December 20, 2018

Climate in 2018: The Year of Extreme Weather

Four notable trends made themselves felt in 2018.

By James McBride
Deputy Director
Council on Foreign Relations


The world in 2018 experienced many extreme weather events, from debilitating blizzards to raging wildfires to powerful hurricanes. They underscore the mounting costs and disruptions of changing climate patterns, experts say.

While climate researchers agree that human-produced greenhouse gases have driven the increase in global temperatures, they say climate change is likely to impact specific regions in different ways. However, the global scientific consensus is that climbing temperatures, rising sea levels, and shifting atmospheric dynamics are already raising the probability that extreme weather events will be more frequent, more severe, and more deadly.

Four notable trends made themselves felt in 2018. Scroll down to experience the year in climate.

Wide Temperature Swings and a Changing Jet Stream

The winter of 2018 was the warmest on record in the Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the global average. Scientists say this has contributed to dramatic temperature variations elsewhere, including record-setting extremes of both heat and cold.


[LEFT]: A person walks in the snow on King Street in Charleston, S.C., Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. A brutal winter storm smacked the coastal Southeast with a rare blast of snow and ice Wednesday, hitting parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina with their heaviest snowfall in nearly three decades. (Matthew Fortner/The Post And Courier via AP)
[RIGHT]: Sea ice is seen breaking up on the southern coast of Greenland, March 12, 2018. Picture taken March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson – RC1EC5BB75C0

January saw record low temperatures from Toronto to Virginia, accompanied by a massive bomb cyclone that formed as cold arctic air met warmer air farther south, covering the entire Eastern Seaboard. The storm created historic blizzard conditions in major northeastern cities, with Boston seeing its highest tide ever due to storm surge. Twenty-two people died and hundreds of thousands lost power.


[LEFT]: A nun walks during a heavy snowfall in Saint Peter’s square at the Vatican February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi – RC1C0922B210
[RIGHT]: SCITUATE, MA – JANUARY 4: Waves crash against homes on Turner Road during blizzard conditions in Scituate, Mass., on Jan. 04, 2018. (Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In February, Europe experienced a similar system as a mass of arctic air moved from Siberia across Central and Western Europe. Dubbed the “Beast from the East,” it dumped snow from Italy to Ireland, disrupted transport across the continent, and caused dozens of deaths.

The Takeaway

Climate experts say that rising global temperatures have made such dramatic weather events more likely. NASA data shows that the global average temperature has risen by 1.6°F in the past century, mostly in the past three decades. Scientists warn that arctic warming is changing the patterns of the jet stream, the area of the atmosphere where cold arctic air meets warmer southern air. A result has been that warmer air has been pulled farther north in some places—Alaska’s winter was more than 14°F above average—while arctic air dips further south elsewhere, contributing to frigid lows and powerful winter storms.

Prolonged Heatwaves and Intensifying Wildfires

Around the world, temperature records were broken, including record highs of 120°F near Los Angeles in July. Japan recorded a national record high of 106°F, with the sustained heat killing dozens of people. Oman experienced what is likely the highest minimum temperature ever recorded anywhere, with temperatures never dropping below 108°F for several days straight.


[LEFT]: People, putting up parasol, walk on hot road in Tokyo on August 2, 2018. The optical phenomenon, which appears to be water, is often seen on hot roadways due to fine weather and high temperature. According to Japan Metrological Agency, the maximum temperature reached 35 degree Celsius (about 95 degrees Fahrenheit) as of 11 am in Tokyo. (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images)
[RIGHT]: In this aerial photo, a burned neighborhood is seen in Paradise, California on November 15, 2018. – The toll in the deadliest wildfires in recent California history climbed to 59 on November 14, 2018, as authorities released a list of 130 people still missing. (Photo by Josh Edelson / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

The sustained heat was accompanied by severe fires. Across Europe, major fires spread from Scandinavia to southern Italy. Fires killed nearly one hundred people in Greece, drawing an emergency European Union response.


