Extreme weather and Covid-19: a double blow for climate in 2020

Hurricane Florence approaching Myrtle Beach in the US in 2018. Two years later, the North Atlantic counted an all-time record of 30 named storms. (Credit: David Goldman - AP/Keystone)

The world is running out of time to tackle the climate crisis after another unprecedented year of extreme weather events "caused by human activities, human decisions and human folly", the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has warned.

The WMO’s sobering State of the Global Climate 2020 shows that not only has the global average temperature reach around 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels but all climate change indicators worsened last year, in what was one of the three warmest years on record.

The coronavirus pandemic accelerated impacts, the WMO said, dealing a “double blow” to millions of people hit by climate-related disasters, as lockdowns and quarantines made it even more difficult for them to receive help.

Despite a temporary dip in greenhouse gas emissions due to lockdowns, concentrations in the atmosphere continued to increase, while extreme events such as hurricanes, floods and heatwaves set new devastating records.

“We are on the verge of the abyss…this frightening report shows that we have no time to waste,” said United Nations secretary-general António Guterres at the presentation of the findings of the report.

The report comes ahead of the Leaders Summit on Climate taking place 22-23 April where President Biden is expected to galvanise efforts by the major economies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet the targets of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

This is the year for action,” Guterres said. “Countries need to commit to net zero emissions by 2050. They need to submit, well ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, ambitious national climate plans that will collectively cut global emissions by 45 per cent compared to 2010 levels by 2030.”

Below are eight “relentless, continuing” effects of climate change highlighted by the report and affecting people, societies, and economies. Set to intensify in the coming decades, they could be alleviated by investing in adaptation and mitigation policies, the WMO report says.

1. Greenhouse gases

Concentrations of the major greenhouse gases continued to rise in 2020. Despite a temporary dip, the economic slowdown had no discernible impact on atmospheric concentrations of “the big three”, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, according to UNEP, one of the partners on the report.

“Concentrations of the major greenhouse gases continued to climb, carbon dioxide concentrations rose to a new high… 148 per cent increase above pre industrial levels,” confirmed Guterres.

EPA?Justin Lane.jpg
A view of a power plant and traffic in New York, New York, USA, 19 April 2021. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/Justin Lane)

2. The ocean

The ocean absorbs around 23 per cent of the carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere by activities such as burning fossil fuels, acting as an important buffer against climate change. But as these levels increase, the ocean’s PH level lowers and it becomes more acidic, impacting ecosystems, marine life and fisheries, according to IOC-UNESCO. It also reduces its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The ocean also takes in more than 90 per cent of the excess heat from human activities. The past two years saw the highest ocean heat content on record: over 82 percent of the ocean area experienced at least one marine heatwave in 2020. Global sea level also rose at a higher rate partly due to the increased melting of the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Globally, sea level has been rising an average of 3.29 mm per year, peaking in 2020.

Sea level rise .png
Global mean sea level has risen throughout the satellite altimeter record (since 1993). (Credit: State of the Global Climate 2020, WMO)

3. The cryosphere

Warming does not distribute equally around the planet. Since the mid-1980s, Arctic surface air temperatures have warmed at least twice as fast as the global average with larger implications for the global climate through various feedbacks such as thawing permafrost releasing methane into the atmosphere.

Last year's Arctic sea ice cover shrank to the second-lowest extent since modern record-keeping began in the late 1970s, to less than four million million square kilometres. The Greenland ice sheet continued to lose mass, as this NASA graphic shows:

4. Floods and drought

Heavy rain and extensive flooding occurred over large parts of Africa and Asia in 2020. The Indian subcontinent, China, the Republic of Korea and Japan, and parts of South-East Asia received abnormally high rainfall at various times of the year.

Long-term drought continued to persist in parts of southern Africa, particularly the Northern and Eastern Cape Provinces. The Sahel and the Greater Horn of Africa saw a desert locust outbreak. Severe drought affected many parts of South America, especially northern Argentina, Paraguay and the western border areas of Brazil which lost US$ 3 billion in agriculture.

A car is caught in floodwaters on Hardys Road at Mudgeeraba on the Gold Coast, Australia, 06 April 2021. More than 150mm of rain has fallen across southeast Queensland with flash flooding closing numerous roads and dangerous surf conditions has closed all Gold Coast beaches and most Sunshine Coast beaches due to dangerous surf conditions. (Credit: Keystone/EPA)

5. Heat and fire

Widespread drought contributed to the largest fires ever recorded. Prolonged and widespread wildfires affected the Siberian Arctic where temperatures were more than 3°C above average, with a record temperature of 38°C in the town of Verkhoyansk.

Death Valley in California reached 54.4°C on 16 August, the highest known temperature in the world in at least the last 80 years. Penrith in western Sydney broke the sad heat records of Australia with 48.9°C. And in the Eastern Mediterranean, Jerusalem (42.7°C) and Eilat (48.9°C) hit all-time records on 4 September. In other extreme examples, Kuwait Airport reached 52.1°C and Baghdad 51.8°C following a late July heatwave in the Middle East.

CapeTown_AP Photo-Jerome Delay.jpg
A South African military helicopter drops his water load on the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday 20 April, 2021. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Jerome Delay))

6.Tropical Cyclones

The number of tropical cyclones globally was above average in 2020 with 98 tropical storms mostly driven by the North Atlantic. The hurricane season counted an all-time record of 30 named storms. Hurricane Laura reached category 4 in intensity and made landfall on 27 August in western Louisiana, leading to extensive damage and US$19bn in economic losses. The last storm of the season, Iota, was also the most intense, reaching category 5 before landfall in Central America.

The strongest tropical cyclone of the season was Typhoon Goni (Rolly) which crossed the northern Philippines on 1 November with a 10-minute mean wind speed of 220 km/h, one of the most intense landfalls on record.

May 20, cyclone Amphan near the India-Bangladesh border was the costliest tropical cyclone on record for the North Indian Ocean with approximately US$14 billion in loss.

Europe was not spared with gusts of wind as high as 186 km/h in western France with storm Alex in October; extreme rainfalls hit Italy and France and the United Kingdom saw its wettest area- averaged day on record with 31.7 mm.

Other major severe storms included a hailstorm in Calgary (Canada) on 13 June, with insured losses exceeding US$ 1 bn and hailstones as large as 20 cm fell on Tripoli (Libya) on 27 October.

A child pulls a crab trap through the mud in Holly Beach, Louisiana, amid devastation in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. (Keystone/AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

7. Covid-19

More than 50 million people were hit in 2020 by a double-whammy of climate-related disasters and the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.  Lockdowns, social distancing and all the logistical disruptions due to Covid made evacuations and relief operations all the more challenging.

Cuts in economic activity and disruptions to the agricultural sector as a result of Covid also exacerbated the effects of extreme weather and climate events along the entire food supply chain, elevating levels of food insecurity.

“About 600 million poeople are facing severe food insecurity, a recent increase partly driven by climate events,” said Secretary general of the WMO Petteri Taalas.

8. Displacement

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, some 9.8 million displacements, largely due to hydrometeorological hazards and disasters, were recorded during the first half of 2020, mainly concentrated in South and South-East Asia and the Horn of Africa. It becomes more and more difficult and it takes more and more time for people displaced by such events to return to their former homes without options for integrating locally or settling elsewhere.

Taalas warned these climate trends will continued “independent of our success in mitigation” and urged governments to invest in adaptation, where several less developed countries are still lacking crucial systems such as early warning services and weather observing networks.