2020: Hottest year on record or not?

According to the European Union’s climate monitoring service, 2020 has tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record. To many this has come as no surprise in a year that has seen devastating bushfires across Australia, increasingly thinning Arctic ice, a wild Atlantic hurricane season, and the hottest temperature recorded in human history at 54.4°C. 

2020’s extreme temperatures have led to some startling climate data and analysis. In Europe the average surface temperature across 2020 was a sweltering 2.2°C higher than the pre-industrial benchmark and almost half a degree above 2019. And globally, the increased heat of 2020 continues the trend that the last six years have been the six warmest years ever recorded, as well as 20 of the last 21. Remarkably and worryingly, the record warmth of 2020 has occurred during a La Niña event where the surface cooling of the tropical Pacific typically causes a cooling of global temperatures. Therefore, 2020’s high heats buck an established trend and suggest that we are now reaching a point where climate change is superseding climate variability.

The consequences of these rising earth surface temperatures are often speculated by scientists. In the UK, the last 12 months has seen new analysis from the UK Met Office forecasting that by 2060 only high ground and northern Scotland would experience snow days, as they predict winter climates to become warmer if global emissions continue to grow.

“The overarching picture is warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers,” reports Dr Kendon from the UK Met Office. “But within that, we get this shift towards more extreme events, so more frequent and intense extremes.” Met Office scientists predict that, if emissions continue along their current trajectory, peak summer temperatures in 2070 could be between 3.7 C and 6.8 C hotter compared with peak temperatures between 1981 and 2000. Hence more heatwaves and a burdening rise in heat related illnesses that our NHS would have to accommodate for.

“I think it’s really frightening,” continues Dr Kendon. “That’s a big change, and we’re talking about in the course of our lifetime. It’s just a wake-up call really.”

Ultimately, the full scale of the economic and social pressures extreme weather could cause is not yet known and may vary from region to region. Yet, what is known is that the current rate and nature of global climate change is worrying, and emissions must be reduced to make weather changes less severe. Furthermore, to mitigate future heatwaves and extreme weather events, climate research suggests we need to recognise the protective value of ecosystems, for example forests help to regulate rainfall, and campaign for legislation and regulations that protect these valuable ecosystems. To do nothing would have detrimental environmental and social consequences. In other words, the heat record is not one we want to break in 2021.

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Jessica Marshall

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October 2021
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