- Extreme wildfires, hurricanes, heat waves, and flood-inducing storms battered all regions of the US in 2020.
- The interactive map below shows the weather events and disasters that set records this year.
- As global temperatures rise, expect to see more extreme weather across all seven continents.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
While the coronavirus sickened more than 78 million people this year, another rolling disaster was unleashing new terrors in the background. Its effects seeped into thousands of lungs and turned skies red. Dams burst and forests burned. Homes toppled and flood after flood of ocean water inundated coastal towns.
The climate crisis surged to new heights in 2020. In the US, no region was spared.
A polar vortex brought record-breaking temperature lows to the Northeast, and heat waves brought new highs to the West. That heat dried out the landscape, which later fed an unprecedented wave of wildfires in late summer.
On the other side of the US, a stunning hurricane season battered the Gulf Coast and the Southeast with more powerful cyclones than any previous year on record. The centre of the country, meanwhile, endured record storms, floods, and tornado swarms.
Click on the icons in the interactive map below to see how extreme weather ravaged the US this year like never before.
Historic fires and floods
Scientists can’t say whether an individual storm or fire was directly caused by climate change, since many factors contribute to each event. But experts agree that as the planet warms, weather trends more extreme.
Research has shown that the changing climate is contributing to stronger hurricanes, more severe heat waves, larger and more destructive wildfires, and heavier rainfall that can cause flooding. Some studies have linked the warming climate to the now-familiar arrival of the polar vortex at temperate latitudes. Rising temperatures could even be driving more severe thunderstorms and tornado outbreaks. This year, the US saw it all.
The climate crisis captured national attention in August, when a lightning storm formed over the Pacific Ocean and rolled into northern California. The lightning ignited vegetation that had been left dry and brittle after a blistering heat wave. Soon, dozens of lightning-lit fires were roaring across the state.
One blaze created a “firenado,” while others were so vast and hot that they produced their own smoky thunderstorms. Tens of thousands of people evacuated their homes. In California, 4 million acres burned â€” more than double the previous state record. Fires killed at least 31 people in California, nine in Oregon, and one in Washington.
Colorado, too, saw three of the four largest fires in state history. The region hadn’t seen fires of that scale in 1,000 years, journalist Eric Holthaus reported.
For weeks in the fall, the entire West Coast was blanketed in smoke, turning skies orange and giving the region the worst air quality on Earth. Smoke wafted across the country, tinting New York skies sepia, and even reached the Netherlands.
All the while, more hurricanes howled along the Gulf and Southeast coasts than any year in recorded history. Lake Charles, Louisiana, didn’t have time to recover from one cyclone before the next one hit. Hurricane Laura ripped up homes with 150 mph winds. Six weeks later, Hurricane Delta dumped more than 15 inches of rain.
Overall, 2020 is poised to have the most billion-dollar weather disasters of any year in US history, shattering the previous record of 16 from 2011 and 2017.
There will be no place to hide
The rest of the world fared no better this year, as record-breaking and bizarre weather plagued much of the planet. Bushfires raged through eastern Australia in January. In South America, the largest tropical wetland on Earth went up in flames. Typhoon Goni barreled into the Philippines with sustained winds of 195 mph, making it the strongest tropical-cyclone landfall in history. A huge glacier broke off a Greenland ice shelf and drifted into the sea.
This makes one thing increasingly clear: Soon, if not already, there will be no place to hide from the destructive consequences of humans’ climate-altering behaviour.
Extreme heat could make some regions across the central US, Middle East, and Australia almost unlivable in the summers. Scientists expect extreme storms and fires to get worse, too. All that could deal a severe blow to food production.
Some cities are also expected to run out of water. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects severe reductions in water resources for 8% of the global population from 2021 to 2040.
The Amazon rainforest, the world’s coral reefs, and the Greenland ice sheet are all at risk of collapse. The Arctic is on track to lose more ice this century than at any point since the last Ice Age. By 2100, rising sea levels could swallow cities like New Orleans, Boston, Venice, Lagos, and Jakarta, driving waves of refugees.
As temperatures rise, researchers also expect to see more infectious-disease outbreaks. That’s because changing environmental conditions could lead some animals to expand their ranges, and others to migrate to new areas, both of which would create more opportunities for diseases like the coronavirus to jump to humans. Pathogens could even evolve to become more resilient to hotter temperatures (including the fevers our bodies use to drive them out).
Much of this climate change is already locked in. A November study found that, even if we went cold turkey and stopped emitting carbon today, the planet would keep warming for centuries. Even with that dramatic action, the model suggested, global temperatures would still be 3 degrees Celsius higher in 2500 than they were in 1850. At this point, the study authors argued, the only way to stop the warming is to suck carbon out of the air.
The climate crisis could kill 6.6 million people annually by 2100
Although it’s difficult to tally the death toll of the climate crisis, the World Health Organisation estimates that it already causes 150,000 deaths globally each year.
By the end of the century, though, rising temperatures could cause 85 deaths for every 100,000 people worldwide, according to an analysis published in August by the National Bureau of Economic Research. In a world of 7.8 billion â€” the current human population â€” that would mean 6.6 million deaths per year.
“A lot of the pain for wealthy populations is going to be through their pocketbooks,” Solomon Hsiang, a co-author of the NBER report and a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, told Time. “In poorer, hotter locations, people will die.”
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