, respiratory ailments and even the loss of eyesight. Without fossil fuel emissions, the average life expectancy of the world’s population would increase by more than a year, while global economic and health costs would fall by about $2.9tn.
This new research deploys a more detailed analysis of the impact of sooty airborne particles thrown out by power plants, cars, trucks and other sources. This particulate matter is known as PM2.5 as the particles are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter – or about 30 times smaller than the diameter of the average human hair. These tiny specks of pollution, once inhaled, lodge in the lungs and can cause a variety of health problems.
“We don’t appreciate that air pollution is an invisible killer,” said Neelu Tummala, an ear, nose and throat physician at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “The air we breathe impacts everyone’s health but particularly children, older individuals, those on low incomes and people of color. Usually people in urban areas have the worst impacts.”
The death toll outlined in the study may even be an underestimate of the true picture, according to George Thurston, an expert in air pollution and health at the NYU school of medicine who was not involved in the research. “Overall, however, this new work makes clearer than ever that, when we talk about the human cost of air pollution or climate change, the major causes are one and the same – fossil fuel combustion,” he said.
“Fossil fuels have a really large impact upon health, the climate and the environment and we need a more immediate response,” said Marais. “Some governments have carbon-neutral goals but maybe we need to move them forward given the huge damage to public health. We need much more urgency.”
Top scientists warn of 'ghastly future of mass extinction' and climate disruption
The planet is facing a “ghastly future of mass extinction, declining health and climate-disruption upheavals” that threaten human survival because of ignorance and inaction, according to an international group of scientists, who warn people still haven’t grasped the urgency of the biodiversity and climate crises.
The 17 experts, including Prof Paul Ehrlich from Stanford University, author of The Population Bomb, and scientists from Mexico, Australia and the US, say the planet is in a much worse state than most people – even scientists – understood.
“The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms – including humanity – is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts,” they write in a report in Frontiers in Conservation Science which references more than 150 studies detailing the world’s major environmental challenges.
The delay between destruction of the natural world and the impacts of these actions means people do not recognise how vast the problem is, the paper argues. “[The] mainstream is having difficulty grasping the magnitude of this loss, despite the steady erosion of the fabric of human civilisation.”
The report warns that climate-induced mass migrations, more pandemics and conflicts over resources will be inevitable unless urgent action is taken.
“Ours is not a call to surrender – we aim to provide leaders with a realistic ‘cold shower’ of the state of the planet that is essential for planning to avoid a ghastly future,” it adds.
Dealing with the enormity of the problem requires far-reaching changes to global capitalism, education and equality, the paper says. These include abolishing the idea of perpetual economic growth, properly pricing environmental externalities, stopping the use of fossil fuels, reining in corporate lobbying, and empowering women, the researchers argue.
The report comes months after the world failed to meet a single UN Aichi biodiversity target, created to stem the destruction of the natural world, the second consecutive time governments have failed to meet their 10-year biodiversity goals. This week a coalition of more than 50 countries pledged to protect almost a third of the planet by 2030.
An estimated one million species are at risk of extinction, many within decades, according to a recent UN report.
“Environmental deterioration is infinitely more threatening to civilisation than Trumpism or Covid-19,” Ehrlich told the Guardian.
In The Population Bomb, published in 1968, Ehrlich warned of imminent population explosion and hundreds of millions of people starving to death. Although he has acknowledged some timings were wrong, he has said he stands by its fundamental message that population growth and high levels of consumption by wealthy nations is driving destruction.
He told the Guardian: “Growthmania is the fatal disease of civilisation - it must be replaced by campaigns that make equity and well-being society’s goals - not consuming more junk.”
Large populations and their continued growth drive soil degradation and biodiversity loss, the new paper warns. “More people means that more synthetic compounds and dangerous throwaway plastics are manufactured, many of which add to the growing toxification of the Earth. It also increases the chances of pandemics that fuel ever-more desperate hunts for scarce resources.”
The effects of the climate emergency are more evident than biodiversity loss, but still, society is failing to cut emissions, the paper argues. If people understood the magnitude of the crises, changes in politics and policies could match the gravity of the threat.
“Our main point is that once you realise the scale and imminence of the problem, it becomes clear that we need much more than individual actions like using less plastic, eating less meat, or flying less. Our point is that we need big systematic changes and fast,” Professor Daniel Blumstein from the University of California Los Angeles, who helped write the paper, told the Guardian.
The paper cites a number of key reports published in the past few years including:
The World Economic Forum report in 2020, which named biodiversity loss as one of the top threats to the global economy. The 2019 IPBES Global Assessment report which said 70% of the planet had been altered by humans.
