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Ten facts that show this was the decade when our planet burned
Bloomberg / Contributor / Getty

Our planet is burning. For most of us the climate crisis has, for many years, felt like a distant threat. The last ten years have changed that. The rate of destruction is now so acute and so vast that it cannot be ignored. Our sudden awareness isn`t by accident – it`s because the material effects of climate change are manifesting more and more visibly.

Earlier this week UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that we are approaching the "point of no return" and may soon be unable to prevent or mitigate the impact of global heating. Yet our taste for dirty energy persists – global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels will rise for the third straight year in 2019, by 0.6 per cent, according to the annual report from the Global Carbon Project. It’s also looking likely they will increase again in 2020.

Here are the climate crisis facts that show the scale of what has taken place over the past decade.

## Earth’s boreal forests are burning at the fastest rates in 10,000 years

Wildfires can be a natural part of many of the world’s ecosystems. However, some worrying trends have been accelerating in recent years. This year, for example, wildfires in the Arboreal forest ringing the Arctic were unprecedented in both intensity and latitude, according to The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). The organisation says that the Earth’s boreal forests are now “burning at a rate unseen in at least 10,000 years.”

During summer in 2019, over 600 wildfires tore through more than 2.4 million acres of forest across Alaska. In Siberia, an area of 13 million acres were affected. Studies at the University of Alaska’s International Arctic Research Center show that recent fires are more intense, frequent and severe, than those in the past.

Although 2019 wasn’t worse than the years that preceded it, over the last few years California has charted progressively worse wildfire seasons. This means more expansive areas burned, over longer periods of time and with a more devastating effect on the surrounding environment.

Aside from destroying trees and wildlife, these fires also pump even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In Brazil, wildfires – which have been at the most intense since 2010 – released the equivalent of 228 megatonnes of carbon dioxide. In an atmosphere already chock full of pollution, this is, of course, bad news.

## The Great Barrier reef is dying faster than ever

The Great Barrier reef is a bellwether of ocean health. And it’s dying. Fast. In 2018, researchers found that half of the Great Barrier Reef had been bleached to death in the two years since 2016. Coral bleaching occurs when an unnaturally hot ocean destroys a reef’s colourful algae, and leaves the coral to starve. The marine life ecosystems supported by the reef in the worst affected areas have been largely decimated. In 2016 and 2017, the rate of decay was much faster than the preceding years.

## The first mammal went extinct because of climate change

The first mammal made extinct by climate change was confirmed as the Bramble Cay melomys, a small rodent that lived only on a single island off Australia. Its extinction was officially recognised by the Australian government in 2019. The cause was put down to rising sea levels that slowly engulfed 97 per cent of the of the creature’s habitat.

In 2014, research found that the mean size of vertebrate (mammals, fish, birds and reptiles) populations declined by an average of 60 per cent between 1970 and 2014, according to the biennial Living Planet Report published by the Zoological Society of London and the WWF.

Other species at severe risk of being claimed by climate change include bumblebees, whales, Asian elephants and giraffes.

## Atmospheric CO2 is at its highest point ever

Since the industrial revolution, the level of atmospheric CO2 has risen steadily, and the past decade was no exception. This level is at its highest ever in about four million years, with the rate of rising the fastest in 66 million years. We’re now in uncharted territory, according to scientists. In 2018, the average global atmospheric carbon dioxide was 407.4 parts per million (ppm). This level was around 390 ppm in 2010.

The cause, of course, is the billion tonnes of carbon that are sent up into the atmosphere from burning coal, oil and gas, every year. The rate of fossil fuel burning has not decreased and is in fact higher than ever. The amount of carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels is forecast to hit 37 billion tons this year, a record high.

## This was probably the hottest decade on record

It’s probably no surprise that this record-shattering decade is likely to be the hottest on record. Since the second world war, the world’s global temperature has soared, as the forces of consumption, pollution and population growth have gobbled up the world’s resources.

This year, multiple heat records were broken. In Belgium and the Netherlands, the mercury bubbled above 40C for the first time, while Paris and the UK recorded the hottest ever temperatures of 42.6C and 38.7C respectively.

The World Weather Attribution initiative found that the UK’s heatwave was made twice as likely by climate change, and the heatwave in France and the Netherlands as much as 100 times more likely. Across all regions of Europe, heatwave temperatures would have been 1.5 to three degrees Celsius lower in the absence of climate change.

