Capital Weather Gang

Climate change in the 2010s: Decade of fires, floods and scorching heat waves

The 2010s were the decade of climate change consequences — when the clear signal of human-driven extreme events fully emerged and affected the lives of millions worldwide. As the decade closes, there is a growing recognition that climate change is having more calamitous impacts on ecosystems and human society than expected, and scientific concern over tipping points that no longer seem as distant.

Mason Trinca/For The Washington Post

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A progression of changing global surface temperature anomalies from 1880 through 2018.

NASA

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These include the melting of Arctic permafrost, which could release billions of tons of carbon dioxide and the potentially abrupt transition of the lush Amazon rainforest into a dry savanna. So far, though, the biggest disruptive impact of climate change in most peoples’ lives has come through extreme events, from heat waves to floods and wildfires.

NASA

A large iceberg near Kulusuk, Greenland.

Felipe Dana/AP

2010: Heat wave in Russia and Pakistan floods

An early sign that the 2010s would bring damaging climate extremes came in July 2010, when a record heat wave struck western Russia. Temperatures soared above 100 degrees for the first time on record in Moscow, as wildfires broke out that turned skies a sickening yellowish-orange in the capital city.

Mikhail Metzel/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Tourists wear masks protecting them smog as they walk along Red Square in Moscow in August 2010.

Mikhail Metzel/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The heat is estimated to have killed thousands and devastated the country’s wheat crop. A study published in 2011 tied the heat wave in part to global warming, noting that gradually increasing temperatures in western Russia made the extreme heat more likely.

Mikhail Metzel/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Women carry belongings as they wade through floodwaters in Nowshera, Pakistan, in August 2010.

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The same weather pattern that produced the heat wave, featuring a sluggish and wavy jet stream, had more disastrous consequences downstream. In Pakistan, the jet stream buckled in such a way that it directed the full fury of the Asian Monsoon into that mountainous country. The results were devastating floods that affected 18 million and killed at least 1,800.

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Pakistani women hold up ration cards at a camp for people displaced by floods in southern Pakistan in September 2010.

2011-2012: East Africa drought

Drought in East Africa threw the region into a famine crisis in 2011 and 2012. In Somalia alone, famine killed more than a quarter of a million people between 2010 and 2012, according to a study by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. A report by Save the Children and Oxfam later suggested that a lack of international preparedness was to blame for the high death toll.

Habibo Bashir, 1, rests on a bed in 2011 at a Doctors Without Borders hospital where he is being treated for severe malnutrition outside Kenya.

Another key factor in the drought, according to the U.K. Met Office, was climate change. This poor, highly vulnerable region is facing the prospect of more intense precipitation extremes as the climate warms worldwide: more intense rainfall and disastrous drought.

2015: Heat wave in India and Pakistan

Among the worst heat waves in the region on record, the 2015 heat wave in India and Pakistan reached temperatures up to 120 degrees and resulted in at least 4,000 deaths. It came amid warnings of more frequent and extreme heat waves in the region.

A Pakistani volunteer puts an identification paper onto the body of a heat wave victim in Karachi in June 2015.

A number of factors — including urbanization, drained soil moisture, delayed onset of the summer monsoon season, and the increased odds of hotter and longer-lasting heat events — have contributed to the region’s recent heat waves.

2019: Carbon Dioxide passes 410 ppm

In 2019, global amounts of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere briefly reached 415 parts per million for the first time in human history. For the year, it’s likely that carbon dioxide, the most important long-lived greenhouse gas, reached or exceeded a global average of 410 ppm.

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Smoke billows from a coal-fired power plant as a Chinese woman wears a mask while walking in Shanxi in November 2015.

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This would be the highest level seen in about 3 million years. The last time carbon dioxide levels were this high, the world was significantly warmer than it is today, and sea levels were 50 to 80 feet higher.

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2015-2019: Globe’s hottest years on record

The 2010s will go down as the warmest decade in recorded history, with 2016 ranking as the hottest. Remarkably, the past six years have been the warmest six on record, with 2019 very likely ranking as the second-warmest year. Nineteen of the 20 warmest years on record have now occurred since 2000.

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Indian Hindu devotees protect themselves from a dust storm during a hot day in Allahabad in April 2016.

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2015-2017: Global coral bleaching event

It was a bleak decade for coral reefs around the world. The longest-ever global coral bleaching event occurred between 2015 and 2017, with 3 in 4 tropical reefs affected by heat stress. Among them was the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, which suffered consecutive mass bleaching events and a dramatic uptick in coral mortality.

