Addressing climate change only as something that will happen to future generations makes less and less sense. The crisis triggered by humans with the use of fossil fuels is here and its impacts are becoming more and more noticeable. The climate emergency has once again left a trail of tragedy, death and ash in the northern hemisphere this summer with the extreme heat waves and the gigantic fires that have fiercely hit Canada, Greece, Hawaii, Tenerife… And no, this It’s not the usual heat. The data managed by the main international agencies that monitor climate and meteorological events indicate this and point to the hottest summer documented in the world to date.
These June and July were the warmest June and July that have been recorded so far on the planet as a whole since direct measurements began in 1850, according to the monthly reports prepared by the Copernicus Climate Change Service of the European Union. In the absence of the official Copernicus report being published next week, the data also suggests that exactly the same thing happened in August. Therefore, this has been the hottest summer on the planet for at least the last 174 years.
“Although the data are very preliminary, it is likely that this month will also be the hottest August in our global temperature records,” Zachary M. Labe, a researcher at Princeton University and NOAA, told EL PAÍS at the beginning of the week. (the acronym in English for the National Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). According to measurements collected by Climate Reanalyzer, a visualization tool created by a team at the University of Maine based on NOAA measurements, on all but two days in August – the 13th and 14th – global temperatures were the same. highest daily highs recorded so far for that same month. The data collected by Copernicus point to the same, sources from this organization point out.
Additionally, July 6 was the hottest day on record, with an average surface air temperature of 17.08 degrees Celsius. To find the previous record – which was 16.8 degrees – you only have to go back to 2016. This last data should not be lost sight of: the hottest summers of the last 174 years are concentrated in the last decade, another example of the warming process that the planet is experiencing due to greenhouse gases and which is increasing. July as a whole was also the hottest month ever documented.
While it is summer in the northern hemisphere, it is winter in the southern hemisphere, and yet the highest global temperatures are always reached during the northern summer. This is because there is more land in the northern hemisphere than in the south and the air over the continental surface warms more than over the ocean.
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But, to understand the process that is leading to all these records in 2023, two main factors must be taken into account, Labe points out. On the one hand, El Niño, a pattern of climate variability that is associated with warmer temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that ends up affecting the entire planet. Until this summer, the climate was under the influence of La Niña, the opposite phenomenon, but in June the conditions began to form for the formation of El Niño. This climate pattern is cyclical, so we must consider another cause that is already structural: “long-term warming caused by human-caused climate change,” adds Labe. “In other words: temperatures are already increasing due to climate change, and El Niño temporarily increases these temperatures even more,” summarizes this scientist.
“Climate change is here. It’s frightening. And this is just the beginning. The era of global warming is over, now is the time for the era of global boiling,” António Guterres, UN Secretary General, warned at the end of July. “We have entered unknown territory due to the exceptionally warm conditions in the North Atlantic Ocean,” Copernicus also noted in July when referring to another of the record-breaking events experienced this summer: the warming of the waters of the Atlantic.
Spain: more than half of August in heat wave
Climate change is manifested by an average increase in temperatures, but also by a worsening of local extreme phenomena, such as heat waves, which are becoming more and more numerous. A good example is Spain. Provisional data from Aemet (the State Meteorological Agency) indicates that the Peninsula and the Balearic Islands have experienced four “confirmed” heat waves this meteorological summer (June, July and August). “It is being evaluated whether a possible fifth meets the requirements,” explain sources from the Ministry for the Ecological Transition.
In total, the four confirmed waves add up to 24 days (the fifth one that is being studied would add three more days to this count if it is confirmed). The worst was the last: it lasted nine days and affected 32 provinces. Furthermore, 56% of the days in August were under the effects of heat waves. In the case of the Canary Islands, summer closes with two waves, which add up to ten days in total.
A heat wave is an episode of abnormally high temperatures that last for several days and affect a significant part of a geographic area, such as a country. But there are no concrete, precise and unified criteria throughout the world. Aemet considers that a heat wave exists when an episode of at least three consecutive days occurs in which at least 10% of the stations taken as reference register daily maximums above the average for the months of July and August of the year. period between 1971 and 2000. Since 1975, Aemet has recorded more than 70 events of this type in mainland Spain.
