There were a record number of extreme weather events and climate related disasters in 2020. An ever warming planet has increased both the intensity and the frequency of these events. The data shows that such events are becoming more intense and more frequent. They are also growing ever more deadly and causing increasing financial losses amounting to trillions of dollars. Last year these events were compounded by COVID-19. According to a new report, last more than 50 million people were hit simultaneously by climate-related disasters and the pandemic.
Extreme Weather Linked to Rising Temperatures and Climate Change
In 2020 there were many extreme weather events and climate disasters that were documented in locations all around the world (for the complete list of extreme weather and climate related disasters in 2020 see the bottom of this page). The deadly connection between extreme weather and climate change is becoming increasingly hard to ignore. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said that the exceptional heat we saw in 2020 impacted weather patterns in many parts of the world. The record breaking heat in 2020 has been linked to last year’s record breaking hurricanes and wildfires.
While storms and floods are well known corollaries of climate change, warmer temperatures also cause a host of far flung consequences. One of the most series consequences of global warming is melting permafrost which is a tipping point that is known to have been the cause of the largest ever Arctic oil spill last year. Like a page from a horror movie, the melting permafrost can also unleash zombie pathogens. The growing number of extreme weather events and climate disasters in 2020 caused U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres to warn that greenhouse gases from fossil fuels are endangering humanity. “The state of the planet is broken. Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal,” Guterres said.
The Cost of Climate Change
Climate-related extreme weather is growing ever more costly and ever more deadly. According to Global Climate Risk Index between 1998 and 2017 a total of 526,000 people were killed by extreme weather and economic losses associated with these events totaled $3.47 trillion. Aon’s Catastrophe Report indicates that excluding the month of December there were 44 billion dollar or more weather disasters around the world in 2020 (when the month of December is factored, 2020 may break the record for the largest number of billion dollar disasters in a single year). Even without the data for the month of December, Aon says the U.S. suffered 25 billion-dollar weather disasters in 2020, surpassing Aon’s previous U.S. record of 20 in 2017.
According to NOAA, last year there were a record breaking 22 weather and climate disasters in the U.S. that killed 262 people. This includes a record setting 30 Atlantic storms and 7 tropical cyclones. At one point last year drought and heatwaves enveloped 22 percent of the contiguous U.S. making it the largest expanse on record. The total cost in damages for all of these events last year is estimated to be $95 billion. Since 1980 NOAA says these events have cost $1.875 trillion. In the last 40 years there have been 285 billion dollar extreme weather events in the U.S..
Climate Disasters are Becoming More Frequent
U.S. data from NOAA also indicates that the rate of weather and climate disasters is increasing. More than 40 percent (119) of the 285 weather and climate disasters have occurred in the last decade and more than 28 percent (81) have occurred in the last five years. Since 1980 there was a yearly average of 7 such events per year, from 2015 – 2020 the average has more than doubled to and average of 15 per year.
This trend towards increasing extreme weather and climate disasters is also borne out globally. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction published a report in October that found a “staggering” increase in climate related disasters and extreme weather events. According to their data these events have doubled from 3,665 in the period between 1980 -1999 to 6,681 in the period between 2000-2019. The report also reiterated that increasing levels of greenhouse gases (primarily from fossil fuels) are to blame.
Month-by-Month Breakdown of Climate Related Disasters in 2020
Here is a month by month summary of extreme weather and climate related disasters in 2020 from the Guardian:
JANUARY (hottest on record)
1 January: Record floods in Indonesia kill at least 19 people, with 62,000 evacuated. The national meteorological agency reports the highest daily rainfall seen in Jakarta since records began in 1866: “This is not ordinary rain.”
4 January: Temperatures in the Sydney basin hit a new high of 48.9C, the latest in a series of records in Australia. Bushfires create a 620 miles (1,000km) wide, 21 miles high smoke cloud, three times bigger than anything seen in the world before. It spreads so far that black charcoal reaches Antarctica. Scientists describe it as “a new benchmark on the magnitude of stratospheric perturbations”.
FEBRUARY (second-hottest February on record)
6 February: Record mainland Antarctic heat. The Argentinian research base Esperanza on the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula, measures a new high for the southern continent of 18.4C (65.3F).
9 February: Record Antarctic island heat. The 20.75C logged by Brazilian scientists at Seymour Island is almost a full degree higher than the previous record of 19.8C in 1982. This has still to be confirmed by the WMO.
MARCH (second-hottest March on record)
31 March: The Australian bushfire season comes to an end after more than six months of destruction – 33 fatalities, 3,000 homes burned, and more than 10m hectares (25m acres) razed. Wildlife deaths are estimated at more than 1bn mammals, birds and reptiles combined, and hundreds of billions of insects. From the beginning of September 2019 to 23 February 2020, bushfires have emitted 434m tonnes of carbon dioxide, equivalent to about three-quarters of the discharges of Australian industry. Studies by the WWA indicate the bushfires were made at least 30% more probable by human-driven climate change. The summer of 2019-2020 is the second-hottest ever, after the previous year’s summer.
