The past three years have been the hottest on record, the United Nations said on Thursday, contributing to climate-related disasters such as Arctic warmth and water shortages in South Africa.
In a role reversal, the Arctic experienced unusually high temperatures, while densely populated areas in the northern hemisphere battled freezing temperatures and winter storms, according to the UN World Meteorological Organisation’s 2017 climate report.
“The start of 2018 has continued where 2017 left off — with extreme weather claiming lives and destroying livelihoods,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.
“Australia and Argentina suffered extreme heatwaves, whilst drought continued in Kenya and Somalia, and the South African city of Cape Town struggled with acute water shortages,” he continued.
Global sea surface temperatures in 2017 were the third warmest on record, contributing to the melting of the polar ice sheets, mostly in Greenland and to a lesser extent Antarctica, and significant coral bleaching in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Most expensive year
The North Atlantic hurricane season, major monsoon floods in India and severe drought in parts of east Africa made 2017 the most expensive year yet for severe weather and climate events, according to the report.
Germany-based reinsurer Munich Re assessed the total disaster losses from weather and climate-related events in 2017 to be $320 billion (€260 billion), the largest annual total on record, the report stated.
“Fuelled by warm sea-surface temperatures, the North Atlantic hurricane season was the costliest ever for the United States, and eradicated decades of development gains in small islands in the Caribbean such as Dominica,” Taalas wrote.
Over the past quarter of a century, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased from 360 parts per million to more than 400 parts per million, the report found.
“They will remain above that level for generations to come, committing our planet to a warmer future, with more weather, climate and water extremes,” Taalas said.
Most vulnerable hit hardest
The overall risk of heat-related illness or death has been increasing steadily since 1980, with about 30 pecent of people now living in conditions that deliver potentially deadly temperatures at least 20 days a year, according to the World Health Organization.
Climate change hits vulnerable nations particularly hard, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which said that an increase of 1 degree Celsius in temperature would significantly slash economic growth rates in many low-income countries.
In 2016, weather-related disasters displaced 23.5 million people. In Somalia alone, drought and food insecurity saw 892 000 displacements from November 2016 to December 2017, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Floods affected farmers in Asian countries in particular, with heavy rains in May 2017 causing extreme flooding and landslides in south-western areas of Sri Lanka.
The impact of floods on crop production further hurt food security conditions in the country, the report found.