The year 2012 was one of extreme weather: massive floods in Australia stranded entire towns; a day of torrential rains submerged half the Philippines capital; a super-typhoon ravaged the western Pacific; and a record drought seared more than half the continental United States.
These and other extreme weather events in 2012 were consistent with what most scientists predict will be the “new normal” as the world’s climate continues to warm.
In early December, disaster struck in the Philippines. Typhoon Bopha
triggered flash floods and landslides,displacing millions of people. Julius Julian Ribukas survived but much of his family did not.
“My mother and older brother were swept away by flood water," Ribukas said. "That was the last time I saw them."
That disaster echoed a similar calamity a month earlier on the other side of the world, when the largest Atlantic hurricane
on record swept up the US East Coast, from Florida to Maine.
Heavy rains in southeastern Brazil caused a dam in the town of Campo de Goytacazes to burst and flood the area, January, 2012. (Melissa Martins Casa Grande)
Days of heavy rainfall in what is typically one of the driest months of the year in Australia forced 13,000 people to evacuate their homes, March 2012.
Cattle decompose under the Saharan sun outside the town of Ayoun el Atrous in Mauritania. The food and nutrition crisis facing countries in West Africa’s drought-prone Sahel region continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate, May 2012.
Two weeks worth of rain fell in one day in Manlia, submerging half of the Philippines capital, July 2012.
Extreme drought conditions in the United States sparked more and extensive wild fires, like this one in Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest, July 2012. (U.S. Forest Service)
Corn plants weakened by the drought lie on the ground after being knocked over by rain in Bennington, Nebraska. The U.S. Drought Monitor said the rainfall came too late to help already damaged corn crops, September 2012.
Super Typhoon Jelawat made landfall over Japan and affected the Korean peninsula with heavy rains and floods, September 2012.
For the third consecutive year, monsoon floods hit Pakistan's Sindh and Balochistan provinces, damaging more than 450,000 hectares of agricultural land. Almost 400,000 houses were partially or completely destroyed, September 2012. (Jean-Luc Siblot)
Vast stretches of Nigeria were hit by floods. Flood waters submerge a vehicle in the Patani community in Nigeria's Delta State, October 2012.
Wreckage on the coast of New Jersey from Hurricane Sandy, October 2012. (Credit: spleeness)
Hurricane Sandy flooded New York City streets, October 2012. (David Shanbone)
The United Nations requested $65 million to provide lifesaving aid to survivors of Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines, December 2012. (OCHA)
The United Nations Convention on Climate Change met in Qatar in December for annual talks to address the impact of climate change. (UNFCCC)
In 2012 polar ice sheets melted at an accelerating rate. In this photo surface melt water rushes along the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet through a supra-glacial stream channel. (Ian Joughin)
Hurricane Sandy’s rains and storm surge ravaged New Jersey coastal communities and inundated New York City’s subways, tunnels and streets, causing more than $40 billion in damage.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters that the weather woes are a sign of the times.
“Climate change is a reality," Cuomo said. "It's undeniable that the frequency of extreme weather conditions is up and we're gong to have to learn from that.”
Global climate trends
Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Bopha fit into the larger global climate trends, says Todd Sanford, a climate scientist with the advocacy group, the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“Basically, if we look at numerous types of climate indicators, they are all moving in the directions that we would expect from an overall warming planet," Sanford said. "So, not only are air temperatures going up, sea surface temperatures are going up, but the heat content of the ocean is going up. Ice is declining, glaciers are retreating.”
Reports from the United Nations
and World Bank
find the planet is on track to warm between three and five degrees Celsius this century unless heat-trapping emissions from industries, vehicles and buildings are cut significantly.
World Bank Vice President Rachel Kyte paints a grim picture of a planet that grows four degrees hotter over the next century.
“So whether it’s droughts, or storms or sea surges, we’re past the point of climate being something that happens to somebody else in the future," Kyte said. "Climate change is happening to me now.”
Slowing the pace
The World Bank report joins a chorus of voices urging steps to curb human carbon emissions, and slow the pace of climate change.
At a scientific meeting in Washington, WHO senior scientist Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum warned that medical conditions which already kill millions, such as malnutrition, diarrhea and malaria, will only get worse in a warmer world.
“Climate change will tend to increase public health threats and it doesn’t increase them in isolation. It interacts with other factors as well," said Campbell-Lendrum. "So it depends very much where you live, how poor you are. But in general, climate change tends to increase existing threats and increase instability in the system and threaten public health security.”
The year 2012 saw evidence of global warming: accelerating polar ice sheet melting, coral reefs dying and species facing extinction, on land and sea.
For 12 days in December at the United Nations climate talks in Doha
, Qatar, delegates from nearly 200 countries met to craft a new treaty to curb industrial emissions and slow climate change.
Policy analyst Jennifer Haverkamp, with the Environmental Defense Fund, was among the thousands of non-governmental observers at the meeting.
She says Doha moved negotiations forward, a bit. “My take-away from Doha is that as important as this meeting is, it’s not the only forum where we’re trying to make progress.”
Promising global initiatives
Haverkamp applauds two promising global initiatives.
One, by a UN group, hopes to reduce emissions from aircraft
. If international aviation were a country, its emissions would place it as the world’s 7th largest emitter of climate-changing carbon. The other initiative comes from a coalition of developed and developing nations who want to reduce short-lived air pollutants
like methane, soot and refrigerant gases.
Haverkamp adds that some countries are also stepping forward with national plans.
“Just in this past year, we saw Korea pass a climate law, Australia put into place their price on carbon, Mexico pass a climate law," she said. "Kazakhstan is going to take on an emissions trading system."
Haverkamp says these plans stand as an example that all nations can follow as they work to limit their emissions, and prepare for the challenges of a warmer world.