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Natural disasters due to extreme weather hit 62 million people in 2018, as the impacts of manmade climate change keep worsening around the world

Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent due to climate change (Photo by Myriam)

Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent due to climate change (Photo by Myriam)

When it started raining heavily in Kerala in the second week of August last year, nobody knew what was in store. By the 22nd, the southern India state received more than 200% of the average rainfall for two running weeks. At Nilambar, as much as 400 mm fell on August 9, and at Peermade, 620 mm in 2 days on August 15-16.

Such extreme rainfall led to major flooding, the worst since 1924. More than 200 people died and some 1.4 million people had to be shifted to relief camps, according to India’s National Disaster Management Authority. Total economic losses stood at USD 4.3 billion, even as over 5.4 million people were affected in some way.

The disastrous flooding of Kerala was but one extreme weather event in 2018 that led to widespread suffering. Extreme weather affected 62 million people worldwide in 2018 and forced two million to relocate as the impacts of manmade climate change worsened, the United Nations’ weather agency reported.

Accelerating impacts

The physical signs and socioeconomic impacts of climate change are hastening, as record greenhouse gas concentrations drive global temperatures towards increasingly dangerous levels, the World Meteorological Organization said in its Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2018.

The 25th edition of the report highlighted record sea level rise, as well as exceptionally high land and ocean temperatures over the past four years. This warming trend has lasted since the start of this century and is expected to continue.

WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said that the world is seeing a growing amount of disasters because of climate change. Since 1998, about 4.5 billion people around the world have been hurt by extreme weather, he said.

“The data released in this report give cause for great concern. The past four years were the warmest on record, with the global average surface temperature in 2018 approximately 1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial baseline,” UN Secretary General António Guterres wrote in the report. “These data confirm the urgency of climate action. There is no longer any time for delay.”

Emissions growth

The WMO report comes just after the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its Global Energy & CO2 Status Report for 2018 that energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide rose steeply by 1.7% to a record 33 gigatonnes (Gt) in 2018. Energy demand grew by 2.3% last year, its quickest acceleration in this decade that was driven by a robust global economy. See: Coal main culprit in pushing up carbon emissions

Such an increase jeopardises the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to keep the rise in global temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius. The WMO report indicates that immediate action is required to mitigate the impacts of climate change and restrain runaway warming. The world is nearly 1 degree Celsius warmer since the industrial age began, the WMO said in its latest statement.

“Since the statement was first published, climate science has achieved an unprecedented degree of robustness, providing authoritative evidence of global temperature increase and associated features such as accelerating sea level rise, shrinking sea ice, glacier retreat and extreme events such as heat waves,” said Taalas.

Pronounced indications

The key climate change indicators are becoming more pronounced. Carbon dioxide levels, which were at 357 parts per million when the WMO statement was first published in 1994, keep rising and stood at 405.5 parts per million in 2017. For 2018 and 2019, greenhouse gas concentrations are expected to increase further.

Source: WMO

“Extreme weather has continued in the early 2019, most recently with Tropical Cyclone Idai, which caused devastating floods and tragic loss of life in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. It may turn out to be one of the deadliest weather-related disasters to hit the southern hemisphere,” said Taalas. “Idai’s victims personify why we need the global agenda on sustainable development, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction.”

The start of 2019 has already seen warm record daily winter temperatures in Europe, unusual cold in North America and searing heat waves in Australia. According to WMO’s latest Global Seasonal Climate Update (March to May), above average sea surface temperatures — partly because of a weak strength El Niño in the Pacific — is expected to lead to above-normal land temperature, particularly in tropical latitudes.

Grave implications

This has serious implications for India, where summer has arrived with a vengeance, with temperatures already exceeding 40 degrees Celsius in some parts of the country by the end of March. Even minor increases in temperatures due to climate change would lead to a dramatic rise in intense heat waves that could see many more people dying during the long Indian summer, recent research has indicated. See: Fatal heat waves to rise in India

Heat waves in 2010 killed more than 1,300 people in Ahmedabad city alone, prompting efforts to develop heat action plans. In 2013 and 2015, the country experienced bouts of intense heat waves that killed more than 1,500 and 2,500 people across the country, respectively.

Since then, there have been several more deadly heat waves, including the most intense in recorded history in May 2016 when maximum temperatures in Jaisalmer, a desert city in Rajasthan, reached a scalding 52.4°C.

In 2018, more than 1,600 deaths were associated with intense heat waves and wildfires in Europe, Japan and the US, where they were associated with record economic damages of nearly USD 24 billion in the US alone, the WMO said.

Between 2000 and 2016, the number of people exposed to heat waves was estimated to have increased by around 125 million people, as the average length of heat waves was 0.37 days longer, compared with the period between 1986 and 2008, according to the World Health Organization. These trends raise alarm bells for the public health community as extreme temperature events are expected to be further increasing in their intensity, frequency and duration, WMO said.

Rainfall and floods

Floods continued to affect the largest number of people, more than 35 million, according to an analysis of 281 events recorded by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) and the UN International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction, the WMO said. Kerala suffered the heaviest rainfall and worst flooding in nearly a century, it said.

There was extensive property damage during the Kerala floods (Photo by Johnson Jamet)

There was extensive property damage during the Kerala floods (Photo by Johnson Jamet)

The report also pointed out that extreme climate is impacting farming on a large scale, threatening to reverse gains made in ending malnutrition. New evidence shows a continuing rise in world hunger after a prolonged decline, according Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Programme. In 2017, the number of undernourished people was estimated to have increased to 821 million, partly due to severe droughts associated with the strong El Niño of 2015-16.

The WMO also said that out of the 17.7 million internally displaced persons tracked by the International Organization for Migration, over 2 million people were displaced due to disasters linked to weather and climate events as of September 2018. Drought, floods and storms (including hurricanes and cyclones) led to the most disaster-induced displacement in 2018.

Climate indicators

Last year also saw new records for ocean heat content in the upper 700 metres and upper 2000 metres, topping the previous record set in 2017. More than 90% of the energy trapped by greenhouse gases goes into the oceans and ocean heat content provides a direct measure of this energy accumulation in the upper layers of the ocean.

Sea level continues to rise at an accelerated rate, the WMO reported. The global mean sea level for 2018 was around 3.7 mm higher than in 2017 and the highest on record. Increasing loss of ice mass is the main cause of the acceleration is the rise in sea levels, it said.

Glaciers around the world continue to retreat, the report said. Preliminary results for 2018 by the World Glacier Monitoring Service, based on a subset of glaciers, indicate that the hydrological year 2017-18 was the 31st consecutive year of negative mass balance, the WMO said.


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