Thursday, January 7, 2021

2020 in Review - A Different Perspective


On January 21, 2020, I posted a link on Facebook to a Washington Post Article entitled “Chinese officials urge people not to travel in and out of the city at the center of the virus outbreak.” I commented “Is it just me or are current events starting to seem like the plot of a dystopian science fiction novel?”

Eleven months on, the answer is . . . yes.

It is getting harder and harder to find subjects about which to write that don’t sound like the plot of a dystopian science fiction novel. Case in point - Earlier this year, my son sent me a set of pictures comparing the fictional Los Angeles of Bladerunner 2049 to San Francisco during the height of last summer’s wildfires, which covered the region in thick blankets of smoke. It was hard to tell the difference between fictional pollution-choked skies and the real smoke-choked skies.

The pandemic and, to put it mildly, the extended and chaotic political season, drowned out what was happening in the larger world beyond the 24-hour news cycle.

From Spring to November, the US simultaneously drowned and burned.

The 2020 North Atlantic hurricane season was the most active on record, with 30 named storms, 12 of which made landfall in the US. Lake Charles, Louisiana was hit twice. The very last storm, Iota, reached Category 5. Four others reached Category 4.

Why all the storms? The heat stored in the North Atlantic is almost three times what it was five decades ago, about the equivalent to the energy released by almost half a million modern nuclear weapons. For comparison purposes, the US currently has 5,800 nuclear weapons.

The decade ending in 2020 had 25 Category 4 and 5 North Atlantic Hurricanes, three times as many as the decade ending in 1980, which correlates very closely with the increasing temperature trend of the North Atlantic Ocean.

As of the end of this year, about 14 million acres burned across the US, double the 10-year average. In the Western US, 10 million acres burned, three times the previous annual record. Average annual temperatures in the Western US are 1.8 degrees hotter than they were 40 years ago.

The Earth had the warmest November on record, despite the fact that the planet should be in a periodic cooling cycle called La Nina. On an annual basis, 2020 may be the second warmest year on record. 2016 so far has been the hottest, but that year was during an El Nino warming cycle. Does this mean that we will break another global temperature record when we have the next El Nino? I can’t say for sure, but the trends suggest we could.

According to NOAA, last summer was the fourth hottest on record with July the second hottest on record. The southwestern US states all had their warmest August. Average August precipitation across the US was a mere 2.35 inches, making it the third driest on record.

The extent of the summer Arctic sea ice was the second lowest on record, 23% below average. The lowest? 2016, when the world average temperature was the highest on record. The last major ice shelf (expanse of floating ice attached to land) in Canada broke up on August 6th.

The annual Arctic Report Card stated that the average Arctic air temperature was the second highest on record since record keeping started in 1900. All other record highs have occurred during the last 6 years. High temperature records were broken throughout the Arctic. As I wrote in a column earlier this year, Siberia had over 18,000 wildfires which collectively burned an area the size of New York State.

Last February, the furthest north peninsula of Antarctica had a heatwave, with temperatures equivalent to Los Angeles during the same period. It was the third such heatwave of the 2019-2020 Antarctic summer. “If you think about this one event in February, it isn’t that significant. It’s more significant that these events are coming more frequently,” said one research scientist.

I could keep going with the numbers, but I hope you get the picture.

The number of sick and dead from Covid in the US are now staggering and unrelenting, but a vaccine is on the way. An end is in sight.

The ongoing changes to our planet are also staggering and unrelenting, but unlike Covid, there is no end in sight.

Happy New Year.

Published in the Village News, January 8th, 2021