APRIL (second-hottest April on record)
30 April: Asia and Europe record their warmest first four months ever. In China, Yunnan reports the worst drought in 10 years. The Yunnan drought sparks seven forest fires and leaves 1.5 million people with water shortages.
MAY (Joint-hottest May on record)
11 May: Devastating floods in Kenya and Uganda after heavy rain lead to 200 deaths, and the displacement of at least 400,000 people.
20 May: Super-cyclone Amphan is the fiercest storm to hit the Bay of Bengal this century, with winds of 118mph (190kmh). Two million people are evacuated, 129 killed. It is the costliest tropical cyclone on record, with losses in India of $14bn (£10bn).
JUNE (third-hottest June on record
20 June: Record Arctic heat. The Russian town of Verkhoyansk registers 38C (more than 100F) amid a freakishly prolonged Siberian heatwave. Siberian wildfires cover almost 1m hectares and release 59m tonnes of carbon dioxide, surpassing last year’s record. On average, temperatures in this region of the Arctic have been 5C above average in the first six months of the year. Scientists from the WWA say this was made at least 600 times more probable by human emissions.
JULY (second-hottest July on record)
24 July: A third of Bangladesh is underwater after the most prolonged monsoon flooding this century, killing 550 and affecting 9.6 million people across the subcontinent.
31 July: Lowest Arctic sea ice extent for July since the beginning of satellite observations in 1979. The 7.1m km2 is 27% below the 1981-2010 average for this time of year.
AUGUST (second-hottest August on record)
13 August: Two months of record rainfall in southern China kills 219 people, prompts the evacuation of 4 million, and causes $26bn in economic losses. The Three Gorges Dam inflow hits a record 72,000 cubic meters a second. The megacity of Chongqing is put on its highest flooding alert since 1981.
16 August: Hottest summer ever in the northern hemisphere. Death Valley records a temperature of 54.4C (129.9F), the third-highest on Earth since 1931 (and the two previous records are in question).
26 August: Record fires in California. More than 405,000 hectares burn in nine days – more than three times the average in the “normal” wildfire season. At least five people are killed, and more than 100,000 evacuated.
28 August: Record rain in Karachi of 231mm (9 in) in a single day. Pakistan has the wettest month in its history.
SEPTEMBER (hottest on record)
4-12 September: Record flooding in the Sahel region of Africa affects 500,000 people. The White and Blue Nile burst banks. The average level of the Blue Nile reaches 17.43 metres (57.19ft), the highest since Sudan started measuring in 1912. Senegal records 124mm of rain over a seven-hour downpour – the amount that would usually be expected across the entire rainy season from July to September. Sudan imposes a three-month state of emergency on 4 September, after rains destroys about 100,000 houses and kills more than 100 people. In Nigeria, flooding damages 500,000 hectares of farm produce, amounting to about 5bn naira (£9.8m), according to NKC African Economics.
12 September: Record fires, blazing since August, consume 28% of the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetlands, spanning Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. Fires also consume 2.2m hectares of the Amazon.
OCTOBER (fourth hottest on record)
3 October: The UK has its wettest day on record after Storm Alex, with enough rain to fill Loch Ness.
4 October: Wildfires in California spread over 1.6m hectares , a new annual record for the most hectares burned in a single year.
31 October: The lowest Arctic sea ice extent for the month of October, after the latest ever start to ice formation in Laptev Sea.
NOVEMBER (second-hottest November on record)
2 November Philippines hit by Typhoon Goni, one of the strongest storms in history with gusts of up to 192 mph. At least 20 people are killed and almost a million evacuated.
17 November Iota, the strongest hurricane on record to strike Nicaragua, triggers catastrophic flooding and landslides. At least 40 people die across Central America and Colombia. It follows Hurricane Eta – the first time on record the Atlantic has had two major hurricanes in November.
22 November: Somalia is devastated by Cyclone Gati, the strongest storm to hit this part of world since records in this region began five years ago. Rainfall in two days equals the two-year average. At least eight dead.
1 December: Record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season ends. Thirty storms grew strong enough to earn a name, beating 2005’s record of 28 storms. The WMO ran out of storm names by September, turning to the Greek alphabet for labels for the first time since 2005.
4 December: The bushfire season starts early in Australia with devastating wildfires on Fraser Island as experts worry that the months ahead could be disastrous.
12 December: The World Meteorological Agency says 2020 is certain to be among the three hottest years ever recorded. Although global emissions are likely to have fallen by 7% this year, carbon concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise. The UN reports global heating in on course to reach 3.2C by the end of the century because governments are not taking sufficient climate action to keep temperatures to the Paris Agreement target of 1.5C to 2C.
30 December: Almost one year on from the first reported case of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China, the worldwide death toll of the pandemic has passed 1.6 million people and is estimated to cause $28tn of losses. Scientists have warned such outbreaks will become more common as the world’s natural life support systems, including the climate, break down as a result of rising temperatures, deforestation and the illegal wildlife trade.