As we begin the New Year in 2011 with snow on the ground in 49 of 50 states in the United States, we hear from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that 2010 was the hottest (tied with 2005) and wettest year on record. This tops off the hottest decade since global weather observations began, and we now see that all of the top 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1998.
A summer heat wave hit Russia and surrounding areas, where temperatures were 7.6 C (14 F) above average in July. This drove wildfires out of control, and led to the death of at least 15,000 people. The weather patterns that contributed to this unprecedented heat wave contributed to heavy rainfall in Pakistan that caused extreme flooding and submerged approximately 20 percent of the country, killing 1,500 people and displacing more than 20 million. Northwestern Australia experienced similar flooding in 2010, even before the devastating flooding that occurred in early 2011 (see this YouTube Video for some shocking pictures of a flooding river washing away dozens of cars).
Warmer temperatures do not necessarily mean less snow, as the United States saw multiple times this year. This past December, there was a weather pattern called the “negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation,” which brought cool temperatures to the United States and the seventh snowiest December on record (while many other places on the planet were warmer than average). See this incredible time lapse video of snow falling in Belmar, NJ.
Are human activities at least partially to blame for these events? Although we cannot say with certainty that a single flood or heat event is due to human-caused climate change, the science is clear that human activities are driving global temperatures up and scientists expect more intense storms due to this warming of the Earth. This is because carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases trap heat inside the Earth’s atmosphere, not allowing it to escape back out into space. Then, as temperatures increase, more water is evaporated and can be held in the warmer air, which results in a greater amount of precipitation falling.
The National Academy of Sciences reported earlier this year that “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities and poses significant risks for — and in many cases is already affecting — a broad range of human and natural systems.” Although no single heat wave or flood proves humans are the cause of climate change, however, as these events provide evidence that supports what scientists have been saying — they expect types of heat waves and flooding to become more common due to human-caused climate change.
We also found out in 2010 that 97% of scientists who research climate change agree that humans are changing the temperature of the Earth. Scientists expect that, within 40 years, many places on Earth will experience most summers hotter than have been experienced on record to date today. Similarly, they expect both more intense flooding and more extreme drought, possibly in the same places.
The bottom line is that carbon dioxide is being emitted by humans at a faster and faster rate every year — these emissions are at the high end of what scientists have been using for projecting what future climate change will bring. And we saw in 2010 that global climate negotiations are slow in coming to legally binding agreements for reducing heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. There is a lot that can and needs to be done to prevent major impacts of climate change from becoming the norm of the future:
- We need strong global climate policy that creates a budget for cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. The United States must be a leader in developing these policies.
- We must protect our forests and other ecosystems that help capture CO2 that humans are emitting into the atmosphere. Deforestation and forest degradation contribute 12-15% of CO2 emissions today, and are vital for helping to regulate the earth’s climate.
- We must prepare for adapting to the climate change impacts that are likely to come — or in some cases may already be here. Healthy natural ecosystems provide people with many benefits, such as clean water and flood protection. Conservation can play a key role in helping people by developing ecosystem-based adaptation strategies that help make people cope with climate change.
There is no time to wait. As we saw in 2010, extreme weather events can wreck havoc on our world, impacting both people and nature — this is very likely a glimpse into what the future has in store for us in the decades and centuries to come.
(Image: Recent flooding in Brisbane, Australia. Image credit: Erik K Veland/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)