Extreme Temperature Diary- Thursday January 4th, 2024/ Main Topic: The Era of ‘Global Boiling’ Arrived in 2023

2023’s record heat temperatures left scars across the globe – The Washington Post

The climate future arrived in 2023. It left scars across the planet.

The year will mark a point when humanity crossed into a new climate era — an age of ‘global boiling,’ as the U.N. Secretary General called it

By Chico Harlan

AVAS, Greece — By the time the flames were barreling down the slope, heading for 40 miles of parched forest, the fire chief said he already knew: This was the big one.

His part of Greece had gone two months without rain. A record heat wave had bakedthe area for weeks. Within hours, the fire had sprinted through acres of pines, hissing and spouting 120-foot flames, reaching the brink of a village where a single home — belonging to Kostas Dinas, a retired attorney — was perched on the hillside outskirts.

Dinas, 66, had figured he’d live in that home until they “carried me out flat.”

But then came thehottest year humanity had ever seen.

It had been a year that had started with merely very hot temperatures and then intensified midway. What made the subsequent months stand out wasn’t so much any single record but rather the heat’s all-consuming relentlessness. It went day by day, continent by continent, until people all over the map, whether in the Amazon or the Pacific islands or rural Greece, had glimpsed a climate future for which they are not prepared.

“It felt like the earth was about to explode,” Dinas said.

Even if its extremes are ultimately eclipsed, as seems inevitable, 2023 will mark a point when humanity crossed into a new climate era — an age of “global boiling,” as United Nations Secretary General António Guterres called it. The year included the hottest single day on record (July 6) and the hottest ever month (July), not to mention the hottest June, the hottest August, the hottest September, the hottest October, the hottest November, and probably the hottest December. It included a day, Nov. 17, whenglobal temperatures, for the first time ever, reached 2 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial levels.

Discomfort, destruction, and death are the legacy of those records.

In Phoenix, a heat wave went on for so long, with 31 consecutive days above 110 Fahrenheit, that one NASA atmospheric scientist called it “mind-boggling.” The surrounding county recorded a record number of heat deaths, nearly 600.

In Brazil, drought sapped the normally lush Amazon, causing towns to ration drinking water, contributing to the deaths of endangered pink dolphins, and choking off the river-based system of travel and commerce.

In the Antarctic, wintertime sea ice was at an all-time low. An unprecedented marine heat wave upended coral ecosystems. At one point the coastal Florida Keys waters reached 100 degrees, comparable to a hot tub.

And in Greece, in the wake of extreme heat, fires broke out on many fronts — none bigger than the blaze that arrived on Aug. 21 in Avas, a village of 400 people with a taverna, a tidy cluster of stone homes, including onehigh above the others, at the end of a winding road overlooking the town.

Dinas had bought that house from a friend in 2012, seeking a way to move from a nearby city back to his home village. He’d poured his savings into a renovation. He’d stocked the home with his books and vinyl records. From his window, he could see the mountains, the sea six miles away, and squirrels playing in his front yard. In the evenings, he’d tucker down the hill to a bar, right off the town square, where he’d play cards with friends he’d known since high school.

On the night of Aug. 21, he was in that square again, looking up as the fire raged across the hillside. Volunteers and firefighters had spread out across the lower part of the village, having dug trenches, armed with hoses and water buckets, to defend the other properties. But nobody could save Dinas’s home. The fire consumed it in minutes, and Dinas gulped thinking about everything going up in flames. His books of poetry, handwritten notes in the margin. His degrees. Photos of his daughter.

“My whole life,” he said.

When the fire stopped, he looked up at the hill. His house had no door, no roof. Even the windows had melted.

“It must have been so, so hot,” Dinas said.

Anomalies ‘off the charts’

One explanation for 2023’s extreme heat is El Niño — a recurring oceanic phenomenon that warms the waters in the Pacific and causes a global ripple of consequences. But the scale of this year’s heat — amplified by human-caused factors and the burning of fossil fuels — is still well beyond what most scientists had thought possible. Some have theorized that planetary warming may be accelerating. Others have said there’s not enough evidence. What they agree upon, though, is that the earth is trending toward more extreme heat.

