Climate Change

En route to climate catastrophe? 4 major indicators broke records in 2021, says WMO

Greenhouse gas concentrations, sea-level rise, ocean heat and ocean acidification were the highest since record keeping began

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Wednesday 18 May 2022
The heatwave on the Pacific coast of North America was cited by the WMO in its report.

The world seems to be on a fast track towards climate catastrophe as four major climate indicators broke records in 2021, according to a new report released by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) May 18, 2022.

Greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations, sea-level rise, ocean heat and ocean acidification were the highest since record keeping for these indicators began in the latter half of the 19th century.

The WMO’s State of the Global Climate in 2021 attributed the breaking of records to human-induced GHG emissions.

“This is yet another clear sign that human activities are causing planetary scale changes on land, in the ocean and in the atmosphere, with harmful and long-lasting ramifications for sustainable development and ecosystems,” WMO said in a press release.

The report confirmed that 2021 was one of the seven warmest years on record globally. The average global temperature in 2021 was about 1.11 (± 0.13) °C above the pre-industrial level. Pre-industrial level is the average temperature of the world from 1850-1900.

The warming happened despite a La Nina phenomenon being active at the beginning and end of the year. La Nina is the cooler-than-normal phase of the El Nino Southern Oscillation in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, which generally leads to a temporary decrease in global temperatures.

Data from specific locations indicate that the levels of GHGs continued to increase in 2021 and early 2022, with monthly average carbon dioxide (CO2) at Mona Loa in Hawaii reaching 416.45 parts per million (ppm) in April 2020, 419.05 ppm in April 2021 and 420.23 ppm in April 2022.

About 90 per cent of the excess heat resulting from global warming is absorbed by the oceans. The upper 2,000 metres of the global oceans, where most of the marine species thrive, continued to increase in 2021 and ocean heat in general was at an all-time high.

There was at least one strong marine heat wave in much of the world’s oceans in 2021, according to WMO. The WMO also stated in its report that the global oceans will continue to warm in the future, a change that would be irreversible for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Ocean acidification, which happens due to the direct absorption of CO2 by the oceans, changes the chemical composition of oceanic water. As the acidification increases, the ability of oceans to absorb CO2 also decreases.

The WMO quoted the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as saying that “there is very high confidence that open ocean surface pH (a measure of acidity) is now the lowest it has been for at least 26,000 years and current rates of pH change are unprecedented since at least that time.”

Both, ocean heat and ocean acidification, have a major impact on marine biodiversity, disrupting their feeding, breeding and migrating behaviour.

Global mean sea level also reached a new high in 2021, increasing at the rate of 4.5 mm per year in between 2013 and 2021. This is more than twice the rate of increase between 1993 and 2002.

The WMO said that the main cause for this was the accelerated melting of ice sheets. It added that this could be a major concern for the 200 million people living along coastlines that are less than five metres above sea level. The vulnerability of people to tropical cyclones also increases due to increase in sea levels.

The WMO also highlighted various extreme weather events that occurred in 2021, calling them the “day-to-day face of climate change.”

Among these were:

  • The July heatwaves of the Pacific coast of North America, which broke many records and caused the deaths of hundreds of people
  • Flooding in the Henan province of China which led to an economic loss of $ 17.7 billion
  • Drought in the Horn of Africa region, which is the worst in 40 years
  • Hurricane Ida that impacted the eastern coast of the United States, causing damages worth $75 billion

“Extreme weather has the most immediate impact on our daily lives. Years of investment in disaster preparedness means that we are better at saving lives, though economic losses are soaring,” Petteri Taalas, WMO secretary general, said.

“But much more needs to be done, as we are seeing with the drought emergency unfolding in the Horn of Africa, the recent deadly flooding in South Africa and the extreme heat in India and Pakistan,” he added.

He noted:

Early warning systems are critically required for climate adaptation and yet these are only available in less than half of WMO’s Members. We are committed to making early warnings reach everyone in the next five years, as requested by the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The extreme weather events, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, have impacted food security in large regions of the world, especially in Asia and Africa, the report said.

They have also caused displacement of people internally. “The countries with the highest numbers of displacements recorded as of October 2021 were China (more than 1.4 million), the Philippines (more than 386,000) and Vietnam (more than 664,000),” according to the report.

António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations (UN), called for urgent action to grab the “low-hanging fruit” of transforming energy systems away from the “dead end” of fossil fuels.

In a video message, Guterres proposed five critical actions to accelerate the renewable energy transition.

“They include greater access to renewable energy technology and supplies, a tripling of private and public investments in renewables and an end to subsidies on fossil fuels, which amount to roughly $11 million per minute,” according to a WMO press release.

The WMO report also forms the basis for the UN climate change negotiations at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties 27 to be held in Egypt in November 2022.

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