Following the world’s sixth warmest year on record, environmental experts agree that climate change has already caused widespread, irreversible losses for nature, which are only set to grow if we don’t take immediate action. The world’s ecosystems are sensitive and are reportedly reaching their limits of being able to thrive in a warming, polluted planet. Earth.Org looks back at the last twelve months to see how key systems responded to environmental and anthropogenic drivers and compare to previous years to understand whether we are on the right path to recovery. Here’s what we lost in 2022 in terms of land mass, forest coverage, and biodiversity.
In 2022, we saw many changes worldwide as we started to pursue ‘normality’ and recover from the global repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many exciting developments were announced in climate and environmental news throughout the year scientists recorded losses in key systems that provide us with vital services, 2022 also saw catastrophic losses to our vital earth systems that pushed the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to announce an “Emergency Mode” for the environment.
Here’s what we lost in 2022 in terms of land mass, forest coverage, and biodiversity.
1. Land Mass Lost in 2022
Sea level rise (SLR) is a major concern for coastal regions – especially when they are heavily populated – as it threatens vital infrastructure as well as the health and livelihoods of entire communities.
Small island nations but also coastal cities in more developed countries are at risk of being submerged. Approximately 10% of the world’s population is estimated to live in low-lying coastal regions, where local economies depend on trade, fishing, and tourism. In the UK alone, more than eight million people live in coastal areas.
Cities a risk from sea level rise of 0.5 metres by 2050s (Source: C40.org)
According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), since 1992, the global average sea level has risen by over 10cm. While some degree of rise is natural, human-caused SLR over the last thirty years was ten times that of natural SLR. On top of that, the global average SLR went from 2.5mm a year in the early 1990s to 3.9 mm over the last decade.
In 2021, the global sea level was measured at a new record high of 97mm above 1993 levels, and high tide was 3 to 9 times more frequent than it was 50 years ago. By 2022, the mean global sea level reached 102.2mm higher than in 1993.
The ice-mass loss from ice sheets and glaciers to the ocean has a strong influence on regional sea levels, and a major portion of sea level rise is explained by meltwater. Arctic sea ice saw its 10th lowest minimum extent on record in 2022 and was generally at the low end of the historical range for the year.
In 2022, scientists from NASA measured the loss of sea ice using remote sensing techniques and found that Greenland has lost 5 trillion tons of weight since the early 2000s. That equates to an average of 277 billion tons of mass loss a year.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), coastal ecosystems have been impacted by the combination of SLR, climate-related ocean changes, and adverse effects from human activities on the ocean and land. Rising sea levels are often associated with coastal erosion, flooding, contamination, and habitat loss. While a diverse range of adaptation responses have been rolled out around the world, there is a long history of land mass being lost across the world’s coasts.
Small, low-lying nations remain the most vulnerable to the impacts of SLR. At the United Nations’ second World Climate Conference in Geneva in 1990, 43 of the world’s smallest island and low-lying coastal countries forged a coalition known as the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). This intergovernmental organisation has played a key role in giving underrepresented nations a voice and advocates for communities experiencing the catastrophic impacts of rising sea levels.
Melting ice sheets have a strong influence on sea level rise.
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2. Forest Coverage Lost in 2022
Forests cover almost one-third of the world’s land area, harbouring most of the Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity. They are home to approximately 60,000 different tree species, 80% of amphibian species, 75% of bird species, and 68% of the world’s mammal species. Humans also depend on forests to support livelihoods and they provide more than 86 million green jobs.
Deforestation is the purposeful clearing of forested land, often for agriculture and illegal logging purposes. Scientists have estimated that 10% of the world’s forest area (420 million hectares) has been lost in the last 30 years as humanity continues to consume natural resources.
The Amazon Rainforest spans over 6.7 million square kilometres (2.587 million square miles), covering nine countries, and is home to 10% of known species on Earth. Despite its significance, an area equivalent to about 5 football pitches is lost every minute. Moreover, in the first nine months of 2022, the highest deforestation rate since 2016 was recorded in the Brazilian Amazon. According to analysis of satellite imagery by the National Space Research Institute (INPE) in the country, between August 2021 and July 2022, an area of 11,568 square kilometres, nearly equivalent to the size of Qatar, was cleared.
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Wildfires are increasing as the effects of climate change worsen.
While deforestation has been cited as the main cause of lost forest coverage in recent decades, one stark reminder of recent climate change is the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires experienced worldwide. According to experts, they are “burning faster and hotter than ever before”, and forest areas are suffering catastrophic and irreversible impacts from them.
The Guardian reported that in northern latitudes, the consequences of wildfires are even worse and made up about 30% of tree loss cover in 2021. And according to the European Commission’s European Forest Fire Report, in 2022 we experienced “one of the most dramatic wildfire seasons ever recorded”, with a combination of historical drought and heatwaves that have created “unprecedented stress on vegetation and forests across Europe.”
When looking at all that we lost in 2022, we cannot leave out biodiversity. Hundreds of thousands of animal species around the world are threatened by human action and climate change. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List is one of the most commonly cited information sources on the global extinction risk status of animals, categorising species as ‘extinct’ or ‘extinct in the wild’. In 2022, there were more than 150,300 species on the IUCN Red List, with more than 42,100 species threatened with extinction.
With the help of technological advances, we have been able to track year-on-year losses of the world’s key ecosystems. With this development has come the realisation of what we already knew about the impacts of human activities and climate change on the natural environment. To put it simply, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification’s (UNCCD) evidence-based GLO2 Report warns that: “At no other point in modern history has humanity faced such an array of familiar and unfamiliar risks and hazards, interacting in a hyper-connected and rapidly changing world. We cannot afford to underestimate the scale and impact of these existential threats.”
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