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Year of climate records: extreme is the new normal

It is virtually certain that 2023 will be the warmest year since industrialization. One weather catastrophe follows the next. What will happen next?

An oppressively hot day in Lebanon.
An oppressively hot day in Lebanon.

Weather disasters - Year of climate records: extreme is the new normal

Extreme heat. Extreme rain. Extreme storms. In 2023, the climate crisis was felt all over the world. Millions of people were affected in Central Europe and the Mediterranean region alone: In July, it was almost 50 degrees in Sardinia, in August the devastating forest fires in Greece. In September, a terrible heavy rain disaster in Libya caused thousands of deaths.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) confirmed on Thursday at the start of the COP28 World Climate Conference in Dubai that 2023 will probably be the warmest year since industrialization. Up to and including October, the globally averaged temperature was 1.4 degrees above the average for the years 1850 to 1900. The hottest year to date was 2016 with plus 1.3 degrees.

Extreme weather was not only experienced in Europe and the Mediterranean region in 2023: devastating rain caused unprecedented flooding in Brazil in February, while Cyclone Freddy raged in the Indian Ocean for 37 days in February and March, longer than any other recorded cyclone before. It caused severe devastation in Madagascar and Mozambique.

From April there was record heat from India to China, in June and July there was severe flooding in Pakistan and in October the Mexican vacation resort of Acapulco was partially destroyed by a hurricane that came almost out of nowhere. Extreme weather has always existed, but science has shown that such events are becoming more frequent and more severe due to climate change.

Hottest year since the beginning of industrialization

In Germany, the summer of 2023 felt rather mixed for many people, but unstable weather and rain in this country do not change the fact that it was far too warm. It is virtually certain that 2023 was the hottest year since the beginning of industrialization (1850-1900) in terms of the globally averaged temperature. Possibly even for tens of thousands of years. Of course, there were no measurements at the time, but scientists can draw conclusions about the climate in prehistoric times by analyzing ancient air bubbles deep in the ice.

The situation in Germany

"It feels like we've been in a state of emergency in Europe since the hot summer of 2018," says Helge Gößling, climate physicist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, to the German Press Agency. He cites several unusually dry and warm summers and the heavy rainfall in the Ahr valley, among other things. "But we have to expect to be in the new normal." For him, it is clear that climate change is a serious threat to humanity.

According to data from the German Weather Service, the average temperature in Germany in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022 was already more than 2.5 above the level recorded in 1881, when systematic weather records began. This is significantly higher than the global average. This is because the global figure includes temperatures over the ocean, which have risen less than over land.

"From a regional perspective, we in Central Europe are getting off relatively lightly in terms of climate change," says Gößling. In the Mediterranean region, the situation is more precarious with heat and drought. "We shouldn't make light of the situation here," warns Gößling. The head of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Petteri Taalas, refers to the dry summers and the devastating flooding in the Ahr valley in 2021. "Such events are becoming more frequent, and they will also affect Germany," he tells dpa. "Then there is the migration pressure from Africa, where the challenges are much greater."

It will remain difficult for decades

The bad news: more extreme events are inevitable for decades to come - even if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced quickly. "The negative trend will continue into the 2060s," says Taalas. This is due to the greenhouse gases that have already been emitted and will remain in the atmosphere for so long. "And we have already lost the battle with the mountain glaciers," he says. "We expect them to have melted completely by the end of the century." However, harmful greenhouse gas emissions urgently need to be curbed now so that today's children and their descendants will experience a better climate from the 2060s onwards.

What needs to be done

The end of climate-damaging fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas - is the biggest lever against climate change. However, the other major lever, the use of land, is underestimated, says Gößling. "It's blatant that 75 percent of the world's agricultural land is used either as pasture or to grow fodder crops for animals," he said. More plant-based food requires less land for the same amount of protein and calories. Forests can absorb more CO2 than pastures. "Going back to more natural areas would not only have a much better climate footprint, but would also have the extremely important effect of decisively helping to prevent the loss of biodiversity."

If, as hoped, the countries in Dubai impose significantly stronger climate protection measures on themselves, Taalas sees a different world in the 2030s in the best case scenario: "Then we will no longer use coal as an energy source, the majority of cars worldwide will be electric, we will use more public transport, we will eat less meat and rice, which causes large methane emissions, we will stop the deforestation of tropical rainforests and accelerate the transfer of technology with which emerging countries can grow in a climate-neutral way."

What to expect in the short term: 2024

No one can yet predict whether the next summer in Germany will be hot or dry. Globally, however, it could be even warmer than this year. "I estimate the chances at 50:50," says Gößling. This is due to the El Niño weather phenomenon that began this year. It heats up the Pacific every few years and increases the global mean temperature by around 0.2 degrees. As a rule, this is only reflected in the year after it occurs, which would be 2024.

But this time it could be different. In 2023, there were random fluctuations in the weather in spring, says Gößling. Weak trade winds led to a strong warming of the sea surface, especially in the North Atlantic, which pushed the global average temperature up considerably. "The weak trade winds do not necessarily have anything to do with climate change," he says. It is therefore not certain that the Atlantic will be as warm again in 2024 as it was in 2023.

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