By Sharon Atieno

Despite 2020 being recorded as one of the three warmest years on record, the year was marked with an increasing occurrence and intensification of extreme events, and severe losses and damage increasing peoples’ vulnerability amidst the pandemic, a new report finds.

The report on the State of the Global Climate 2020 documents indicators of the climate system, including greenhouse gas concentrations, increasing land and ocean temperatures, sea level rise, melting ice and glacier retreat and extreme weather. It also highlights impacts on socio-economic development, migration and displacement, food security and land and marine ecosystems.

With concentration of major greenhouse gases increasing in 2019 and 2020; the report compiled by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and its partners finds that carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration is on the rise, and if the pattern continues, 2021 levels of CO2 are likely to be higher.

Though oceans play a significant role in absorbing CO2 emissions from the atmosphere, the CO2 reacts with the sea water leading to ocean acidification, thus reducing its capacity to perform this role. The ocean acidification and deoxygenation have continued impacting ecosystems, marine life and fisheries, the report notes. Ocean warming has also increased over the years surpassing the long-term average.

Also, the report finds that despite a small drop in global mean sea level in the summer of 2020 which was associated with developing La Niña conditions, the global mean sea level continued to rise in 2020.

The 2020 Arctic sea-ice extent minimum after the summer melt was 3.74 million km2, marking only the second time on record that it shrank to less than 4 million km2, however, the report observes that record low sea-ice extents were observed in the months of July and October.

“Record high temperatures north of the Arctic Circle in Siberia triggered an acceleration of sea-ice melt in the East Siberian and Laptev Seas, which saw a prolonged marine heatwave. The sea-ice retreat during the summer 2020 in the Laptev Sea was the earliest observed in the satellite era,” the report says.

“The Greenland ice sheet continued to lose mass. Although the surface mass balance was close to the long-term average, the loss of ice due to iceberg calving was at the high end of the 40-year satellite record. In total, approximately 152 Gt of ice were lost from the Greenland ice sheet between September 2019 and August 2020.”

The Antarctic sea-ice extent remained close to the long-term average, despite a standard ice loss of approximately 175 to 225 Gt per year, due to the increasing flow rates of major glaciers in West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula, the report notes. A loss of 200 Gt of ice per year corresponds to about twice the annual discharge of the river Rhine (about 15000 m3/s) in Europe.

According to the WMO report, heavy rain and extensive flooding occurred over large parts of Africa and Asia in 2020. While the Indian subcontinent and neighbouring areas, China, the Republic of Korea and Japan, and parts of South-East Asia also received abnormally high rainfall at various times of the year; the heavy rainfall triggered a locust outbreak in the Greater Horn of Africa.

“Severe drought affected many parts of the interior of South America in 2020, with the worst-affected areas being northern Argentina, Paraguay and the western border areas of Brazil. The estimated agricultural losses were near US$ 3 billion in Brazil, with additional losses in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay,” the report notes.

“Long-term drought continued to persist in parts of southern Africa, particularly the Northern and Eastern Cape Provinces of South Africa, although winter rains helped in the continuing recovery from the extreme drought situation which peaked in 2018.”

According to the report increased temperatures resulted in prolonged and widespread wildfires in some regions of the Siberian Arctic and the United States of America (USA) for example.

Extremely high temperatures were observed for example in Death Valley in California 54.4°C on 16 August, the highest known temperature in the world in at least the last 80 years.

Also, in the Caribbean, major heatwaves occurred in April and September. Cuba saw a new national temperature record of 39.7°C on 12 April. Further extreme heat in September saw national or territorial records set for Dominica, Grenada and Puerto Rico.

Australia broke heat records in early 2020, including the highest observed temperature in an Australian metropolitan area, in western Sydney, when Penrith reached 48.9°C. The summer was very hot in parts of East Asia. Hamamatsu (41.1°C) equalled Japan’s national record on 17 August.

Europe experienced drought and heatwaves during summer 2020, although these were generally not as intense as in 2018 and 2019. In the eastern Mediterranean with all-time records set in Jerusalem (42.7°C) and Eilat (48.9°C) on 4 September, following a late July heatwave in the Middle East in which Kuwait Airport reached 52.1°C and Baghdad 51.8°C.

With 30 named storms, the 2020 North Atlantic hurricane season had its largest number of named storms on record. There were a record 12 landfalls in the United States of America, breaking the previous record of nine, the report observes.

Hurricane Laura reached category 4 intensity and made landfall on 27 August in western Louisiana, leading to extensive damage and US$ 19 billion in economic losses. Laura was also associated with extensive flood damage in Haiti and the Dominican Republic in its developing phase.

Also, the last storm of the season, Iota, was also the most intense, reaching category 5 before landfall in Central America.

According to the report, Cyclone Amphan which made landfall on 20 May near the India-Bangladesh border was the costliest tropical cyclone on record for the North Indian Ocean, with reported economic losses in India of approximately US$14 billion, while 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 (or higher) at its initial landfall, making it one of the most intense landfalls on record.

Tropical Cyclone Harold had significant impacts in the northern islands of Vanuatu on 6 April, affecting about 65% of the population and also resulting in damage in Fiji, Tonga and the Solomon Islands.

Also, Storm Alex in early October brought extreme winds to western France with gusts as high as 186 km/h, whilst heavy rain extended across a wide area. 3 October was the wettest area- averaged day on record for the United Kingdom with a national average of 31.7 mm, whilst extreme rainfall occurred near the Mediterranean coast on both sides of the France-Italy border, with 24‑hour totals exceeding 600 mm in Italy and 500 mm in France.

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

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.

Events in the second half of the year, including displacements linked to flooding across the Sahel region, the active Atlantic hurricane season, and typhoon impacts in South-East Asia, are expected to bring the total for the year close to the average for the decade.

In 2020, COVID-19 added a new and unwelcome dimension to weather, climate and water-related hazards, with wide-ranging combined impacts on human health and well-being. Mobility restrictions, economic downturns and disruptions to the agricultural sector exacerbated the effects of extreme weather and climate events along the entire food supply chain, elevating levels of food insecurity and slowing the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The pandemic also disrupted weather observations and complicated disaster risk reduction efforts.

More than 50 million people were doubly hit in 2020 by climate-related disasters (floods, droughts and storms) and by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.  This worsened food insecurity and added another layer of risk to evacuation, recovery and relief operations related to high-impact events.

Lessons and opportunities for enhancing climate action

According to the International Monetary Fund, while the current global recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may make it challenging to enact the policies needed for mitigation, it also presents opportunities to set the economy on a greener path by boosting investment in green and resilient public infrastructure, thus supporting GDP and employment during the recovery phase.

Adaptation policies aimed at enhancing resilience to a changing climate, such as investing in disaster-proof infrastructure and early warning systems, risk sharing through financial markets, and the development of social safety nets, can limit the impact of weather-related shocks and help the economy recover faster, according to the report.

The information used in the report was sourced from a large number of National Meteorological and Hydrological Services and associated institutions, as well as Regional Climate Centres. UN partners include the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC-UNESCO), International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization(WHO)