2023 has etched a disturbing narrative characterised by the shattering of established climate records.
Unprecedented phenomena such as historically elevated sea temperatures, disconcerting Antarctic sea-ice lows, and extreme weather events besieging every corner of the globe have become the norm. The most recent affliction is an oppressive heatwave gripping Brazil, deemed “unbearable” by witnesses.
Strikingly, against all expectations of major climate science bodies at the year’s inception, 2023 is destined to claim the ominous title of the hottest year ever recorded.
While scientists have long anticipated a trajectory of rising temperatures owing to the relentless release of record amounts of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion, the inexplicable surge in temperatures in 2023 poses a confounding puzzle.
In attempting to unravel this climatic enigma, four additional factors emerge as potential contributors to this “gobsmacking” escalation.
A pivotal factor in this climatic upheaval is the unusually swift onset of the El Niño weather system. During an El Niño episode, warmer surface waters in the eastern Pacific unleash additional heat into the atmosphere, invariably resulting in a global upswing in air temperatures.
The ongoing El Niño of 2023, while yet to peak, has displayed an accelerated strengthening not witnessed since the major El Niño event of 2016. The prolonged cool phase preceding this El Niño, known as La Niña, had suppressed global temperatures, allowing the oceans to amass record amounts of heat. This stored warmth is now being liberated into the atmosphere, contributing to the unexpected spike in temperatures.
As Dr Hausfather puts it, “this El Niño is weird.”
Surprisingly, efforts to reduce air pollutants for the sake of human health may be inadvertently exacerbating warming trends. Regulations implemented in 2020 to promote cleaner shipping fuels, primarily targeting the reduction of sulphur dioxide emissions, have resulted in a 10% decrease in global emissions.
Paradoxically, this reduction in airborne particles, such as sulphate or dust, known as aerosols, which typically reflect solar energy back into space and cool the Earth’s surface, might be amplifying temperatures, particularly in shipping hotspots like the North Atlantic.
“We saw quite rapidly from the satellite data that less sunlight was being reflected and more sunlight was being absorbed by the oceans,” explains Leon Simons, a climate researcher at the Club of Rome group.
Not all scientists agree on how important aerosols are for explaining 2023’s records.
“It’s hard to make the case that the [new shipping fuel] regulation in 2020 would create a sudden jump in 2023 that we didn’t see in 2022,” Dr Hausfather argues.
The unforeseen eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano in January 2022 presents another facet of the climatic equation. The eruption, characterised by a plume reaching an unprecedented 55km above the Earth’s surface, unleashed a staggering 150 million tonnes of water vapour into the stratosphere.
As water vapour is a greenhouse gas akin to carbon dioxide, the eruption may have contributed to the overall warming. Although early studies suggest a limited impact on global temperatures, ongoing research aims to discern the full ramifications of this volcanic event.
A disconcerting reduction in Antarctic sea-ice levels during the winter was indicated by satellite data in September. While Arctic sea-ice has been undergoing a long-term decline, Antarctic sea-ice had hitherto defied predictions by maintaining relative stability until 2017.
The current diminishment in bright, reflective ice areas translates to increased absorption of the Sun’s energy by the darker ocean surface, intensifying the overall warming trend.
“The concern is that the Antarctic has started to operate like the Arctic,” working “like a radiator rather than a refrigerant” notes Martin Siegert, from the Grantham Institute for Climate Change.
The connection between these Antarctic changes and the warmth observed in 2023 remains uncertain, but it underscores the potential acceleration of future warming scenarios.
Despite the accelerated warming in recent decades, it has not yet consistently exceeded the anticipated temperature ranges outlined in climate models. This offers a modicum of reassurance that the world has not yet succumbed to an irreversible phase of runaway climate change.
However, a consortium of eminent climate scientists cautions that the climate may evolve more rapidly than anticipated in the future. Their hypothesis suggests that the climate has not fully responded to the greenhouse gases already emitted, positing an underestimated “warming in the pipeline” due to the artificial cooling effect of aerosols.
Amidst the scientific discourse, it is imperative to acknowledge the tangible and devastating climate impacts unfolding in real-time.
While not all scientists concur on the pace of climate change, the current challenges underscore the urgency of addressing and mitigating the myriad factors contributing to the climatic turmoil of 2023.
“Climate change is as bad as we expected. And that’s bad enough” says Dr Hausfather.
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