Climate change: Record melting of global glaciers sounds alarm for Middle East

Copernicus Climate Change Service's latest report paints bleak picture of effects of global warming in 2023

Glaciers are melting at record rates due to global warming. AFP
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Record melting of the world’s glaciers has led to sea level rises globally, putting the Middle East under threat from storm surges, climate experts have told The National.

In 2023, glaciers suffered “alarming” record ice losses due to global warming, with the Alps losing 10 per cent of their volume over the past two years, Europe’s latest climate report reveals.

Last year's European State of the Climate report, published today by the Copernicus Climate Change Service and the World Meteorological Organisation, reveals Europe had its second hottest year on record and suffered fewer days of snow.

Samantha Burgess, deputy director of Copernicus, told The National glaciers lost up to 20 per cent more water than any other year and warns that it will have consequences globally.

She said the ice loss has led to record sea level rises, resulting in much larger storm surges, which endanger areas at or below sea level.

Glaciers around the world saw a record annual loss of ice, at around 600 gigatonnes of water – 100 gigatonnes more than any other year on record, and equivalent to almost five times the amount of ice contained in all the glaciers in central Europe.

Estimates indicate that this ice loss has contributed 1.7mm to sea level rise - the largest annual contribution on record.

“Glaciers across all Europe saw a net loss of ice in 2023 and the Alps in particular saw exceptional ice loss linked to below average winter snow and strong summer melt due to heatwaves and high temperatures,” she said.

“Around the world, we saw a record of annual mass loss of 1.1 metre of ice thickness with regional ice losses between half a metre to three metres depending on where they are and the heatwaves.

“Glaciers losing ice directly impacts sea level rise and in 2023 we saw the largest contribution of sea level rise from glaciers losing their mass than we have ever seen since we have had satellites. It’s not good.

“When we look globally most of our cities are by the sea. Sea level rises lead to storm surges and Spring tides being metres higher than they have ever been historically. If you are in a Pacific Island nation or the Middle East it is really hard to appreciate that something that happens in mountains with glaciers around the world impacts you directly but it does.

“The world should be worried.”

Record-breaking rainfall

The report reveals that Europe saw its highest number of wet days on average with 7 per cent more rain and catastrophic flooding last year, with Turkey experiencing record-breaking rainfall and flooding killing eight people.

Ms Burgess says extreme weather events like last week’s severe floods in the UAE will undoubtedly happen again until the world reaches net zero.

“We will still see extreme events this year, we have just seen Dubai having record precipitation and we know that it is because the atmosphere is warmer, it holds more moisture which leads to more intense rainfall events,” she said.

“Undoubtedly it could happen again. We cannot predict when and where, it was a really unusual meteorological event."

She said landscapes and infrastructure will need to be adapted to mitigate the impact of floods.

Weather and climate-related economic losses in 2023 are estimated at more than €13.4 billion globally.

According to preliminary estimates for 2023 from the International Disaster Database, last year in Europe, 63 lives were lost due to storms, 44 to floods and 44 to wildfires.

Last year, river flows across Europe were also the highest on record for December, with ‘exceptionally high’ flow in almost a quarter of the network.

Temperatures in Europe were above average for 11 months of the year, including the warmest September on record.

Dubai airport floods after heavy rain in the UAE

Dubai airport floods after heavy rain in the UAE

'Insane and crazy' extreme weather

“The key message for me is that Europe is the fastest-warming continent, with temperatures rising at twice the global average rate,” Ms Burgess said.

“The three warmest years on record have all occurred since 2020. Europe in 2023 saw a huge number of records, a record portion of people affected by heat stress, sea level rises, melting of glaciers and all of these impacts do not just stay in Europe but they have a global footprint.

“We also saw a huge number of extreme events which we know are likely to become more frequent and more intense due to climate change so until we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to net zero we will continue to see climate reports like the one we have just published with records being broken all the time and crazy, insane, events impacting people both in Europe and around the world.”

Her warnings have been echoed by Celeste Saulo, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organisation.

“The climate crisis is the biggest challenge of our generation,” she said.

“The cost of climate action may seem high, but the cost of inaction is much higher. As this report shows, we need to leverage science to provide solutions for the good of society.”

With extreme events increasing, one positive outcome has been a record proportion of electricity generation through renewables in Europe.

Last year 43 per cent of electricity was generated through renewables, compared to 36 per cent in 2022.

For the second year in a row, energy generation from renewables overtook the generation from polluting fossil fuels.

Updated: April 25, 2024, 11:45 AM