Was 2020 the worst year for the world's environment?

Superstorms, bushfires and oil spills made 2020 a dangerous year for the environment

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From California’s devastating bush fires and Siberia burning, to an oil spill in Russia, hurricanes in Central America and floods in India, the world is experiencing environmental disasters at an alarming rate.

"There's a theme here," Dr Kris Karnauskas, professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, told The National. "The climate is heating up."

Last year, natural disasters related to climate change cost the world $150 billion, according to a 2020 report by insurance company Munich Re, not to mention countless human lives, hundreds of thousands of animal species, and millions of hectares of precious forests.

In 2019, there were 99 manmade disasters - such as oil spills and nuclear incidents - which resulted in $6bn in losses, Swiss Re reported. The figures for this year have yet to be released.

Here are some of the environmental disasters that have rocked the world this year:

Russia oil spill

In May, a fuel storage tank at Norilsk-Taimyr Energy’s Thermal Power Plant failed, flooding local rivers with around 21,000 tonnes of diesel oil, the second-largest oil spill in Russia’s history.

The incident was so dire that President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency.

The fuel leached into Lake Pyasino, a biodiverse lake rich with fish, which also feeds into the Pyasina River, which, in turn, flows into the Kara Sea in the Arctic Ocean.

Siberia fires

FILE - In this July 10, 2020, file image taken from video provided by Russian Emergency Ministry, a multipurpose amphibious aircraft releases water to extinguish a fire in the Trans-Baikal National Park in Buryatia, southern Siberia, Russia. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual Arctic Report Card, released on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, shows how warming temperatures in the Arctic are transforming the region's geography and ecosystems. (Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service via AP, File)
An amphibious vehicle drops water on a fire in the Trans-Baikal National Park in Buryatia, southern Siberia, Russia. AP

Since the start of 2020, bush fires have burned through more than 20.9 million hectares of land in Russia, and 10.9 million hectares of forest.

In contrast, the Earth’s global tree loss in 2019 was 11.9 million hectares, through a combination of fire and deforestation for agriculture, development and logging. The fires were aided by unusually warm temperatures in the usually icy region. One town, Verkhoyansk, recorded a temperature of more than 38°C this year, the hottest recorded inside the Arctic Circle.

Atlantic storms

The hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean set a record for being the busiest yet in 2020. For only the second time, scientists used up the original list of 21 names designated for hurricanes, and had to start naming storms using letters of the Greek alphabet, with the first two being named Alpha and Beta.

Dr Karnauskas, who studies hurricanes, says even he was shocked by how many storms developed in the Atlantic this year.

“On average, there are about a dozen per year. This year, there were 30. This breaks a record - of 28 in 2005 - that I thought would stand for a long time.”

West Coast bushfires

Wildfires leave California in orange haze

Wildfires leave California in orange haze

The US’s West Coast bushfire season is still raging. More than 100 fires in California, Oregon and Washington have burnt through 2.7m hectares, killing at least 35 and devastating vulnerable wildlife. In Washington state, scientists estimate the fires have killed half of its endangered pygmy rabbit population, while California reported endangered spotted owls abandoning their nests and Big Sur condors missing from a rescue centre.

Middle East extreme heat

This year is on track to be the second hottest on record, behind 2016, according to the World Meteorological Organisation. Not only has it been hot on land, but the oceans have been under increasing pressure too. More than 80 per cent of the global ocean experienced a “marine heatwave”, the WMO said. Disturbingly, this year was a La Nina year, which usually has a cooling effect on the globe, as opposed to El Nino years.

In Baghdad, temperatures hit 51.8°C, the highest recorded, which led to demonstrations over a lack of electricity and basic services during the heatwave, which crippled the power grid. On July 28, records were beaten in Rafha and Al Jouf in, Saudia Arabia, Karbala and Nukhai in Iraq, and a record of 45.4°C across the whole of Lebanon was set in Houche Al Oumara.

Typhoons and cyclones in Asia

About 40 people were killed and around 180,000 forced to flee their homes as Typhoon Vamco slammed into the Philippines on November 8. In India, 175,000 people were evacuated in the wake of Cyclone Nivar, which uprooted trees and triggered flooding in the streets of Chennai when it made landfall on November 21.

Mauritius oil spill

Dead dolphins discovered near Mauritius spill site

Dead dolphins discovered near Mauritius spill site

In another catastrophic manmade disaster, 1,000 tonnes of oil spilled from the Panamanian-captained, Japanese-owned MV Wakashio, which ran aground east of Mauritius, on Pointe d'Esny, in late July. Despite experts saying the spill was relatively small in size, compared with previous oil spills, the location of the incident was cause for worry. The usually crystal clear waters of Mauritius have been stained black and brown, with the government declaring a national emergency. The nation's marine environment is home to more than 1,700 species, with scientists fearing the spill will impact "almost everything" in the waters.

Australia bushfires

A fire labelled as “catastrophic” for the world’s largest island has been burning for six weeks and threatens 1,000-year-old trees that grow on K’gari, in Queensland - also known as Fraser Island. The World Heritage-listed island is home to freshwater lakes and lush rainforests, as well as the Butchulla Aboriginal people, who have lived there for thousands of years. Wildlife on the island includes dingoes, wallabies and potoroos, as well as kauri pines, found in the rainforest areas, which are not well adapted to fire.

As to whether 2020 has been the worst year for environmental disasters, Dr Karnauskas says there are “ups and downs” from year to year.

“We’re riding on top of a long-term upward trend of climate change. This year may feel like a spike in extreme events, but it’s consistent with the trend, and a preview of what our models predict the climate will be like in years to come,” he said.

“This is no longer a ‘let’s save the world for our grandkids’ kind of thing. Climate change is here, we know the cause, we know the solution, and we’re running out of time.”

Natural disasters are complex, as they would occur regardless of human habitation; however, there’s no doubt that human activity is having an impact on these weather events.

"Anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are warming the atmosphere and the ocean, and that absolutely loads the dice for extreme events to happen more frequently and even become more extreme," Dr Karnauskas said.

“The solution is clear – we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly. It’s not too late.”

The scientist said that the worst global environmental disasters of this year may not even yet be apparent.

“It is possible that we won’t feel [this] for several years or decades. If the public and policymakers actually believe bogus claim that carbon dioxide emissions being down this year because of anything other than a deadly, economy crushing pandemic, and we lose what momentum there was on mitigation climate change the right way, which is to reduce our carbon emissions, that will bring the worst impacts of climate change to us faster and in a bigger way.”