It’s been quite the year.
COVID-19 has made an unprecedented social and economic impact on the lives of billions of people around the world. It has infected around 420,000 people in the United Kingdom alone, leaving many with long-term health issues.
But aside from the obvious impact of the pandemic, there’s also the attention it has stolen from environmental issues and disasters that may have a long-lasting effect on our planet and its population. This pandemic could prove to be the first in a line of deadly global challenges we will have to face in the future.
Environmental Disasters in 2020 Overshadowed by Coronavirus
Temperatures greater than 20 degrees Celsius were recorded in the Antarctic for the first time in 2020. Antarctica’s 34-million-year-old ice sheet is melting and evidence of that is visible. The results of the melt will be keenly felt in our generation with scientists now believing that even if targets set by the Paris agreement are met, sea levels will still rise by 2.5-metres.
Quoted in the Guardian, Anders Levermann, co-author of the paper from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, says “We will be renowned in future as the people who flooded New York City,”
Russia’s Melting Permafrost
- The Arctic is warming more than twice the global average. In June temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius were recorded in the Russian Arctic. What’s concerning is the loss of permafrost in these areas which is happening at an alarming rate. Resourcesmag.com reports that up to 240 billion tonnes of carbon could be released by 2100 as the permafrost melts and the organic material frozen into it is released. What’s worrying, too, is that melting permafrost could release bacteria frozen into the ice. Some scientists are concerned that dangerous and deadly viruses from centuries before could remerge.
- It’s difficult to talk about environmental disasters in 2020 and not mention the devastating California wildfires which have burned more than 520,000 hectares. Wildfires occur regularly in the Sunshine state but climate change is now creating the conditions in which a fire can burn uncontrollably and destroy great swathes of the landscape in ways that make controlling and fighting the fires difficult and dangerous. The recent fires were ignited by a dry lightning storm but as reported by the Science News website, “Both California’s average heat and dryness have become more severe due to climate change, dramatically increasing the likelihood of extreme wildfires.” Climate disasters aren’t always caused directly by climate change but it often creates a set of conditions within an environment that make the disaster either more likely or more likely to be extreme. In California’s case it was a combination of very dry vegetation and a heatwave.
Greenland’s Disappearing Ice Shelf
- A massive chunk of ice has broken away from the Arctic’s largest remaining ice shelf. The BBC reported on September 14th 2020 that “The ejected section covers about 110 square km; satellite imagery shows it to have shattered into many small pieces.” The shattering of one of the region’s most important ice shelves is hugely concerning but, given recent water temperature increases in the region, hardly surprising. Dr Jenny Turton tells the BBC "The atmosphere in this region has warmed by about 3C since 1980,".
Bigger Cyclones in India
- Cyclone Amphan devastated Kolkata in India in May 2020 and caused over $13 billion in damage; it was “the strongest storm on record in the Bay of Bengal”. Cyclones, like wildfires, are naturally occurring, but they’re getting bigger and that’s because of human activity. Warmer air and sea temperatures make cyclones stronger and, according to the National Herald India, “climate scientists say with a rapidly warming Indian Ocean, these severe cyclones are projected to increase in number on both the east and the west coast of India.”
What’s especially disturbing about this is how “more than 80% of the global fatalities
occur in this region, particularly around the Bay of Bengal.”Indian website Scroll points out that an increase in cyclones could have a devastating effect on the region.
Understandably, COVID-19 has demanded the world’s attention, but we shouldn’t also lose sight of the impending climate change disaster.
There will be a cure for Coronavirus; it will be developed and distributed but stopping climate change isn’t so simple. We have the opportunity to reduce and reverse much of the damage, but its capacity to devastate societies, economies and populations is far greater than COVID-19, and what we’re witnessing in 2020 may just be the beginning of a series of global challenges and environmental disasters.