The other crisis of 2020

This is a guest post from Emma Despland.  You might remember her from “Covid-19, Mystery Novels, and How Science Works“.

Remember back in January 2020, when the bushfires in Australia seemed the biggest catastrophe of the year, harbingers of the ever-advancing climate crisis? Now, in October, my friend in California says that, where she lives, the forest fires are a bigger concern than Covid-19 and even than the upcoming presidential election. People check their phones for fire alerts and smoke dispersal modeling to know if it’s safe to go outside. Most of the time they stay indoors with windows closed to avoid the smoke and no air-conditioning because of the power outages.

These fires are not only major disasters destroying people’s homes and threatening lives, they represent phenomena totally new within human memory. New fire phenomena that have appeared in the 21st century include firenadoes, when intense heat generates an actual tornado, not just a whirlwind, with a vortex from ground to cloud cover, and arctic tundra fires where sparse vegetation growing on permanently frozen ground catches fire and burns.  These arctic fires sometimes cause zombie fires that continue under the ice over winter to reappear the following spring. Wildfires are behaving in frightening new ways, and known firefighting techniques are proving insufficient to combat them.

This summer, dramatic heat waves have occurred around the globe:  Phoenix, Arizona saw 50 days of temperatures above 43oC. National records were set in Paraguay at 45oC and in Turkey at 47.1oC. Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Cyprus and Syria had their hottest September ever.   Tunis was likely the hottest place on earth on October 3rd at 44.3oC.  The place that has seen the most dramatic heat waves is possibly Siberia with a maximum reached at 38 oC. The town of Khatanga in Siberia hit 25oC on 22 May.  This might not seem extreme, except that the average daytime temperatures at this time of year is around 0oC. The previous record since the days of the Tsars was 12oC. 

Antarctica also saw its hottest day on record in 2020 with 18.3 oC on Feb 6th – approximately the same as Los Angeles. This record was then beaten three days later with 20.75 oC. Sustained high temperatures above freezing were rare before the 21st century, but are common now and cause large-scale melting.  Loss of polar ice is happening faster than expected. Canada’s last intact ice shelf broke off on August 11th. Arctic sea ice formation, which begins every fall starting in the Laptev Sea North of Siberia before spreading across the pole, is behind schedule. For the first time since records began, it has not yet started by the end of October.

The Atlantic hurricane season has also been headline-worthy: there have been 29 named storms so far (the season officially ends November 30th) with 22 being the earliest on record. September 2020 has seen the most storm activity ever recorded. Three Atlantic storms formed on the same day in Septermber. Eleven storms (including 4 that reached hurricane status) have made US landfall, more than ever in a single year.  On November 1st, Super Typhoon Goni also made history when it hit the Philippines with winds of 195 km/h, the strongest ever recorded for a tropical storm at landfall.

In ecological science, a tipping-point is said to occur when an ecosystem has changed so much that it crosses a threshold at which it abruptly shifts to a different state.  Scientists debate whether the Amazon has now reached a tipping point where deforestation has gone so far that the region is no longer viable as rainforest, but is shifting to a savanna, the shift happening in part by dramatic unprecedented fires like those seen this year. When the smoke clears, what will grow back (assuming the land is not cleared for agriculture): forest or savannah? Similar debates surround the question of whether widlfires in California, Australia and South America are evidence of tipping-points tipping under our eyes: ecosystems undergoing an abrupt, catastrophic transformation from one form that is no longer viable under the current climate into another, warmer, drier vegetation type. If so, these landscapes will not come back as we once knew them.

When a record is not just broken but is dramatically smashed through and pulverised, it’s not just record-breaking, it’s a new phenomenon.  For instance, speed records in sports are usually broken by milliseconds. If an athlete one day ran a marathon in 15 min less than the current record, it wouldn’t just be record-breaking, it would mean this was a totally new type of human being, like a foundling from the planet Krypton or someone who had been bitten by a radioactive mutant spider.  That’s what’s happening with the climate now.

© Emma Despland  November 12 2020

Images: Typhoon Goni approaching Manila, from NASA Worldview; Map of some record-breaking climate events that occurred in 2020.  Legend: fire, heatwave, ice melting and hurricanes. Figure generated with BioRender. This list is not comprehensive, and apparent calm in Africa likely reflects my inability to find data.

 

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