27 June 2011 – Meteorologist Jeff Masters of internet weather service wundergound.com says The astonishing number of weather disasters and unprecedented wild swings in Earth’s atmospheric circulation were like nothing he’s even seen in 30 years in the profession.
“It is highly improbable that the remarkable extreme weather events of 2010 and 2011 could have all happened in such a short period of time without some powerful climate-altering force at work. The best science we have right now maintains that human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases like CO2 are the most likely cause of such a climate-altering force, ” he says in his conclusions.
Following is his record of the top 20 extreme weather events in the year 2010-2011, including in Australia.
Every year extraordinary weather events rock the Earth. Records that have stood centuries are broken. Great floods, droughts, and storms affect millions of people, and truly exceptional weather events unprecedented in human history may occur. But the wild roller-coaster ride of incredible weather events during 2010, in my mind, makes that year the planet’s most extraordinary year for extreme weather since reliable global upper-air data began in the late 1940s. Never in my 30 years as a meteorologist have I witnessed a year like 2010–the astonishing number of weather disasters and unprecedented wild swings in Earth’s atmospheric circulation were like nothing I’ve seen. The pace of incredible extreme weather events in the U.S. over the past few months have kept me so busy that I’ve been unable to write-up a retrospective look at the weather events of 2010. But I’ve finally managed to finish, so fasten your seat belts for a tour through the top twenty most remarkable weather events of 2010. At the end, I’ll reflect on what the wild weather events of 2010 and 2011 imply for our future.
Earth’s hottest year on record
Unprecedented heat scorched the Earth’s surface in 2010, tying 2005 for the warmest year since accurate records began in the late 1800s. Temperatures in Earth’s lower atmosphere also tied for warmest year on record, according to independent satellite measurements. Earth’s 2010 record warmth was unusual because it occurred during the deepest solar energy minimum since satellite measurements of the sun began in the 1970s. Unofficially, nineteen nations (plus the the U.K.’s Ascension Island) set all-time extreme heat records in 2010. This includes Asia’s hottest reliably measured temperature of all-time, the remarkable 128.3°F (53.5°C) in Pakistan in May 2010. This measurement is also the hottest reliably recorded temperature anywhere on the planet except for in Death Valley, California. The countries that experienced all-time extreme highs in 2010 constituted over 20% of Earth’s land surface area.
Most extreme winter Arctic atmospheric circulation on record; “Snowmageddon” results
The atmospheric circulation in the Arctic took on its most extreme configuration in 145 years of record keeping during the winter of 2009 – 2010. The Arctic is normally dominated by low pressure in winter, and a “Polar Vortex” of counter-clockwise circulating winds develops surrounding the North Pole. However, during the winter of 2009 – 2010, high pressure replaced low pressure over the Arctic, and the Polar Vortex weakened and even reversed at times, with a clockwise flow of air replacing the usual counter-clockwise flow of air. This unusual flow pattern allowed cold air to spill southwards and be replaced by warm air moving poleward. Like leaving the refrigerator door ajar, the Arctic “refrigerator” warmed, and cold Arctic air spilled out into “living room” where people live. A natural climate pattern called the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), and its close cousin, the Arctic Oscillation (AO) were responsible. Both of these patterns experienced their strongest-on-record negative phase, when measured as the pressure difference between the Icelandic Low and Azores High.
The extreme Arctic circulation caused a bizarre upside-down winter over North America–Canada had its warmest and driest winter on record, forcing snow to be trucked in for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the U.S. had its coldest winter in 25 years. A series of remarkable snow storms pounded the Eastern U.S., with the “Snowmageddon” blizzard dumping more than two feet of snow on Baltimore and Philadelphia. Western Europe also experienced unusually cold and snowy conditions, with the UK recording its 8th coldest January. A highly extreme negative phase of the NAO and AO returned again during November 2010, and lasted into January 2011. Exceptionally cold and snowy conditions hit much of Western Europe and the Eastern U.S. again in the winter of 2010 – 2011. During these two extreme winters, New York City recorded three of its top-ten snowstorms since 1869, and Philadelphia recorded four of its top-ten snowstorms since 1884. During December 2010, the extreme Arctic circulation over Greenland created the strongest ridge of high pressure ever recorded at middle levels of the atmosphere, anywhere on the globe (since accurate records began in 1948.) New research suggests that major losses of Arctic sea ice could cause the Arctic circulation to behave so strangely, but this work is still speculative.