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Coral bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, a World Heritage Site in 2016.

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Coral shows the distinct markings left by stony coral tissue loss disease in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2019.

Lucas Jackson/REUTERS

2015: Paris climate agreement

Countries came together in 2015 to craft a new climate agreement that for the first time secured emissions reduction commitments from industrialized and developing nations alike. The United States, under President Barack Obama, and China played major roles in shaping the agreement, while leaders from small island countries, such as the Marshall Islands, emerged as the moral voice for those hardest-hit by global warming.

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The Arc de Triomphe is illuminated in green to celebrate the ratification of the Paris climate accords in 2016.

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Under the pact, countries pledged to hold global warming to “well below” 3.6 degrees (2 Celsius) of warming, and to aspire to keep it to 2.7 degrees (1.5 Celsius) compared to preindustrial levels.

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2019: Tipping points near

As 2019 came to a close, new warnings arrived about tipping points that could significantly accelerate climate change. One of these involves melting permafrost, a band of frozen soil that circles the top of the world. As it thaws, these soils are releasing long-buried stores of planet warming gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post

Water surrounds displaced graves at a cemetery in Nuiqsut, Alaska, in May. Shorter winters and a thawing landscape contribute to shifts in the site.

Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post

One study found that the Arctic may already be a net source of greenhouse gases, on the scale of a major industrialized nation such as Japan. In addition, scientists sounded alarms about the possibility of an abrupt transition of the Amazon rainforest into a fragmented, drier savanna. If it occurs, this would also release greenhouse gases that had been locked away.

Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post

2017: South Asia floods

Torrents of rain caused floods in South Asia in 2017 that killed more than 1,000 and affected over 40 million, according to United Nations estimates. Among the most affected countries were Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Pakistan.

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People wade through a flooded street during heavy rain showers in Mumbai in August 2017.

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Even though floods during the monsoon season are not uncommon in this part of the world, climate change can exacerbate them. As the globe warms, the atmosphere is able to carry more water vapor, and warmer ocean temperatures also help fuel more intense storm systems. Both of these factors lead to more extreme precipitation events.

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2018: California wildfires

A spate of devastating fires struck California in recent years. The most destructive and deadly of these blazes was the Camp Fire, which in a matter of hours on Nov. 8, 2018, destroyed the community of Paradise, killing 86.

Mason Trinca/For The Washington Post

Kevin Ciotta looks over the burned out community center at the Butte Creek Mobile Home Park in Chico, Calif., on Nov. 26, 2018.

Mason Trinca/For The Washington Post

Denise Chester, an evacuee of the Camp Fire, hugs her son Antonio Batres as she volunteers to sort clothes at a makeshift shelter in Chico in November 2018.

Noah Berger/AP

Research has linked climate change to an increased frequency of large fires in the American West as well as changes in fire behavior.

Noah Berger/AP

2014-2018: Arctic heat waves

Intrusions of abnormally warm air swept over the North Pole in several recent winters, causing the temperature to rise above freezing — some 50 degrees above normal. Such exceptional warm events were previously rare, happening only four times between 1980 and 2010, but occurred in four of five winters from 2014 to 2018.

David Goldman/AP

Melting sea ice is seen along the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago in July 2017.

David Goldman/AP

Climate scientists have linked these warm episodes to a reduction in Arctic sea ice. Thinner and spottier ice is easily pushed around by storms, exposing open ocean water, which releases heat into the atmosphere. Arctic sea ice has been shrinking at all times of the year. It set a record for its lowest winter maximum extent in 2017 and established a record low summer extent in 2012.

David Goldman/AP

2018-2019: Massive Northern Hemisphere summer heat waves

The Northern Hemisphere endured exceptionally hot summers the past two years, which brought some of the most extreme high temperatures ever observed. In 2019, record highs were shattered in several European countries during July, including Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Paris set an record temperature of 108.7 degrees, crushing the previous record of 104.7 degrees set in June 1947.

A personal care assistant gives a glass of water to an elderly woman to help her avoid heatstroke and dehydration during the 2019 heat wave in France.

While 2019 turned out to be the hottest summer on record in the Northern Hemisphere, the summer of 2018 was also brutally hot. According to a study on the 2018 heat events, we’ve entered “a new climate regime,” featuring “extraordinary” heat waves on a scale and ferocity not seen before.