Across the world, temperatures between 2010 and 2019 were about 1.1C above the average for the pre-industrial period. This shows how close the planet is to reaching the 1.5C increase in heating that scientists forecast would have catastrophic impacts on weather and result in the loss of essential ecosystems.

Preliminary findings from the State of Global Climate, an annual publication by the WMO, show that this year is on track to be the second or third warmest since records began.

## Greenland’s ice sheet shrank more in July 2019 than in an average year

Since 2002, Greenland has shed an enormous four trillion tonnes of ice from the world’s second biggest ice sheet. And the rate of melting has sped up to record rates in recent years due to unusually high temperatures. According to Ruth Mottram of the Danish Meteorological Institute, surface ice declined in July 2019 by 197 gigatonnes (the equivalent of about 80 million Olympic swimming pools), more than the yearly average from 2002 till this year.

A report led by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development from earlier this year suggested that a third of Himalayan ice cap is also doomed to melt. Even if global warming is limited to 1.5C of global heating, 36 per cent of the glaciers along the Hindu Kush and Himalaya range will have gone by 2100.

## Extreme weather is on the rise – and influenced by humans

Heating oceans and an increasingly destabilised global climate means extreme weather events.There have been a number of examples this past decade, such as Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which hit with unprecedentedly heavy rains and deadly flooding in Houston, USA and was made three times more likely by climate change, according to scientists from the World Weather Attribution (WWA) initiative.

The overall number of hurricanes has remained roughly the same in recent decades, but there is evidence they’re more intense, with more being classified in the most severe category of four and five storms.

For example, Cyclone Fani, which occurred earlier this year was the worst April cyclone to batter India in 43 years. (They normally occur in November). It was the biggest storm to hit the Bay of Bengal since 2008, killing 15 people and forcing millions to be displaced.

## Sea levels rose 2.4cm in the last decade

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), sea levels have risen by between four and eight inches in the past 100 years. Sea level has fluctuated over the world’s 4.6-billion-year history, but the rate at which it is rising is faster than before. The current rate is about one tenth of an inch per year – meaning it rose about an inch in the last decade.

This has the effect of making the sea hotter, more acidic and less oxygenated. This means we can look forward to experiencing extreme sea level events – typically experienced about once every century – far more frequently: once every year on many coasts around the world. The impacts of these include severe storms, dwindling marine life, and melting permafrost.

## Indonesia has to move its capital city

A huge impact of climate change is that increasingly large swathes of the world will become unliveable in the near future. The greatest risk right now is rising sea levels, but in the future temperature and its devastating effect on food resources will become another potent factor.

Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, is home to over ten million people, and is sinking by as much as 25cm every year. Rising global sea levels combined with land subsidence as underground water supplies have been leached away to meet water needs. The situation has become so extreme that earlier this year, Indonesia announced its plans to move the capital city away from Jakarta.

In 2019, Venice experienced its worst floods in 53 years – the second highest water levels on record. The main cause was a heavy storm, exacerbated by heavier rainfall than usual this year. Storm tides in Venice are classed as ‘exceptional’ when they exceed 140cm (enough to flood 50 per cent of the city). According to the city’s records, this has happened 20 times since the late 1880s. Twelve of these have been in the last two decades – implicating sea level rise and more erratic weather as a main contributor.

The Climate Change Vulnerability Index from global risk consulting firm Maplecroft, says that other equatorial locations at extreme risk from global warming in the coming years include Lagos, Nigeria, Haiti, Yemen, the UAE, Manila, Philippines, and Kribati.

Sea levels have been rising as ice melts and hotter oceans expand. London, New York and Shanghai are some of the cities that can expect to be engulfed by water even if the global temperature increase is restricted to 2C.

## And yet, we keep missing targets

The EU’s nationally determined contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990. However, Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, in a statement on Tuesday said that we are on track to miss this target. In fact, the world is currently on track for a temperature increase of more than 3C by the end of the century.

The UK is on track to miss its (pretty tame) legally binding 2020 climate targets, an investigation from Greenpeace’s journalism unit Unearthed and the Financial Times found. It failed on “pretty much every aspect” of protecting wildlife and the environment, across areas such as tackling carbon emissions, air and water pollution, waste and overfishing, as well as increasing tree planting and biodiversity.

The UK is also on track to miss its goal to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 too. This because of a lack of effort to change consumer behaviour, by introducing measures like making green energy cheaper or levying a frequent flyer tax, according to a report commissioned by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change.

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