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A scorched Earth and boiling seas

The planet is surpassing dangerous new heat records. 2021 was one of the hottest years ever, while the global ocean heated up to frightening levels

Earth is surpassing dangerous new heat records.
Earth is surpassing dangerous new heat records. (Istockphoto)

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The clearest indication of global heating comes from the fact that we’re living in a new normal where global temperatures continue to remain unnaturally high, year after year. On Monday, 10 January, the European Union’s (EU) Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) reported that 2021 was the fifth hottest year on record, marginally hotter than 2015 and 2018. This assessment establishes an unbroken stretch of seven of the hottest years on record, since 2015, where 2016 and 2020 were the hottest. What scientists found alarming was that 2021 was an extremely hot year despite the cooling influence of the La Nina weather phenomenon.

This is further proof that global heating remains on a firmly upward trajectory as a result of anthropogenic climate change. The past seven years have been the warmest on record, since the late 19th century, and average global temperature was 1.1-1.2 degree Celsius above 1850-1900 levels. According to a report published by the World Meteorological Organization last year, there’s a 40% chance that by 2025, at least one year is going to be 1.5 degree Celsius hotter than pre-industrial times. According to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published last year, at current levels of carbon emissions, the world is on course to heat up by 2.7 degree Celsius by 2100. This represents a catastrophic level of heating, far above the global goal to keep temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius by the end of the century.

Also Read: Why 2022 is a crucial year to stop climate change

As the C3S report also notes, while global emissions need to halve by 2030 for the world to keep sight of the 1.5 degree goal, they are actually rising. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations continued to rise through 2021, reaching 414.3 parts per million (ppm), up by 2.4ppm in 2020. For comparison, in 1992, the year when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was formed, atmospheric CO2 concentrations was 355.9 ppm. In 1850, it was 284.7ppm. The report also notes that atmospheric concentrations of methane (CH4), a much more potent greenhouse gas, also rose by a record level of 1,876 parts per billion (ppb). For context, in 1850, this was 801 ppb. 

This steep rise in global carbon emissions is mirrored by the fact that the impacts of climate change, from super-storms to floods to droughts to loss in global snow and ice, have also accelerated. Between 1994-2017, the world lost 28 trillion tonnes of ice, raising the global sea level by 35mm; between 2000-2019, the world’s glaciers, including those in the Himalaya, lost 267 gigatonnes (Gt) of ice every year; Himalayan glaciers are currently losing ice at a rate that’s 10 times faster than the average rate of the past few centuries. Furthermore, a United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) report in October 2020 noted that the number of climate-related disasters increased from 3,656 (1980-1999) to 6,681 (2000-2019).

Also Read: Himalayan glaciers are melting faster than ever before

Another worrying report was published on 10 January, that has flown somewhat under the radar. An analysis of global ocean temperature readings by 23 scientists from around the world has found that sea temperatures have risen by 14 zettajoules (ZJ) in one year. To put that number in context, here’s the analogy drawn by one of the scientists, John Abraham in an article in The Guardian: “the oceans have absorbed heat equivalent to seven Hiroshima atomic bombs detonating each second, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

That is a seriously scary statistic, especially considering the fact that the global ocean has absorbed 90% of all heat created by climate change in the last fifty years. The study finds that the fastest warming is occurring in the Indian, Atlantic, and north Pacific Oceans. The study, published in the journal Advances In Atmospheric Sciences, also found that the upper 2,000m of the ocean absorbed 235 ZJ of energy in 2021. The rate of ocean warming was 8 times higher in 1986-2021, as compared to 1958-1985.

Also Read: Why Arabian Sea cyclones have increased by 52% in twenty years

It is an established fact that warmer oceans result in a number of climate impacts, from supercharging storms like cyclones, accelerating the melting of polar ice sheets, thus increasing the sea level, and destroying marine habitats like coral reefs. The sharp increase in the heating of the Indian Ocean has had a direct impact on the frequency and intensity of cyclones making landfall in India. A 2021 study by Indian scientists found that the number of Arabian Sea cyclones have increased by 52% in the past 20 years. 

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