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What’s Behind the Record-Breaking Extreme Weather Events of Summer 2022?

What’s Behind the Record-Breaking Extreme Weather Events of Summer 2022?

Heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, and floods. Summer 2022 will certainly be remembered for the countless extreme weather events that have brought about destruction, claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and displaced millions worldwide. But what’s behind all these devastating events? We recap all the records broken over the summer and take a look at the role that climate change played in all this.

There is no doubt that summer 2022 will be one for the record books, featuring one climate catastrophe after another.

Sweltering weather, exceptionally intense wildfires, and cataclysmic floods: we have spent the last few months watching in disbelief as calamity after calamity unfolded in every corner of the world, causing unimaginable damage, claiming thousands of lives, and displacing millions of people. 

What led us here, how did these disasters unfold and what role does climate change play in all this?

Summer 2022: A Recap

So many extreme record events have broken records in recent months that it is hard to list them all.

Summer 2022 started off earlier than expected, as a deadly heatwave baked South Asia for weeks between late March and May. India dealt with its hottest March since records began more than a century ago, with residents in several parts of the nation suffering through several consecutive days of over 40C. In April, average maximum temperatures climbed to their highest in 122 years. By May, surface land temperatures in northwestern regions were exceeding 60C. The record-smashing heatwave resulted in massive fires, destroyed wheat crops, and significantly increased pressure on domestic energy demand, forcing India to step up its coal game again after years of hard work to lead the nation closer to its 2070 net-zero target.

Meanwhile, neighbouring Pakistan – one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change – was also highly affected by the sweltering heatwave. Jacobabad, a city located in the southeastern region of Sindh, recorded the hottest April temperatures in history. 

Fast forward a few weeks and while still dealing with the dramatic repercussions of the sweltering heatwave, South Asia became the epicentre of a record monsoon season. In late June, northeast India’s Assam and Meghalaya states and low-lying parts of Bangladesh experienced erratic rains that triggered some of the worst floods in more than a century, killing dozens and displacing millions of people. By the end of summer, it was Pakistan’s turn to deal with the devastating force of this monsoon season. In late August, the nation became the epicentre of the “climate catastrophe of the decade”, as rain-triggered floods of biblical proportions washed away entire cities and claimed thousands of lives.

You might also like: Floods in Pakistan: An Announced Tragedy? 

But Asia wasn’t the only continent affected by heatwaves. During the summer of 2022, pretty much the whole world dealt with climate extremes. France went through its hottest May on record and the UK government declared the first-ever national emergency red heat alert, as exceptionally high temperatures in July baked London and other parts of the country for days. Meanwhile, hot and dry conditions across Europe fuelled an early wildfire season “sensibly above the average”, with Spain and Portugal experiencing particularly acute forest fires.

California, an extremely fire-prone state, will forever remember the devastating wildfire that broke out in July in Yosemite National Park, home to nearly 500 iconic sequoia trees among the longest-living and tallest in the world. Once considered impervious to flames, the iconic sequoias have become significantly more vulnerable to climate change-driven blazes, which have intensified and become more destructive in recent years. 

As if all this wasn’t enough, the long-lasting heatwaves and destructive wildfires led some of the worst drought conditions in world’s history. In August, nearly half of Europe was declared under warning conditions for what scientists called the continent’s worst drought in at least 500 years, with rivers from the Po in Italy to the Rhine in Germany drying up as a result of high temperatures and a constant lack of precipitation, with repercussions on energy production and agriculture. In Asia, China’s longest heatwave since full records began in 1961 drained the Yangtze river, sparking energy rationing in the Sichuan region. Meanwhile, California entered its third year of drought.

The repercussion of this summer’s heatwaves have been felt all the way to the Arctic. With parts of the region experiencing unprecedented heating this summer and temperatures above average in September, ice melt in the Arctic reached yet another record high. We are looking at the largest melt event in terms of mass to occur in September in nearly four decades. 

You might also like: ​​The Key Takeaways From This Summer’s Heatwaves

What’s Behind All This?

The trend of more extreme weather events is caused by a warming Earth due to human activities. Are you surprised? Probably not.

In a nutshell, greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane lead to warmer air; which in turn generates more water vapour in the atmosphere. In fact, for every degree of warming that we get, scientists found that the atmosphere can hold roughly 7% more moisture. So, as storms ramp up, getting ready to release water vapour in the form of rain, they have more to draw upon, resulting in heavier and more powerful precipitations. 

But it’s not just the air that gets warmer. As oceans heat up with global warming, more water is inevitably going to evaporate, further adding to this vicious cycle. Indeed, ocean warming accounts for more than one-third of global-mean sea level rise through thermal expansion, a phenomenon that, in turn, increases the threats to coastal infrastructures and habitats due to saltwater intrusion, coastal erosion, and flooding.

You might also like: Ocean Heat Has Doubled Since 1960s, Increasing Likelihood and Strength of Extreme Weather Events: Report

While climate change is not the direct cause of rainfall or hot temperatures, there is no doubt that it makes them more frequent and powerful. A study by the World Weather Attribution published in October found that 2022 droughts in the Northern Hemisphere were made “20 times more likely” by climate change. Global warming is also warming Northern regions nearly four times faster than the rest of the planet. This, scientists warn, will trigger even more catastrophic weather events in the future, from heatwaves and droughts to storms and floods.

Scientists agree that climate change is a key factor behind the strong and early rains that nations around the world are experiencing. As a result of global warming, temperatures in Asia have increased by at least 0.5C since the 1970s and monsoon patterns have shifted in recent decades, becoming not only stronger but also more difficult to predict. 

Besides human-induced global warming, the increasingly hot and dry climate is associated with a weather phenomenon known as La Niña, trade winds that blow across the Pacific Ocean and which effects vary defending where you are in the world. 

On the one hand, La Niña typically brings warmer and drier temperatures to western and southern US. These result in little precipitation, thereby leading to less snowmelt and runoff during the spring thaw, which create optimal drought conditions. On the other hand, the phenomenon is associated with more rainfall and cloudiness in Australia. In October 2022, the country was hit by severe flooding sparked by a third consecutive La Niña weather event, which caused the amount of rain usually expected throughout the month to fall in just 24 hours.

EO’s Position: The latest IPCC report clearly shows that the world is rapidly losing sight of being able to stay under the 1.5C limit of global temperature rise. We need to phase out fossil fuels immediately and scale up renewable energy generation to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change. With COP27 coming up next month, governments must take steps to update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) to stall global warming. 

You might also like: The Tipping Points of Climate Change: How Will Our World Change?

About the Author

Martina Igini

Martina is the Managing Editor at Earth.Org. She holds two BA degrees, in Translation/Interpreting Studies and Journalism, and a MA in International Development from the University of Vienna. After working at the United Nations Global Communication Department in Vienna, she joined a newspaper in Italy as a reporter before moving to Hong Kong in 2020. Her interests include sustainability and the role of public policy in environmental protection with a focus on developing countries.

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