Almost all of us will have seen the many news articles throughout 2021 about extreme weather events. From record breaking high temperatures resulting in wildfires to unexpected summer rain leading to flooding, the continuous stream of “unprecedented” weather events felt relentless.
Unfortunately, this is the new normal – extreme weather events will increase in frequency, severity and impact in coming years due to the climate emergency.
How is the climate emergency increasing extreme weather events?
Human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation are trapping gases in the atmosphere which warm the Earth. Higher temperatures create more moisture in the atmosphere, which increases evaporation and dries out soil. More evaporation means there is even more moisture in the air, which results in rainfall.
Here’s a confronting look back at weather events last year:
Rain, rain and more rain…
In June, the Rio Negro River in Manaus reached a record high of 29.98 metres and stayed above 29 metres for 91 days. During this period, the State Civil Defence estimated that 455,576 people were affected by the flooding in the State of Amazonas. 58 out of 62 municipalities were impacted, with 25 declaring a state of emergency.
Meanwhile, the Pacific coast of Japan experienced torrential rain and a subsequent landslide in July. The City of Atami received 310mm of rainfall in a 48 hour period, which exceeds the average monthly rainfall total for July of 216mm. Debris flows followed the rainfall event and over 20,000 people were evacuated due to safety concerns.
Also in July, the Province of Henan in China experienced extreme rainfall. The city of Zhengzhou received 201.9mm of rainfall in one hour, a Chinese national record. Over a 72 hour period the city received 787.9mm rainfall, which is more than its annual average of 640.8mm. Flash flooding ensued, which was linked to over 302 deaths and $17.7 billion in economic losses.
In the first month of 2021, Madrid experienced its heaviest 24-hour snowfall since 1971, with over 50cm of snow falling due to Storm Filomena. Spain’s Weather Agency described the event as “exceptional and most likely historic”.
A month later, North America experienced a cold wave. The wave was particularly severe in Texas, where more than 125 deaths were recorded. Parts of Texas hit -18℃, marking it as the coldest February since 1989. During the peak of the cold snap, 10 million people were left without power.
Later in the year, the highest point of the Greenland Ice Sheet (3,216 meters) experienced rain rather than snow for the first time ever recorded. The rain fell for several hours and air temperatures remained above freezing for approximately nine hours. The total extent of surface melt on August 16th was 21.3 million square kilometres. This is significantly higher than the 1981-2010 average of 18.6 million square kilometres. To put this into context, this level of melt was spread across an area about four times the size of the UK.
Rising temperatures, rising fires
In June, the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada was exceeded. The town of Lytton, in British Columbia, experienced temperatures of 49.6℃ – exceeding the country’s previous record of 45℃ from 1937. The high temperatures ignited wildfires which scorched much of the town. To understand the extremity of this event, compare this to the all-time highest recorded temperature in Las Vegas, Nevada – a desert: 47.2℃. British Columbia declared a state of emergency due to 300 separate fires, and there were mass evacuations.
In July, following recorded temperatures of 48.8°C in Sicily, Southern Italy was engulfed in wildfires encouraged by hot winds. In Sardinia alone, 50,000 acres of wildfires destroyed olive groves, forests, farms and vineyards. Over 1,500 people had to evacuate their homes. Italy experienced 13,000 more wildfires in 2021 than in 2020.
And in Siberia in August, hot, dry weather fuelled forest fires that destroyed more than 18.6m hectares of forest. This set a new record not seen since Siberia first began monitoring forest fires with satellites in 2001. NASA satellite images showed the smoke reaching the North Pole 1,850 miles away – a first in recorded history. The wildfires released almost as much carbon as Germany does in the entirety of a year.
The seen and unseen impacts of extreme weather
Experiencing extreme weather events is traumatic and has been linked to an increase in depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders. This can be exacerbated by economic consequences, such as the destruction of homes and businesses. Read our previous article that delves deeper into ‘eco-anxiety’.
Climate migrants are pressured to leave their homes and livelihoods behind due to hazard events such as heavy flooding or droughts that lead to loss of arable farmland. Because of extreme weather events, an estimated more than 20 million people are forced to leave their homes each year. Tragically but unsurprisingly, the Global South is disproportionately affected by climate change, while also being least responsible.
Habitats are destroyed
Climate change is forcing species to adapt to new climate patterns, while the rapid onset of extreme weather events hinders animals’ ability to adapt to their new environments. The devastating Australia wildfires in 2020 scorched 46 million acres and killed or displaced nearly three billion animals.
Flooding destroys nests and habitats. Drought causes many animals to die of starvation and thirst due to the inability to access water or healthy food sources. Climate change is also further threatening at least 10,960 species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Basic needs of food and water under threat
The IPCC have stated that the increase of extreme weather associated with climate change will reduce the reliability of food production. Over the past 50 years,the impact of droughts and heatwaves on crop production loss has tripled.
Large areas of arable farmland will be lost due to rising heat and rainfall. These events degrade soil viability due to loss of nutrients and organic matter, reducing crop yields. It’s expected that areas of global cropland viability will shift, with the climate in certain locations potentially becoming unsuitable for crop growth. There is a risk that the price of grains could increase, which could be disastrous for vulnerable populations in less economically developed regions.
Lower income communities in developing nations are already vulnerable to changes in water supply, and are likely to be the most affected by water scarcity. Changes in water availability due to extreme weather impacts has been proven to trigger refugee dynamics and political instability. Unreliable water supplies and contamination of previously potable water poses a huge threat to life, specifically children. A report by UNICEF found that:
“Water and sanitation related diseases are one of the leading causes of death in children under 5 years old“Unicef
The impacts of extreme weather will mainly affect vulnerable populations
In the worst cases, extreme weather events lead to loss of life. The effects of events aren’t unilateral; different population groups will be impacted in a variety of ways. People in vulnerable geographical locations who are directly exposed to extreme weather events will be highly affected, as well as those who have lack of access to resources, information and protection.
Without radical action, The World Bank has estimated that approximately 216 million people – mainly from developing nations – will be forced to flee from the impacts of extreme weather by 2050. The burning of fossil fuels must end and drastic climate action must be taken if we are to curb this crisis before it’s too late.
- Check out this article from our archives: Earth’s Extreme Weather Events, Before & After – in pictures.
- Have a look at this interactive map of extreme weather events between January and August 2021.
- Join a local group to campaign for climate action now, such as Extinction Rebellion or Friends of the Earth. To get started, check out Climate Action.