By Rachel Koning Beals
Rising global average temperatures in 2020 closed out the hottest decade since record-keeping began, conditions marked by a surge in deadly and expensive wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters.
Last year’s global temperatures were 0.6 degrees Celsius (1.08 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the 1981 to 2010 average, and 1.25 degrees Celsius (2.25 degrees Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial average, according to the latest data published Friday by the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service , just one of several researchers that track global temperatures and climate change. These average temps tied the record high reached in 2016.
A record-breaking 22 weather and climate disasters costing over $1 billion each were recorded in 2020, a separate report from the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) showed . The tally shatters the annual record of 16 costly disasters in both 2011 and 2017.
Last year kicked off with wildfires in Australia that burned a swath of land comparable in size to the the state of Florida. Wildfires in the western U.S., meanwhile, destroyed 10.3 million acres. What’s more, the Atlantic hurricane season featured a record-breaking 30 named storms . Some 1200 tornadoes were reported across the contiguous U.S. in 2020, while floods were also impacting more U.S. real estate markets . Above-average annual precipitation was observed from the Great Lakes and Plains to the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.
Wildfires are often seasonal and can be sparked by lightening, accidents and arson. But it’s the severity of droughts in the impacted areas, which scientists increasingly link to climate change, that are worsening outcomes. The increase in stronger hurricanes has been linked to rising ocean temperatures in the north Atlantic.
Annual losses in 2020 exceeded $95 billion, the fourth highest cost on record, NOAA said. The most costly events of the year included: Hurricane Laura, the Western wildfires and the Midwest derecho .
Carlo Buontempo, the director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, emphasized the Arctic’s warming in 2020. Temperatures there were more than 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) above average, and some locations saw average temperatures more than 6 degrees Celsius (10.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal for the year.
Some researchers believe the COVID-19 impact offered a temporary slowing in the rise of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions but Copernicus data showed little slowing impact from the pandemic, and any impact is believed to be fleeting.
2020 set another record with carbon dioxide concentrations reaching a maximum of 413 parts per million (ppm) during May, the researchers said, before the pandemic impact had its full grip on the global economy.
“While carbon dioxide concentrations have risen slightly less in 2020 than in 2019, this is no cause for complacency. Until the net global emissions reduce to zero, CO will continue to accumulate in the atmosphere and drive further climate change,” said Vincent-Henri Peuch, director of the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.
For the year as a whole, the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration was slightly less than what was seen in each of the past two years (2.3 ppm vs 2.5 and 2.4 in 2019 and 2018, respectively). Separate data showed that human CO2 emissions fell in 2020 by around 7%, according to the Global Carbon Project .
President Trump pulled the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2020, a voluntary global pact created five years earlier with the message that major economic powers must cooperate and lead against the threat of man-made climate change.
The pact aims to hold the increase in average global temperatures “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and ideally no more than 1.5C (2.7 F), compared to pre-industrial levels.
Trump cited uneven compliance by China, Brazil and others. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged his commitment to return the U.S. to the global effort on “day one,” while the European Union, Japan and even China has announced various targets toward net-zero emissions.