In recent years, our planet has borne witness to a series of unsettling climate events, ranging from extreme weather events and record-breaking temperatures to the rapid disintegration of ice sheets. The urgency of tackling climate change cannot be overstressed, and it is imperative to comprehend where we currently stand on key climate metrics. As the UN’s climate science body prepares to unveil its latest report on global climate changes resulting from human activity, we delve into five pivotal indicators to gauge the state of our planet in 2023.
Atmospheric CO2 Levels
One of the most crucial markers of our evolving climate is the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. According to data from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, this year’s projected atmospheric CO2 level stands at 419.2 parts per million (ppm), compared to the previous year’s 417.2ppm. Over the past half-century, we have introduced a staggering 100 ppm of CO2 into the atmosphere. This alarming trend, characterised by an annual increase of approximately two points, sets us on a trajectory towards reaching 600 ppm within a century—an outcome deemed catastrophic by climate experts.
To place this in context, the last time CO2 levels exceeded 400 ppm was around four million years ago during the Pliocene era. During that period, global temperatures were 2-4°C warmer, and sea levels were 10-25 meters higher than they are today. This ongoing rise in CO2 levels serves as a clear indication that we are approaching a critical juncture where it becomes increasingly challenging to restrain global warming to below 1.5°C, a target underscored as essential by the IPCC for safeguarding vulnerable ecosystems and communities.
Forests play a pivotal role in mitigating climate change by absorbing and retaining carbon dioxide. However, the world is currently witnessing an alarming trend of deforestation and the deterioration of forests. Tropical forests, in particular, are under significant threat, with recent research indicating that the pace of forest carbon loss in tropical regions has doubled in recent years. A glaring example is the Amazon rainforest, often referred to as the “lungs of the Earth,” where over a quarter of the forest now emits more carbon than it absorbs due to deforestation and drier conditions.
This critical tipping point not only endangers biodiversity but also releases stored carbon back into the atmosphere, further aggravating climate change. Efforts to shield and rehabilitate forests must take precedence to enhance carbon capture and preserve these vital ecosystems.
Record High Temperatures
The global temperature continues to ascend at an alarming rate. In 2022, the world encountered the sixth-warmest year on record since 1880. Alarmingly, the oceans also registered their highest-ever temperatures. The ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 2010, indicating a persistent upward trend. Moreover, 28 countries, including the UK, China, and New Zealand, witnessed their warmest year on record in 2022.
While record temperatures are frequently linked to El Niño events, it is noteworthy that 2022 was a La Niña year. This underscores that climate change is a significant contributor to extreme heat events. It emphasises the pressing need for action to mitigate the consequences of global warming and protect vulnerable communities.
The melting of ice, both in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, is a stark manifestation of climate change. Arctic sea ice has reached its fifth-lowest maximum on record, and Antarctica’s ice sheets are losing mass at an alarming rate. The swift decline of Arctic sea ice contributes to a positive feedback loop, wherein reduced ice results in greater heat absorption, further hastening ice melt. The implications of melting ice sheets in Antarctica are even more concerning, as they could lead to substantial sea-level rise, imperiling coastal communities worldwide.
Understanding the impact of ice melt on global sea levels is crucial for planning and adaptation efforts in the face of a changing climate.
Across the northern hemisphere, permafrost—frozen ground that covers extensive areas—is undergoing rapid warming. As permafrost thaws, it releases greenhouse gasses, including CO2 and methane, into the atmosphere, amplifying global warming. With estimates suggesting that permafrost holds more than twice the amount of carbon as our atmosphere, this trend is a cause for significant concern.
Additionally, thawing permafrost poses risks to infrastructure and the livelihoods of indigenous communities, who rely on the frozen ground for travel and hunting near the sea ice.
The state of our planet in 2023 is marked by escalating CO2 levels, deforestation, record-breaking temperatures, ice melt, and permafrost thaw. These five key climate indicators serve as a poignant reminder that we confront a climate crisis that demands immediate action. The forthcoming UN report will likely emphasize the urgency of addressing these challenges and implementing effective solutions to combat climate change. It is imperative that we act swiftly and collectively to safeguard our planet and ensure a sustainable future for generations to come
Resource: Gerretsen, I. (2023). Future: In the last few years, the world has experienced extreme weather, record temperatures and rapid ice melt. Where are we on key climate indicators? 20th March 2023.