We’ve seen record heat, record snow, record flooding, record drought, rising sea levels and super typhoons — and extreme climate events are expected to continue unless humans taks action to reduce emissions and lower the planet’s temperature.
Take a look at the photos below to see the extreme weather and climate events that plagued 2014.
Record warm year
It is virtually certain that 2014 will go down in history as the globe’s warmest year on record since instrumental records began in 1880. In a telling sign of global warming, 14 out of the 15 warmest years have all occurred since the year 2000.
The warmth in 2014 has largely been driven by the oceans, which again were record-breakingly warm for November, continuing a streak of records that have been toppled during the past several months.
The January-to-November period surpassed the previous record warm years of 1998 and 2010 in NOAA’s database, the agency said.
This is unique because both of those previous years featured El Niño events, which raise global ocean temperatures and give the planet’s overall temperature a boost. So far this year, an El Niño event has failed to materialize in the Pacific Ocean, despite being forecast to do so, yet records have been set for the highest global ocean temperatures on record during several months this year.
While instrument data only goes back as far as 1880, other climate records, from tree rings to coral reef samples, have shown that it is likely that the Earth has not been this warm in at least 4,000 years, with global levels of greenhouse gases at the highest level in human history.
Not every climate data center is guaranteed to rank 2014 as the warmest year, due to the different data analysis method each group uses. Satellite-derived temperature data for the lower atmosphere does not show as sharp a spike in 2014 temperatures for example.
The Buffalo, New York area was subjected to a virtual firehose of heavy snow in November when an extremely active lake effect snow pattern developed and stalled out over the same area for days at a time. Snowfall amounts reached 88 inches in Cowlesville, New York, which is a new record for the Buffalo area.
Two EF-4 tornadoes, spaced about a mile apart, tore through the small town of Pilger,, Nebraska on June 16, killing 2, while damaging the vast majority of structures in the town.
As strong and photogenic as they were, however, the tornadoes were not anywhere close to unprecedented, based on an examination of tornado research and interviews with severe weather experts. However, the intensity and longevity of both funnels did strike some experts as unique.
Overall, the 2014 tornado season was one of the least active in U.S. history, with less than 1,000 tornadoes touching down. This is below the average of 1,260 tornadoes that have occurred each year since the early 1950s. Interestingly, 2012 and 2013 were also unusually quiet tornado years, following deadly tornado outbreaks in 2011 that killed more than 500.
Emerging scientific research shows that the frequency of tornadoes may be decreasing as the climate warms, while the timing of tornado season shifts, and big tornado outbreaks become more common. This is due to the overall increase in water vapor — a key fuel for severe thunderstorms — as a result of global warming, while another prime ingredient known as wind shear becomes a more limited resource.
This transition to a “boom or bust” tornado regime is consistent with some climate studies showing that even if wind shear declines, it will still be present on some days, leading to potentially larger, but less frequent, outbreaks.
Repeated bouts of extremely cold air affected the lower 48 states last winter, particularly during the month of January. Some of the cold waves were related to a weakening of the polar vortex, which is circulation that typically rings the poles during the winter. When the polar vortex winds weaken and the shape of the vortex becomes elongated, the odds of Arctic outbreaks in the U.S. and Europe increase.
This NOAA graphic illustrates the temperature departures from average during early January 2014.
The polar vortex is a meteorological term that has been in use since the middle of the 20th century, but it wasn’t until the winter of 2013-2014 that it seeped into pop culture and took on multiple new meanings, much to the chagrin of many meteorologists.
The tropical Pacific Ocean gave rise to some incredibly intense typhoons this year, including Super Typhoon Hagupit and Super Typhoon Neoguri. Both of these storms were strong category 5 storms at one point, but fortunately they each struck land in a weakened state.
An intense drought has been affecting southeastern Brazil during the past year or more, leading to water shortages in the country’s capital of Sao Paulo. Water services to homes and businesses has been sporadic at times, as officials grapple with what to do if rain does not arrive soon to refill rapidly depleting reservoirs. At times, Sao Paolo has been just weeks away from completely running out of water.
The California drought is one of the state’s worst short-term drought events on record. It is an example of what climate scientists project will occur more often — while conditions dried out, California set high temperature records and is likely going to set a record for the state’s warmest year.
Because of the lack of surface water, farmers and other water users have drawn from aquifers deep underneath the soil to access groundwater. So much groundwater has been depleted that it would take 11 trillion gallons of water to replenish this crucial resource again, NASA scientists announced last week.
Surface water is easier to replenish via precipitation compared to groundwater, which can take years to decades to recover.
Deadly blizzard in the Himalayas
In mid-October, Tropical Cyclone Hudhud came ashore in east-central India. The storm funneled moisture northwestward, toward the Himalayas. There, hundreds of climbers were tackling some of the world’s highest peaks in what is typically the least snowy month of the year. The blizzard and series of avalanches that resulted killed at least 40 people and injured dozens more, as the Nepalese Army had to mobilize a helicopter airlift to rescue those stranded by the severe weather.
With the highest ocean temperatures on record this year, coral reefs have been suffering a greater toll than they have in many other years. In fact, some scientists think we are beginning to see what will eventually become a global coral bleaching and die-off event, the likes of which has not been observed since 1998.
Corals are invertebrates that often grow in colonies in symbiosis with algae, known as zooxanthellae, which live in their tissues. It is these algae that give the corals their vibrant colors, and healthy coral reef ecosystems in turn provide food and shelter for a plethora of marine species. When ocean temperatures get too warm for too long a period of time, corals will expel the algae — giving them a sudden eviction notice. Once they do this, the corals turn a ghostly white color, which is where the term “bleaching” comes from.
Corals are the tropical rain forests of the ocean — they house an incredibly diverse array of species, and when the corals suffer from severe stress, these delicate ecosystems can be permanently damaged.
Carbon dioxide seen from space
NASA launched a new satellite in 2014 that is known as the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2. This spacecraft is aimed at obtaining close-up views of the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide throughout the world.
Extreme rainfall associated with the seasonal South Asian Monsoon caused rivers to overflow their banks in mid-October in northwest India and parts of Pakistan, killing more than 320 people and displacing tens of thousands from the Himalayan region of Kashmir and eastern Pakistan. The floods were not as deadly as 2010 floods in a similar area, but the rainfall amounts were comparable, according to scientists.
The 2010 floods, which killed about 2,000 and displaced nearly 20 million, were focused on the Indus River. The flooding this year was is in that river’s tributaries, including the Chenab and Jhelum Rivers. They became so swollen that their expansion was visible from satellites orbiting the Earth.
The flooding in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir was said to be the worst in at least 60 years, with communication lines cut along with electricity and strategic bridge crossings.
Above average sea surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean, to the south of Kashmir, may have played a role in the unusually heavy rainfall.