[LEFT]: A local stands next to burnt cars following a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 24, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas – RC1FF2D32AF0
[RIGHT]: YONGIN, SOUTH KOREA – AUGUST 02: People enjoy a swim in the Caribbean Bay swimming pool at Everland amusement park on August 2, 2018 in Yongin, South Korea. South Korea grappled with a heat wave in recent weeks following the rainy season as temperatures hit a record high 40.3 degrees Celsius on Wednesday in Hongcheon, a town in the northeastern province of Gangwon. According to authorities, 2,266 have suffered heat-related conditions while over 28 people have died from heat-related causes as the hot weather is set to continue throughout the week. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, the American West suffered a historically severe fire season. California’s Mendocino Complex Fire in July was by far the state’s largest ever, burning nearly five hundred thousand acres. Then, in November, Northern California’s Camp Fire became the state’s deadliest, killing at least eighty-five people and leaving thousands homeless.

The Takeaway

Experts say that warming has exacerbated fire risks as higher temperatures and drier conditions provide fuel for conflagrations and extend the fire season. The five warmest years on record have all happened since 2010, and many fire-prone regions are warming faster than the average. The American West, for instance, has warmed twice as fast as the global average since 1970, lengthening the fire season by several months, according to U.S. government climate assessments. In parts of Europe, some scientists say, the fire season now runs from June to October rather than from July to August.

Rising Ocean Temperatures, Intensifying Storms

Early in the year, torrential downpours in Southern California, driven by unusual atmospheric rivers of moisture, caused flooding and mudslides. The rains followed a record dry period and the state’s worst-ever fire season. January storms led to twenty-one deaths and the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents.


[LEFT]: MONTECITO, CA – JANUARY 12: A Cal Fire firefighter looks through a car next to a home that was destroyed by a mudslide on January 12, 2018 in Montecito, California. 17 people have died and hundreds of homes have been destroyed or damaged after massive mudslides crashed through Montecito, California early Tuesday morning. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
[RIGHT]: JAMES CITY, NC – SEPTEMBER 14: Volunteers from the Civilian Crisis Response Team help rescue three children from their flooded home September 14, 2018 in James City, United States. Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina as a Category 1 storm and flooding from the heavy rain is forcing hundreds of people to call for emergency rescues in the area around New Bern, North Carolina, which sits at the confluence of the Nueces and Trent rivers. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Atlantic hurricane season later produced several unprecedented storms, which caused major damage and loss of life on the U.S. East Coast. September’s Hurricane Florence dumped thirty-five inches of rain over parts of the Carolinas. In October, Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle as a Category 4, becoming the strongest storm ever to make landfall in the region.


[LEFT]: An abandoned car’s hazard lights continue to flash as it sits submerged in a rising flood waters during pre-dawn hours after Hurricane Florence struck in Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S., September 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – RC15D4359310
[RIGHT]: PANAMA CITY, FL – OCTOBER 11: Kathy Coy stands among what is left of her home after Hurricane Michael destroyed it on October 11, 2018 in Panama City, Florida. She said she was in the home when it was blown apart and is thankful to be alive. The hurricane hit the Florida Panhandle as a category 4 storm. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The year 2018 had the strongest storm season on record. In the eastern Pacific, ten major hurricanes formed. The strongest single storm of the year was Super Typhoon Mangkhut, which hit the Philippines and Hong Kong with force equivalent to that of a Category 5 hurricane, leading to more than 130 deaths.

The Takeaway

Oceans are absorbing over 90 percent of the increased atmospheric heat. Climate scientists say this is likely making storms bigger and wetter. Warmer water means more energy in the storm system and more moisture in the air, making increased extreme precipitation one of the most confident findings of climate research. Several widely cited academic studies suggest that climate change boosted the rainfall totals of some previous hurricanes by more than 20 percent; some initial expert assessments of Florence estimate that its rainfall was 50 percent greater than it would have been without warming. Moreover, rising sea levels increase storm surge, or the amount of water pushed inland by powerful storms, worsening the effects of flooding.

