As record breaking temperatures sweep across the globe, we recap what’s happened, where it’s happened and what it means.
Heatwaves, which scientists say have been “made much more likely by climate change”, have battered much of the Northern Hemisphere this month, bringing with them a stark reminder that the climate crisis is not a far off phenomenon, but a real problem of today.
On July 7, the world recorded its hottest ever day, breaking previous records set on the preceding three days. According to preliminary data from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the global average temperature topped out at 17.24 degrees Celsius; 0.3 degrees higher than the record set in August of 2016.
This year was expected to be hotter than usual due to the return of the El Niño weather phenomenon, which occurs when waters in the Pacific Ocean become much warmer than usual. The weather pattern occurs every two to eight years and is generally associated with higher global temperatures, such as in 2016, when a strong El Niño coincided with the hottest year ever recorded (NB: 2016 is tied with 2020, a non-El Niño year).
But while El Niño is a factor, its effects are only just being felt. “The exceptional warmth in June and at the start of July occurred at the onset of the development of El Niño,” said Prof. Christopher Hewitt, WMO Director of Climate Services.
“We are in uncharted territory,” Hewitt continued, “and we can expect more records to fall as El Niño develops further and these impacts will extend into 2024.”
Meanwhile, wildfires are blazing in at least nine countries across the Mediterranean, including Croatia, Spain, Turkey, Italy and Portugal. In Greece, fires on the popular holiday island of Rhodes forced authorities to evacuate some 20,000 people from homes and resorts, prompting the UK Government to update its travel advice for the country.
But it isn’t just Europe that is being devastatingly affected. At least 34 people were killed in northern Algeria as a result of wildfires. Latakia, in north-western Syria, has also seen woodlands go up in smoke.
In response to the ongoing situation, the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said: “I will state the obvious: in the face of what the entire planet is facing, especially the Mediterranean, which is a climate change hotspot, there is no magical defence mechanism; if there was we would have implemented it.”
Across the Atlantic, the story is much the same. Smoke from Canadian wildfires, which last month famously blanketed New York in an eerie haze, is still causing problems across much of the US. In parts of the Midwest, smoke is once again filling the air, this time coinciding with the heatwave. Public health authorities in Detroit are encouraging residents to go to libraries and recreation centres to avoid the blistering heat and poor air quality.
June 7, 2023: New York City skyline blanketed in thick smoke from Canadian wildfires (lev radin/Shutterstock)
This year has been particularly bad for wildfires in Canada; Natural Resources Canada’s fire situation report published on July 19 showed over 27 million acres of woodland have been burnt so far this year. For context, that’s approximately three percent of Canada’s total forest cover, an area larger than the country of Portugal.
Persistent heat has been the theme of the last month in many parts of the US. In Phoenix, Arizona, the temperature exceeded 43C 19 days in a row.
In conjunction with the situation on land, ocean temperatures are soaring too. On Wednesday, US government data showed the ocean surface temperature in Manatee Bay, Florida, topped out at 38.43C — comparable to a hot-tub. If confirmed, the temperature could mark a new world record, one with potentially catastrophic consequences for local marine life.
Just last week, the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) announced that extreme temperatures in Florida waters had proven deadly for one of its coral reef restoration sites, a project more than a decade in the making. “What we found was unimaginable — 100% coral mortality,” said Dr. Phanor Montoya-Maya, restoration program manager at CRF.
Elsewhere in the world, China saw a record high temperature of 52.2C earlier this month, according to the state-run Xinjiang Daily. This comes just six months after the temperatures plunged to a record low of minus 53C in China’s northernmost city, Mohe.
Last month, a searing heatwave swept through two of the most populous states in India, hospitalising hundreds and killing nearly 170 people, according to officials. This month, Mumbai is experiencing its wettest July on record, forcing schools and colleges to shut as a result of flooding.
Using data for the first six months of the year, and forecast models to incorporate the effects of El Niño, analysis by Carbon Brief predicts that 2023 will likely (>50% chance) be the hottest year on record.
Looking at this month in isolation, a joint statement from the WMO and the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service on Thursday announced that it is now “extremely likely” that July will be the hottest month on record.
Speaking after the announcement, UN Secretary-General António Guterres commented: “We don’t have to wait for the end of the month to know this. Short of a mini-Ice Age over the next days, July 2023 will shatter records across the board.”
“Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning,” Guterres continued, adding that “the era of global boiling has arrived”.
The global tally of temperature records and accompanying climate disasters happening globally is far longer than the examples provided in this article, and with events unfolding at an unprecedented pace, it’s likely more records will fall before the summer is out. But it’s important to remember that these aren’t just milestones to be passed; they signify the irreversible loss of ecosystems, the devastation of homes and livelihoods, crop failures, hunger, disease, and, tragically, the loss of human lives. Climate change is not a distant threat of tomorrow; it’s the harsh reality of today.