2012, 2019: Greenland’s extreme melt seasons

Exceptional summer warmth in Greenland led to the top two melt events over the ice sheet in recorded history. On July 31, 2019, melting occurred over 60 percent of the ice sheet, the greatest area since July 2012, when an extraordinary 97 percent of the ice sheet experienced melting. The 2019 melt event, however, produced the greatest volume loss from the ice sheet, at 12.5 billion tons.

Steffen Olsen/Centre For Ocean And Ice At The

Sled dogs wade through standing water on the sea ice during an expedition in northwestern Greenland in June 2019.

Steffen Olsen/Centre For Ocean And Ice At The

The Greenland ice sheet is already the biggest contributor to modern sea level rise. A study published this year found Greenland’s glaciers increased their melt sixfold since the period of 1980 to 1990, to 286 billion tons between 2010 and 2018.

Steffen Olsen/Centre For Ocean And Ice At The

The crew of patrol vessel KV Svalbard and scientists from the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research play football on ice offshore in the sea around Greenland in March 2018.

MARIUS VAGENES VILLANGER/AFP via Getty Images

Record-shattering hurricanes

This was the decade that hurricanes intensified more rapidly than we’ve seen before, dumped heavier rainfall and reached unprecedented levels of ferocity. This year, Hurricane Dorian, a 185-mph monster, pummeled the northwestern Bahamas as the strongest storm on record to hit there.

Ramon Espinosa/AP

Volunteers wade through a flooded road against wind and rain brought on by Hurricane Dorian to rescue families near the Causarina bridge in Freeport, Grand Bahama, Bahamas, in September 2019.

Ramon Espinosa/AP

In 2013, Super Typhoon Haiyan set intensity records and destroyed the city of Tacloban in the Philippines with sustained winds of 195 mph. In the eastern Pacific, Hurricane Patricia set a record for the strongest storm on record in the Western Hemisphere, with sustained winds of 215 mph.

Ramon Espinosa/AP

The hurricane seasons of 2017 and 2018 were rough on the United States. Hurricane Michael struck Florida in 2018 as a Category 5 storm, flattening a major air force base along with coastal towns. Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, cutting power across the island and contributing to thousands of excess deaths. And Hurricane Harvey turned highways into raging rapids in Houston, setting an all-time U.S. rainfall record.

Ramon Espinosa/AP

Gladys Rivera Rodriguez is overcome with emotion standing in her bedroom, which had the roof ripped off by Hurricane Maria, in Caonillas, Puerto Rico.

Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post

2019: Global wildfires

Severe wildfires have expanded their reach in recent years, including throughout the Amazon rainforest and the carbon-rich boreal forests of Siberia and Alaska. As 2019 closed out, bush fires raged amid record heat and drought in parts of Australia — whose Prime Minister Scott Morrison came to the defense of the country’s coal industry, cautioning against “reckless” climate action.

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Two bush fires approach a home located on the outskirts of the town of Bargo on Dec. 21 in Sydney.

David Gray/Getty Images

Antonio Enzsio Tenharin, one of the nearly 3,000 indigenous Tenharin people who live an area of the Brazilian rainforest where fire “springs from nowhere.”

In Brazil, the pro-development policies of President Jair Bolsonaro have been blamed for a sharp uptick in Amazon fires during the past year. Scientists fear the blazes could permanently transform the fragile rainforest.

2019: Scientists’ warnings give rise to a movement

As scientific warnings have grown more urgent and damaging climate impacts have become more obvious, a new generation is demanding climate action. Youth activists have staged school strikes and protests, and pressured lawmakers and the courts to act. Swedish student Greta Thunberg has given voice to the anger felt by many who are inheriting a hotter, more inhospitable planet.

Paul White/AP

Youth climate activist Greta Thunberg listens to scientists speak during a meeting with leading climate scientists at the 2019 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Madrid.

Paul White/AP

2019: U.N. climate talks in Madrid

The scientific warnings and activists in the streets were not enough to compel leaders to act at the annual U.N. climate negotiations, held in Madrid in December. The talks laid bare bitter divisions between rich and poor nations on how to grapple with global warming and its damaging effects. President Trump is set to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement in 2020.

Demonstrators walk past the city hall in Madrid during a march to demand urgent action on the climate crisis from world leaders attending the annual climate summit.

As the decade closes, scientists are increasingly tying extreme weather events to long-term climate change. It’s clear that humans have altered the background conditions in which all weather takes place, tilting the odds in favor of more severe, damaging and deadly weather.

With greenhouse gas emissions continuing to climb, the weather of the 2020s will be even more extreme.