Drought, Crop Failure, and Famine

In South Africa, a multiyear drought came to a head in Cape Town, nearly forcing officials to cut off water to four million people. In East Africa, several years of extreme drought and poor harvests have caused more than ten million people to face acute water shortages and potential famine. In the spring of 2018, meanwhile, torrential rainfall and record-setting flooding there displaced hundreds of thousands of people and further devastated farmland.


[LEFT]: NEUHARDENBERG, GERMANY – SEPTEMBER 06: Aerial view to a tractor during its work on a dry field on September 06, 2018 in Neuhardenberg, Germany. (Photo by Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images)
[RIGHT]: In this June 29, 2018, photo, wild horses walk to a watering hole outside Salt Lake City. Harsh drought conditions in parts of the American West are pushing wild horses to the brink and forcing extreme measures to protect them. Federal land managers have begun emergency roundups in the deserts of western Utah and central Nevada. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

In the United States, drought conditions intensified in April and covered nearly the entire southwest by summer. Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, New Mexico, and Utah reached what the U.S. government considers “exceptional drought” levels, subjecting tens of millions of people to dangerous heat, reducing crop yields, and threatening water supplies.


[LEFT]: TOPSHOT – Villagers cross through receding waters in an area of flash flooding at Solai in Subukia, Nakuru County on May 10, 2018, after the banks of a private dam used for irrigation and fish farming burst its banks some 40kms north of the lakeside town of Nakuru in Kenya’s Rift Valley. – At least 41 people died after a dam burst in central Kenya, police said, as residents described muddy waters ripping through their homes in what one survivor called “hell on earth”. After a severe drought, weeks of torrential rains in Kenya have led to flooding and mudslides that have left 172 dead. (Photo by TONY KARUMBA / AFP) (Photo credit should read TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)
[RIGHT]: Dried out sunflowers are seen on a field near Breydin, Germany, July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch – RC169C77ECE0

Europe also experienced drought and crop failures. Farmers in Germany, Poland, and Scandinavia estimated crop losses of up to 50 percent in some places, costing billions of dollars in damages.

The Takeaway

Scientists increasingly believe that warming temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns, and changes to soil moisture are making droughts more likely and more severe even as extreme precipitation and flooding are also on the rise, a phenomenon known as precipitation whiplash. The Food and Agriculture Organization, a UN agency, warns that the area of the planet affected by drought has doubled over the past forty years, placing agricultural production and food security under duress, especially in developing countries.

The Road Ahead: Fresh Warnings, Mixed Reactions

Amid these weather events, 2018 was marked by several new assessments of climate risk and renewed efforts in the policy arena.

In October, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international body tasked with assessing the state of scientific research on the climate, released a major report on the likely effects of a planet warmed by 1.5°C (2.7°F). (It has already warmed by nearly 1°C above preindustrial levels.) The IPCC found that the 1.5°C mark will be reached by 2040 under current carbon emissions levels and have more destructive effects than were previously anticipated. Likewise, the U.S. National Climate Assessment, issued by thirteen federal agencies every four years, updated its outlook in November, concluding that warming would cost the United States at least 10 percent of its gross domestic product by 2100.

The White House rejects such findings, and President Donald J. Trump has vowed to roll back environmental regulations and boost fossil fuel use. Still, efforts to grapple with climate continue elsewhere in the country. California’s legislature, for instance, approved a bill that will require the state to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2045. But as the United Nations convened a major climate conference in Poland at year’s end, it became increasingly apparent that the world is far from achieving the carbon reductions necessary to meet pledges under the 2015 Paris Agreement to keep total warming under 2°C. To the contrary, carbon emissions reached record levelsin 2018.

Originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations, 12.12.2018, under the terms a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.