Arctic sea ice: lowest volume on record, third lowest extent
Sea ice in the Arctic reached its third lowest areal extent on record in September 2010. Compared to sea ice levels 30 years ago, 1/3 of the polar ice cap was missing–an area the size of the Mediterranean Sea. The Arctic has seen a steady loss of meters-thick, multi-year-old ice in recent years that has left thin, 1 – 2 year-old ice as the predominant ice type. As a result, sea ice volume in 2010 was the lowest on record. More than half of the polar icecap by volume–60%–was missing in September 2010, compared to the average from 1979 – 2010. All this melting allowed the Northwest Passage through the normally ice-choked waters of Canada to open up in 2010. The Northeast Passage along the coast of northern Russia also opened up, and this was the third consecutive year–and third time in recorded history–that both passages melted open. Two sailing expeditions–one Russian and one Norwegian–successfully navigated both the Northeast Passage and the Northwest Passage in 2010, the first time this feat has been accomplished. Mariners have been attempting to sail the Northwest Passage since 1497, and have failed to accomplish this feat without an icebreaker until the 2000s. In December 2010, Arctic sea ice fell to its lowest winter extent on record, the beginning of a 3-month streak of record lows. Canada’s Hudson Bay did not freeze over until mid-January of 2011, the latest freeze-over date in recorded history.
Record melting in Greenland, and a massive calving event
Greenland’s climate in 2010 was marked by record-setting high air temperatures, the greatest ice loss by melting since accurate records began in 1958, the greatest mass loss of ocean-terminating glaciers on record, and the calving of a 100 square-mile ice island–the largest calving event in the Arctic since 1962. Many of these events were due to record warm water temperatures along the west coast of Greenland, which averaged 2.9°C (5.2°F) above average during October 2010, a remarkable 1.4°C above the previous record high water temperatures in 2003.
Second most extreme shift from El Niño to La Niña
The year 2010 opened with a strong El Niño event and exceptionally warm ocean waters in the Eastern Pacific. However, El Niño rapidly waned in the spring, and a moderate to strong La Niña developed by the end of the year, strongly cooling these ocean waters. Since accurate records began in 1950, only 1973 has seen a more extreme swing from El Niño to La Niña. The strong El Niño and La Niña events contributed to many of the record flood events seen globally in 2010, and during the first half of 2011.
Second worst coral bleaching year
Coral reefs took their 2nd-worst beating on record in 2010, thanks to record or near-record warm summer water temperatures over much of Earth’s tropical oceans. The warm waters caused the most coral bleaching since 1998, when 16 percent of the world’s reefs were killed off. “Clearly, we are on track for this to be the second worst (bleaching) on record,” NOAA coral expert Mark Eakin in a 2010 interview. “All we’re waiting on now is the body count.” The summer 2010 coral bleaching episodes were worst in the Philippines and Southeast Asia, where El Niño warming of the tropical ocean waters during the first half of the year was significant. In Indonesia’s Aceh province, 80% of the bleached corals died, and Malaysia closed several popular dive sites after nearly all the coral were damaged by bleaching. In some portions of the Caribbean, such as Venezuela and Panama, coral bleaching was the worst on record.
Wettest year over land
The year 2010 also set a new record for wettest year in Earth’s recorded history over land areas. The difference in precipitation from average in 2010 was about 13% higher than that of the previous record wettest year, 1956. However, this record is not that significant, since it was due in large part to random variability of the jet stream weather patterns during 2010. The record wetness over land was counterbalanced by relatively dry conditions over the oceans.
Amazon rainforest experiences its 2nd 100-year drought in five years
South America’s Amazon rainforest experienced its second 100-year drought in five years during 2010, with the largest northern tributary of the Amazon River–the Rio Negro–dropping to thirteen feet (four meters) below its usual dry season level. This was its lowest level since record keeping began in 1902. The low water mark is all the more remarkable since the Rio Negro caused devastating flooding in 2009, when it hit an all-time record high, 53 ft (16 m) higher than the 2010 record low. The 2010 drought was similar in intensity and scope to the region’s previous 100-year drought in 2005. Drought makes a regular appearance in the Amazon, with significant droughts occurring an average of once every twelve years. In the 20th century, these droughts typically occurred during El Niño years, when the unusually warm waters present along the Pacific coast of South America altered rainfall patterns. But the 2005 and 2010 droughts did not occur during El Niño conditions, and it is theorized that they were instead caused by record warm sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic.
We often hear about how important Arctic sea ice is for keeping Earth’s climate cool, but a healthy Amazon is just as vital. Photosynthesis in the world’s largest rainforest takes about 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the air each year. However, in 2005, the drought reversed this process. The Amazon emitted 3 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere, causing a net 5 billion ton increase in CO2 to the atmosphere–roughly equivalent to 16 – 22% of the total CO2 emissions to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels that year. The Amazon stores CO2 in its soils and biomass equivalent to about fifteen years of human-caused emissions, so a massive die-back of the forest could greatly accelerate global warming.
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