Climate’s Fingerprints on Our Weather in 2020 and Beyond

Hurricane Iota – the strongest of the year – captured by NOAA satellite on Nov. 16, 2020.     Source: NOAA

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

With 2020 in the rearview mirror, we can look back on it as a year of extremes when it came to weather, and scientists are predicting that 2021 will likely be the same. They are now increasingly confident of the impact of human-caused climate change on extreme weather. 2020 will likely tie with 2016 as the warmest years on record, including the highest-ever temperature — a scorching 130-degree day in Death Valley, CA. The Arctic sweltered through its own record temperatures just over 100 degrees, preventing sea ice from forming and disrupting wildlife. Early forecasts for the hurricane season show a more active season again this year and it is likely to be in the top 5 warmest years as well.

Why this Matters: More intense and more chaotic weather directly impacts human health and daily life. In a world where human activity didn’t warm the planet, these destructive extreme weather events are far less likely. “We’re increasingly seeing the fingerprints of climate change in our weather, including events that would be almost impossible to imagine happening without human-caused climate change,” Friederike Otto, associate director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, told Reuters. And it is inescapable — unlike a pandemic, there is no vaccine for climate change.

2020 Extreme Weather, by the Numbers


  • The Arctic’s record-breaking temperatures were at least 600 times more likely to have occurred due to climate change.
  • Australia’s wildfires, which burned through 37 million acres, were 30% more likely because of climate change.
  • In California, four of the five largest fires recorded happened last year. Since 1980, climate change has doubled the number of days with ideal fire conditions.


  •  It’s not just an increasing number of hurricanes — they’re also increasingly powerful. It’s more likely that a hurricane becomes a category three storm or higher, and that storm is also going to move slower, causing more rain and wind damage.
  • Super Typhoon Goni became the world’s strongest storm to make landfall last year when it hit the Philippines with wind speeds of up to 195 mph.
  • Hurricanes disrupted the lives of an estimated 7.3 million people in Central America

2021 Forecast? Expect More Extremes. While it’s impossible to know exactly what’s in store for the next year, there’s enough CO2 in the atmosphere to know that another year of warmer temperatures and extreme weather is ahead. “From one year to the next, there’s still a lot of random variation superimposed on top of the long term trends,” UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told TIME. “While 2020 may have been a particularly extreme year in contrast to individual years in the past, scientifically and looking forward, what’s more, meaningful is that 2020 was not really an aberration.” Future years won’t be better unless big changes are made. Although emissions briefly dipped 7% during the more intense COVID lockdowns, they’re back on track to 2019 levels. 

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

Up Next

Supreme Court Could Determine the Future of Climate Lawsuits

Supreme Court Could Determine the Future of Climate Lawsuits

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on this issue in BP Plc v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, which could determine whether or not oil companies are held accountable for climate change damages to cities and states.

Why This Matters: If SCOTUS rules in favor of BP, future climate litigation will likely be fought in federal courts, which experts say are “less responsive to expansive legal theories,”  and thus less likely to rule in favor of these innovative new climate cases based on state law. Whoever wins this case will have a leg up in future climate litigation.  


Continue Reading 633 words
Dr. Michael Mann’s Plan to Fight Back Against Climate “Inactivists”

Dr. Michael Mann’s Plan to Fight Back Against Climate “Inactivists”

This week we sat down with Dr. Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University to talk about his new book The New Climate War in which he examined a century of history to break down science misinformation tactics deployed by industries like tobacco and oil and gas that were used to […]

Continue Reading 160 words
More Money, More Pro-Environment Policy for California

More Money, More Pro-Environment Policy for California

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer After being forced to make major cuts to California’s environmental programs just eight months ago, last week, Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed a $227 billion budget deal that would bolster a set of environmental initiatives. The proposal designates $4.1 billion to fight forest fires, reduce smog, and increase the […]

Continue Reading 465 words

Want the planet in your inbox?

Subscribe to the email that top lawmakers, renowned scientists, and thousands of concerned citizens turn to each morning for the latest environmental news and analysis.