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Here’s why 2020 is the worst year so far in terms of Climate Change

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If not for COVID-19, this would be the top news this year. 2020 could very well be the worst year in terms of Climate Change. Climate-related extreme weather events have broken all records in 2020. In the United States alone, the first nine months of 2020 tie with the annual record of 16 events that occurred in 2011 and 2017.

Extreme weather events prove expensive for US

According to NOAA, as of October 7, 2020, there have been 16 weather/climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each to affect the US. These included one drought event, eleven severe storms, three tropical cyclones, and one wildfire, resulting in 188 deaths and significant economic effects. While the 1980–2019 CPI-adjusted annual average is 6.6 events, the annual average for the most recent five years (2015–2019) has leaped to 13.8 events.

2020 worst year Climate Change
As of October 7, 2020, there have been 16 weather/climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each to affect the US. Courtesy NOAA

2020 is the sixth consecutive year in which more than 10 billion-dollar weather disasters impacted the US. Over the last 41 years (1980-2020), the years with 10 or more separate billion-dollar disaster events include 1998, 2008, 2011-2012, and 2015-2020.

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Record wildfires raging in America

There has been an unprecedented outbreak of wildfires across the entire Western United States this summer. In California, fires have consumed over 4 million acres since 2020 beginning, which is twice more than the 2018 record. A Climate Central analysis of 45 years of US Forest Service records from the western parts of the country shows that the number of large fires on Forest Service land is increasing dramatically. The area burned by these fires is also growing at an alarming rate.

Scientists have pointed to the region’s changing weather. Snowpacks are melting earlier as winter and spring temperatures rise, and in most states an increasing percentage of winter precipitation is falling as rain, meaning there is often less snowpack to begin with. This is leading to rise in summer temperatures, particularly in Southwestern states, where forests and grasslands are dried out and ready to burn, creating the perfect ground for wildfires.

2020 worst year Climate Change
Number of large fires on US Forest Service land is increasing dramatically. Courtesy Climate Central

Climate Central notes, across the Western US, the average annual number of large fires (larger than 1,000 acres) burning each year has more than tripled between the 1970s and the 2010s. The area burned by these fires has shown an even larger increase: in an average year, more than six times as many acres across the West were burned in the 2010s than in the 1970s. The fire season is 105 days longer than it was in the 1970, and is approaching the point where the notion of a fire season will be made obsolete by the reality of year-round wildfires across the West.

The conditions are likely to get worse in the coming times. Climate Central’s project States at Risk analyzed historical climate data and downscaled climate projections from 29 different global climate models, and found that in most western states, the climate conditions that can stoke summer wildfires are projected to increase substantially in the relatively short period between now and 2050. Arizona is expected to see more than a month of additional high-risk fire days by 2050.

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2020 second warmest year on record

The year 2020 is now the second-warmest year on record, trailing only 2019, with the previous decade producing seven of the hottest 10 years in history. The July 2020 globally averaged land and ocean surface temperature departure from average tied with 2016 as the second highest for the month in 141-year history of NOAA’s global temperature dataset record. Only July 2019 was hotter, that too by a fraction of a degree. 

2020 worst year Climate Change
2020 is now the second-warmest year on record, trailing only 2019, that too by a fraction of a degree. Courtesy NOAA
2020 worst year Climate Change
July 2020 was characterized by warmer-than-average temperatures across much of the global land and ocean surface. Courtesy NOAA

At 1.66 degree F (0.92 degree C), the global land and ocean surface temperature recorded in July 2020 was above the 20th-century average of 60.4 degree F (15.8 degree C). July 2020 marked the 44th consecutive July and the 427th consecutive month with temperatures, at least nominally, above the 20th-century average.

The previous witnessed nine of the 10 warmest Julys, six of the warmest ones coming in the last six years (2015-2020), according to NOAA. The most notable warm temperature departures of at least +3.6 degree F (+2.0 degree C) were present across the North Pacific Ocean, the southwestern and northeastern contiguous US, eastern Canada and across parts of western Asia and eastern Antarctica. 

Alarming state of the Arctic

While some regions in the Arctic saw all-time high temperatures this summer – touching 38 degree C (100 degree F) in Siberian town of Verkhoyansk on June 22, 18 degree C higher than the average maximum daily temperature in June — the Arctic sea ice is currently at its second lowest. On September 15, Arctic sea ice likely reached its annual minimum extent of 3.74 million sq km. The minimum ice extent is the second lowest in the 42-year-old satellite record, according to National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC) of the US. “We are headed towards a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean, and this year is another nail in the coffin,” said NSIDC Director Mark Serreze.

2020 worst year Climate Change
NASA image shows Arctic sea ice on September 15, 2020, when it averaged 3.74 million sqkm — the second lowest in the satellite record. Courtesy NSIDC / NASA Earth Observatory.

In July, scientists at the European Copernicus Climate Change Service reported that the unusually warm spell in the Arctic, which has seen record temperatures, continues. During the January-May period, the average temperature in north-central Siberia was consistently 8 degrees Celsius above average. They also reported that average temperatures for June were on par with 2019’s worldwide record, and exceptionally high temperatures in Arctic Siberia. The scientists also reiterated that the Arctic “as a whole has been warming substantially faster than the rest of the world.”

Average surface air temperature over Arctic Siberia for each June
Average surface air temperature over Arctic Siberia for each June from 1900 to 2020, relative to the June average for the 1981-2010 reference period. Courtesy: Copernicus; ECMWF; GISTEMP.

Ocean surface is warming up faster

Already a latest study warns that the upper parts of the oceans are heating up faster, which distinctly increases the chances of intense tropical storms and interferes with the absorption of CO2 by oceans. The phenomenon, called ocean stratification, is happening faster than scientists expected, finds a recently published study by the journal Nature. That means the negative impacts will arrive faster and also be greater than expected. Increased stratification of the ocean could drive a vicious cycle of warming of the seas — the more heat stays near the surface, the warmer will be the atmosphere above. 

Global stratification change since 1960.
Global stratification change since 1960. Courtesy Nature

The research suggests that if the ocean surface warms faster and less carbon is carried to the depths, that could lead atmospheric CO2 to triple and the global average temperature could increase 8 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.

Things are so bad that one could think it could only get better from here, right? Wrong. According to United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), a fast-warming planet will likely lead to more record-breaking blazes and more extreme weather events.

Is there a silver lining at all?

Which is why two pieces of news last week come as a silver lining. On October 6, the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted to adopt a new climate law that mandates 60% reduction in GHG emissions by the end of the decade, up from 40% currently.

On October 2, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden vowed to bar from his transition team any “leaders” of fossil fuel companies. Biden’s pledge, however, invited cautious cheer from environmentalists who have urged the former Vice President to go further by banning Big Oil lobbyists from both his transition team and cabinet. Coming closely on the back of China’s pledge to be zero-carbon by 2030, both are much-warranted steps towards ensuring that Paris climate goals are reached.

In its latest World Economic Outlook, the IMF makes the case for taking a green recovery route. Countries should opt for a green investment stimulus, which, it reasons, will achieve two goals. While this will boost global GDP and employment in the initial years, the green infrastructure will also increase productivity in low-carbon sectors, thereby incentivizing private sector investments and making it easier to adapt to higher carbon prices. The net effect will approximately halve the expected output loss from Climate Change and provide long-term, real GDP gains well above the current course 2050 onwards.