This summer is the fourth with the most days declared in a heat wave in the series. When the data is analyzed, once again, further evidence of the global warming process that is being experienced now appears: the summers with the most days in heat waves are again concentrated this decade. In 2022, the record was set, with 41 days. They are followed by 2015 with 29, 2017 with 25 and this 2023 with 24.
“This is a trend, this summer confirms what organizations like the World Meteorological Organization or Aemet tell us,” says Teresa Ribera, third vice president and acting minister of Ecological Transition. “But, for the first time, this summer we have fully faced debates about how cities should adapt or the impacts of climate change on sectors such as tourism,” adds Ribera. “Climate change is going to impact all areas of the economy,” she warns.
“The heat now is not what it used to be,” emphasizes environmentalologist and popularizer Andreu Escrivá. This expert insists that it is a mistake to think of climate change as something that will impact only future generations: “At the beginning of the 2000s, when I was studying Environmental Sciences, it was already said that climate change is something that will affect future generations. and we continue talking about that same thing, about our children. But the future generations of 30 years ago are already us.” “Climate change is having a greater impact on the elderly (for example with the mortality associated with heat waves) and I am more worried about my parents and my friends’ parents than about my friends’ children,” adds Escrivá, who He also warns that this does not mean that the future ahead will be even worse.
A man looks out from the balcony in the Raval neighborhood, in Barcelona, during one of the torrid August nights. Gianluca Battista
How bad that future is in the coming decades – that is, as far as warming goes – is something that is still in the hands of humanity, although to leave the planet within safe limits requires an urgent and urgent change of direction. drastic, as the last major scientific report by the IPCC, the panel of international experts linked to the UN, made clear. “We have known for a long time that burning fossil fuels leads to a higher likelihood of dangerous heat waves, and now we are experiencing the reality of those predictions. Without a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, we can only expect these heat waves to continue to worsen over the next decade or more,” Labe points out.
Warming not only impacts temperatures, but also available water. Although it is not entirely clear what influence the climate crisis may have on rainfall, experts do point to an effect on the so-called agricultural drought and hydrological drought, that is, soil moisture and available reserves. Because increased temperatures imply greater evaporation, which in turn decreases reserves and increases the thermal stress of the vegetation.
The IPCC report also noted that an increase in “hydrological and agricultural droughts” has already been observed in the Mediterranean area. In addition, an increase in the arid surface and fires was predicted if global warming reaches two degrees (it is already at 1.2) compared to pre-industrial levels. Furthermore, the IPCC warned that “in southern Europe, more than a third of the population will be exposed to water scarcity if it reaches two degrees.”
This week the country’s dammed water reserves were at 37.6%, which is more than 15 points below the average of the last decade for this same week of the year, which is 52.9%. The main problem is the rainfall deficit that has been affecting a large part of the country for more than a year and that is pushing some basins to the limit, with cuts in irrigation and impacts on the price of some products, such as olive oil. , which is shot.
The most complicated situation continues to be experienced in the Guadalquivir reserves, which are at 19.5% of their capacity. Something similar occurs in the Guadiana basin (which is at 24.6%), the internal basins of Catalonia (24.1%) and, to a lesser extent, in the Ebro (37.6%).
The Ministry for the Ecological Transition prepares a monthly situation report on the drought. The last one, dated July 31, indicates that 38.4% of the national territory is on alert or emergency due to temporary water shortages. This indicator takes into account several measurements (such as storage volumes in reservoirs and river flows) and is used to determine problems that may arise for supply, such as restrictions on irrigation and supply to populations. that are taking place. There are four scenarios: normality, pre-alert, alert and emergency. At the beginning of August, 10.2% of the national territory was in an emergency situation and 28.2% was on alert.
The situation is somewhat better than at the beginning of summer thanks to “the rainfall in May and the more localized rainfall in June,” which “made it possible to significantly improve the situation in the southeast of the peninsula,” describes the ministerial report. However, in most cases a really rainy autumn is required to reverse this drought, which is also aggravated by global warming that already impacts the entire planet. “Climate change is happening here and now,” Escrivá insists. “The world my parents grew up in no longer exists,” she concludes.
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