The 2020 WWF Living Planet report, which said the average population size of vertebrates had declined by 68% in the past five decades. A 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report which said that humanity had already exceeded global warming of 1C above pre-industrial levels and is set to reach 1.5C warming by potentially 2030.
The report follows years of stark warnings about the state of the planet from the world’s leading scientists, including a statement by 11,000 scientists in 2019 that people will face “untold suffering due to the climate crisis” unless major changes are made.
In 2016, more than 150 of Australia’s climate scientists wrote an open letter to the then prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, demanding immediate action on reducing emissions. In the same year, 375 scientists – including 30 Nobel prize winners – wrote an open letter to the world about their frustrations over political inaction on climate change.
Prof Tom Oliver, an ecologist at the University of Reading, who was not involved in the report, said it was a frightening but credible summary of the grave threats society faces under a “business as usual” scenario. “Scientists now need to go beyond simply documenting environmental decline, and instead find the most effective ways to catalyse action,” he said.
Prof Rob Brooker, head of ecological sciences at the James Hutton Institute, who was not involved in the study, said it clearly emphasised the pressing nature of the challenges.“We certainly should not be in any doubt about the huge scale of the challenges we are facing and the changes we will need to make to deal with them,” he said.
A coalition of NGOs is calling for an urgent ban on destructive bottom trawling in EU marine protected areas, after the failure of member states to defend seas.
The ban is part of a 10-point action plan to “raise the bar” to achieve biodiversity targets, which they say will not be met by current promises, such as last year’s high-profile pledge by world leaders at the UN summit on biodiversity in New York to reverse nature loss by 2030.
A raft of EU laws to safeguard marine life – including a duty on EU member states to achieve “good environmental status” in seas by 2020, to achieve healthy ecosystems and to introduce sustainable fisheries management – have not been enforced, says the group, which includes Oceana in Europe, Greenpeace and ClientEarth.
They warn that this failure, combined with existing pressures on Europe’s seas, including climate change, risks triggering irreversible changes to the ecological conditions under which humanity has evolved and thrived.
The 10-point call to action, which the groupwill present to EU leaders, MEPs and member states, follows the commitment of Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European commission, and many EU heads of state or government, to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.
The call was published in response to a European parliament draft report on the EU’s biodiversity strategy for 2030. That draft report, which will be presented to the environment committee on Thursday, expresses strong regret that the EU has “neither fully met the 2020 biodiversity strategy objectives nor the global Aichi biodiversity targets”.
While the NGOs welcomed the draft report, they said it does not go far enough to ensure enforcement of current EU laws or to set action plans to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.
Rebecca Hubbard, programme director of Our Fish, which aims to end overfishing, said: “The EU has failed to achieve good environmental status for EU seas and the EU biodiversity strategy must be implemented if we are to have a chance of saving it – this implementation needs to include the 10 action points we have in our report.”
She said the EU has also failed to end overfishing, and to protect marine habitats from bottom trawling. “What we really need to do is go from strategies and goals to action and outcomes. National pledges, goals and agreements are important for setting a direction but if we are going to save the planet we need action.”
The 10-point action plan calls for a network of fully and highly protected ocean sanctuaries covering at least 30% of the oceans by 2030 and a drastic improvement in fisheries protections. It urges the EU to commit resources to dramatically ramp up, implement and enforce existing legislation to safeguard marine life.
The groups also call on the EU to carry out environmental impact assessments of fishing activities, to set fishing limits with “precautionary buffers” for climate change and mandatory remote monitoring systems for all fishing fleets. It calls for measures to mitigate bycatch and for protections of the deep sea, such as closing sensitive areas to hydrocarbon exploration. And it calls for an end to harmful fishing subsidies and controls on underwater noise.
Nicolas Fournier, the campaign director for marine protection at Oceana Europe, said: “The EU 2030 biodiversity strategy is strong on marine protection targets, but we want the European parliament to raise further the EU’s ambition on biodiversity, both internationally to champion the 30% of ocean protection and support the UN treaty for the high-seas, but also in Europe to call for a ban of all destructive fishing gear inside marine protected areas, starting with bottom-trawling.”
Fewer than 1% of European marine protected areas are fully off-limits to fishing. Last month, the European court of auditors warned the EU had failed to halt marine biodiversity loss in Europe’s waters and to restore fishing to sustainable levels. In 2019, the European Environment Agency found “signs of stress at all scales” and warned the current and historical use of Europe’s seas was “taking its toll” on marine ecosystems.
The call for action comes just days after warnings from international scientists that the planet is facing a “ghastly future of mass extinctions, declining health and climate-disruption upheavals” that threaten human survival.
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