Over 77 countries saw highest average temperature in 2023 in close to 5 decades: Report

Central America, parts of South America, southern Africa and western Australia face highest risk of developing or intensifying drought

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Thursday 11 January 2024
The sum of river flows in all river basins was 4 per cent above the 2001-2005 average in 2023. Photo: iStock

More than 77 countries experienced the highest average annual temperature in 45 years, according to the 2023 Global Water Monitor report. Record-high average temperatures were observed across all seasons, the report noted. 

“2023 was the hottest year on record and this also affected the water cycle in various ways, from intensifying cyclones and other rainfall systems to exacerbating drought and fire activity,” Albert van Dijk, professor of water science and management, Australian National University and chair for Global Water Monitor Consortium, wrote in the report

The report, which summarised the state and trends in the global water cycle in 2023, covered information on rainfall, air temperature, humidity, soil and groundwater conditions, vegetation access to water, river flows, flooding and lake volumes.

Read more: How 2023’s record heat worsened droughts, floods and bushfires around the world

The global water cycle in 2023, according to the researchers, was influenced by the shift to El Nino conditions, a climate anomaly that occurs in the Pacific at intervals of 2–7 years.  

It was also influenced by increasing sea surface temperatures due to global warming. Warming conditions increase the strength and rainfall intensity associated with storm systems such as tropical cyclones. “There were a relatively large number of such events in 2023 and the human and economic toll was large,” the report read.

The year 2023 ranked second in relative air humidity, continuing a trend towards drier average and extreme conditions. 

Despite warmer and drier conditions, high annual soil water conditions were observed in many regions. The water content in the soil over the land area was 3.5 per cent above the 1998-2005 average, highlighted the report.

The report pointed to a long-term increasing trend of soil water content since around 2014, with contributions coming mostly from India, China, Türkiye and several the Sahel countries. This trend, according to the findings, can be driven by rainfall frequency, agriculture and vegetation changes.

As for precipitation, the report noted that it was close to average. The authors found no clear trend towards more monthly high or low rainfall extremes.

Vegetation vigour (greenness) over the land area was 4.7 per cent above the 2001-2005 average and the highest recorded. This rise is being triggered by a combination of increasing temperatures in cold regions, agricultural expansion and fertilisation from increasing carbon dioxide and other anthropogenic sources.

Surface water occurrence (including lakes, rivers and other forms of temporary inundation) was the second lowest in two decades. Globally, the water surface occurrence was 7 per cent below the 2003-2006 average, the lowest since 2011.

The sum of river flows in all river basins or global average river flows was 4 per cent above the 2001-2005 average. 

Lake volumes have been increasing over recent decades.  Water storage in 2023 increased by 1.5 per cent from 2022 after having shown a 7 per cent rise since 1984. Canada, the United States, China, Russia, Brazil and India make up about 64 per cent of all water in natural and artificial lakes worldwide.

The average terrestrial water storage, including groundwater, soil water, surface water, snow and land ice, from January to September was 19 millimetres below the 2003-2006 average.

Read more: In 2023, for the first time ever, each day was at least 1°C warmer. Why this is worrying

“Globally, we’re seeing an increase in the frequency and intensity of rainfall events and river flooding. But at the same time, there are also more frequent and faster-developing droughts, or ‘flash droughts’,” Albert Van Dijk from the Australian National University and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

The report also presented an outlook for 2024: Higher-than-average precipitation can be expected for eastern Africa and most of Asia and lower precipitation for the western half of South America, the Caribbean, southern Africa and northern and western Australia.

Central and South America (except southern Brazil and Uruguay), southern Africa and western Australia face the greatest risk of developing or intensifying drought, according to the report. 

India, along with the Sahel region and the Horn of Africa, northern Europe, China and Southeast Asia and southern Brazil and Uruguay, are unlikely to develop drought conditions for at least several months.

Instead, these regions witness a greater risk of flooding, landslides and other challenges related to excessive wetness. 

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