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

Wildfires

  • 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.

Hurricanes

  •  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

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