The climate crisis is already here — and it’s only getting worse.
ByZahra Hirji and Peter Aldhous
The 2010s (red in all charts) were when the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide broke through the “400 parts per million” threshold. The thin wavy line shows observed global monthly average measurements, which fluctuate with the seasons; the thicker line is the smoothed trend.
Continuing a trend that was first recorded in the 20th century, the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide — a potent heat-trapping or “greenhouse” gas — grew every year this decade. And they didn’t just go up at a steady rate, they went up at a faster and faster clip. In fact, CO2 levels are now rising at a faster pace than ever before.
“This is the fastest it’s ever been,” Pieter Tans, chief of NOAA’s carbon cycle greenhouse gases group, told BuzzFeed News.
In 2015, CO2 levels passed the symbolic 400-parts-per-million threshold. The last time this happened, humans did not exist and the planet was even warmer than it was today. This time around, scientists have concluded that it’s humans, not nature, who are responsible for the unprecedented rise.
CO2 levels hit 407.8 ppm in 2018, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Carbon dioxide can linger in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, and in the ocean for even longer.
2. Temperatures Kept Going Up
The global average temperature for each month, with a separate line for each year, plotted as the difference from the 20th century’s global average for each month.
The decade kicked off in 2010 with what was then the hottest year on record. That record was then broken again in 2014, and then shattered in 2015 and 2016. Then July 2019 served us the hottest month on record. As 2019 draws to a close, scientists have concluded that the back half of this decade was the warmest five-year stretch in recorded history.
And it was in this decade that we officially warmed more than 1 degree Celsius above preindustrial levels. This means we’re already more than halfway to the temperature goals set by the Paris climate agreement, which aimed to limit warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius.
3. Arctic Sea Ice Disappeared
The minimum area of sea ice in the Arctic, averaged over a five-day period, in each year. The inset map shows the median extent of sea ice in September, the month in which the yearly minimum occurs.
As the planet has heated, Arctic sea ice has declined. The lowest levels of Arctic sea ice were recorded in 2012, and 2019 has tied for the second-lowest levels.
“Each succeeding decade is lower,” Walt Meier, senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, told BuzzFeed News. “That’s clearly a declining trend.”
Beyond the sea ice extent, Meier mentioned another worrying trend linked to the changing climate: Satellite imagery has revealed Arctic sea ice has been getting thinner as the thicker, older ice has melted.
The big question for Meier and other scientists watching the Arctic is when we will experience our first ice-free summer.
“It’s no longer a matter of if, it’s when — at least in current trajectory we’re going on,” Meier said.
4. The Seas Kept Rising
Weather and climate disasters that caused more than $1 billion in damage across the US, corrected for inflation to 2019 dollars. Storms include winter storms, tropical cyclones, and other severe storms; other disasters include wildfires, droughts, freezing weather, and river flooding.
This decade is when the number of billion-dollar disasters in the US reached a new high, as more natural disasters than ever hit the country.
This was the decade of Hurricane Sandy, which brought the country’s largest city to a standstill in 2012 (and the iconic Bloomberg Businessweek magazine cover: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid”), Hurricane Harvey and its historic levels of rainfall to Texas in 2017, Hurricane Maria’s strike in Puerto Rico in 2017 that led to the nation’s largest power outage, and some of the biggest and deadliest wildfires in California’s history.
Outside the US, Typhoon Haiyan killed thousands of people in the Philippines in 2013. It was one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall. Just this year, Japan was slammed by one of the strongest typhoons in decades, Europe experienced a record-breaking heat wave, a severe drought left millions hungry in Southern Africa, and bushfires blanketed Australia with smoke. Meanwhile, extreme rain events are on the rise in India.
At the beginning of the century, scientists were only just starting to link climate change to individual disasters, mostly to droughts and heat waves. Now there’s a burgeoning field called “attribution science,” allowing scientists to increasingly identify how climate change contributes to certain disasters.
- Here And Now: These Maps Show How Climate Change Has Already Transformed The EarthPeter Aldhous · April 22, 2019
- “We Cannot Afford To Fail”: A New UN Report Is Forecasting Potentially Catastrophic WarmingZahra Hirji · Nov. 26, 2019
- The Polar Vortex Is Just The Beginning — Here’s How Climate Change Is Hitting Middle AmericaZahra Hirji · Jan. 31, 2019
- Climate Change
Zahra Hirji is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC
Contact Zahra Hirji at [email protected]
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Peter Aldhous is a Science Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Peter Aldhous at [email protected]
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