2020: The hottest year and decade in record
Updated: May 22, 2021
The year 2020 started with a massive bushfire in Australia, burning millions of acres of land and devastating the wildlife and ecosystem.
Then, it continued with a pandemic forcing a lockdown in many countries for the rest of the year.
In conclusion, we spent most of our 2020 indoors. Yet, analysis by NASA shows that 2020 was the warmest year on record, tying 2016 and its El Nino effect.
Furthermore, the analysis showed an increasing trend, so we can expect that earth is just going to get hotter. But how did the earth get hotter despite the drastic slowdown in human activities?
Let’s start with the bushfire and what it’s done to the earth’s temperature.
The massive bushfire released smoke and other particles high into the atmosphere, reaching Chile and Argentina from Australia, forming a thick layer of aerosol.
This caused a slight global cooling effect to the earth, as the aerosol blocks sunlight from entering the earth.
However, the earth’s surface has to be in equilibrium with the atmosphere. Thus, if the atmosphere is getting hotter from this hot aerosol, the earth’s surface will also get warmer to reach equilibrium with the atmosphere.
Furthermore, forests that are supposed to be a source for carbon sink was destroyed and the smoke released tons of greenhouse gas emissions that affect long-term global warming.
On the other hand, the bushfires also caused direct impacts to public and wildlife health and economic and environmental cost.
The year continued with a worldwide lockdown which caused a drastic slowdown in human activities.
The sky was visibly clearer, and pollution in the atmosphere was reduced. This allowed more sunlight to reach the surface, causing a potentially slight warming effect to the earth.
However, the reduced emission in the atmosphere will contribute to the long-term global warming solution of mitigation.
Global warming evidence
El Nino and La Nina are shifts in the atmospheric circulation pattern that provides a warming effect (El Nino) or a cooling effect (La Nina) to the earth every couple of years.
The world has recorded 7 hottest years in the past 15 years, despite La Nina’s cooling influence, making this the hottest decade on record.
Furthermore, the year 2020 was the hottest year tying 2016 but without any El Nino effect. This is confirmation that the warming is caused by anthropogenic activities releasing emissions to the atmosphere.
Global warming can cause some places to feel the effect more than others.
For example, the Arctic has been heavily impacted by global warming, resulting in the melting of ice sheets at a rate of 13% of decline per decade.
This phenomenon is called the Arctic amplification, where the ice loss is shrinking the Arctic surface area and rising the sea level.
Ice sheets have a high reflective surface that can reflect solar radiation, but due to the shrinking area, more sunlight is absorbed, contributing to a further increase in surface temperature.
Another example is the bushfires in Australia, as we discussed earlier. Other effects of global warming include extreme unpredictable weather events such as hurricanes, storms, droughts, famine, new diseases, etc.
Surface temperature analysis
The plot shows the analysis of several research groups such as NASA, Hadley Center Research Unit, NOAA, and Berkeley Earth.
Data was collected from 26,000 weather stations and thousands of other observation stations of sea-surface temperatures.
The x-axis shows the decade from the pre-industrial baseline (1880-1920), and the y-axis shows the increase of mean surface temperature.
All the observed analyses are very similar to each other in describing the increased trends and peaks.
By looking at the plot, we can see that since the pre-industrial times, the mean surface temperature has increased rapidly and is not decreasing.
At this rate, to reach the goal of a 1.5° Celsius warming limit increase (Paris Climate Agreement) by 2030, the world would have to drastically reduce emissions by half.
What can we do?
We are currently living in the hottest decade on record. Although you might not feel the impacts directly, some places are!
One big evidence of the direct impact is the unusually hot summer, causing a massive bushfire in Australia, unpredictable hurricanes in the United States and Mexico, which have devastated ecosystems, cause the extinction of species, costing billions of dollars economically, and even causing death.
Meanwhile, the indirect impacts are, for example, droughts that cause water shortage and possible famine, unusual weather such as storms and heatwaves that disrupt our everyday activities, even causing new diseases to form like the COVID-19.
Researchers and scientists are working hard to develop technologies to mitigate the emissions in the atmosphere, for example, with carbon sequestering and negative emission technologies.
Governments and authorities are also creating adaptation and mitigation plans and policies to help reduce emissions to be put in the atmosphere, like the Paris Agreement.
What we can do as a society is to help policymakers in executing these solutions and targets by reducing – reduce the amount of waste we create, reusing – reuse items especially ones that are hard to degrade, and recycling – creatively reusing items for different applications.
These efforts only require a small tweak in our lifestyle. For example, by bringing our own grocery bags, using water bottles and packed lunch from home, using more public transport or carpooling, thrifting and donating clothes, etc.
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Olivia Eugenia is an Environmental Science student at the University of Western Australia. She is also an activist and a content writer at the International Youth Organization for Peace and Sustainability.
Inputs and Edits by Aswin Raghav R.