That means that the experiences of 2023 can seem astonishing in the short-term but will one day look tame.

This year,then, will wind up as the first — and almost surely not the last — in which temperatures were at or near 1.5 Celsius above preindustrial levels, a threshold the Paris agreement has aimed to avoid. Though different climate tracking groups wind up with slightly different measurements of the global temperatures, most are within the same margin of error.

“All data sets tell us that we are uncomfortably close to 1.5 already,” said Carlo Buontempo, director of Europe’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.

Buontempo said Dec. 21 that 2023 had been so warm that even an immediate deep planetary freeze wouldn’t stop the year from breaking the all-time annual heat record.

“You’d need an asteroid hitting the planet, and even so I don’t know if you’d manage,” he said. “The anomalies this year are just that much off the charts.”

The heat was so sustained that it set records day after day. The University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute logs daily global temperatures going back to 1940. From this July on, almost without fail, every daily temperature in 2023 topped the daily temperature from the same date in any of the prior 83 years.

Those record days are driving dramatic changes.

On Oct. 7 — yes, the hottest since at least 1940 — Matthias Huss, a glaciologist, shared video on social media from western Switzerland of melting glaciers dripping onto rocks as if it were a rainstorm. Normally, in October, the melting had stopped, replaced by a thick level of snow.

“It’s very sad,” said Huss, who’d seen Switzerland’s glaciers lose 10 percent of their mass over the past two years. “We are witnessing this transition into a new world.”

Nine days later in Brazil, the Rio Negro, one of the Amazon’s main tributaries, fell to its lowest level since record keeping began more than a century earlier. A victim of Brazil’s historic drought, that sapped waterway upended lives across the region, including in the city of Manaus, an industrial hub that suddenly couldn’t receive shipments from huge vessels. Some factories were forced to shut down, unable to receive raw materials. Supermarkets rationed beans and rice. Many of the goods that did arrive had to be ferried in from nearly 1,000 miles away, a trip that required six or seven days.

“The rivers are like our roads,” said Geyce Ferreira, who lives in Manaus and handles logistics for a retail company. “Your normal life, your day-by-day life, is seeing the river. And then one day you can’t see it anymore. Everything stopped.”

“When you imagine that this is your future, how can you live here?”

Then, on Oct. 25, halfway across the world, a Category 5 cyclone made landfall in the small Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Hurricanes and cyclones are increasingly supercharged by warmer ocean temperatures, and this one — Lola — was one of the most intense offseason cyclones ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere. The cyclone obliterated several remote islands, uprooting vegetation, blowing away homes, destroying schools. Kelly Pabi, a regional official in the hardest-hit area, said by phone that two months later most children in the disaster zone still hadn’t returned to school.

“Until today, people still don’t even have access to safe drinking water,” Pabi said.

Refugees caught in the flames

Greece’s northeastern fire was the largest recorded in Europe since at least the turn of the century, with a smoke plume stretching 1,000 miles to Tunisia. But by the standards of an off-the-charts year, such a blaze did not even qualify as massive. Greece lost one percent of its land to the August wildfire. Canada, meantime, lost an area the size of Greece.

Still, even within that one percent of razed Greek land, months after the smoke cleared, one can find deep scars left by the hottest year.

Loggers are working their way through the decimated Dadia National Park, cutting down the charred remains of trees, some 200 or 300 years old. They find the carcasses of fox and deer along paths once used by hikers.

“An entire ecosystem is shaken,” said Kristos Dmitrescu, 49, one of the loggers.

The firefighters, who battled flames for three weeks, are still stunned by the scale of what they saw and how unstoppable it was. Working 24-hour shifts, and with the help of crews rushed in from other parts of Europe, they saved most of the area’s village homes. But even now the regional fire chief, Spyros Koutras, scrolls through his phone, looking at photos of the fury. Horizons lit raging orange. Spires of twirling fire. Crews marching toward fronts resembling movie explosions. And then, later in the scrolling: Photos of the blackened aftermath.

“You know, it’s your place. You want to defend it,” Koutras said. “The damage was so big. That hurts.”

Twenty people died in the fire. They were undocumented immigrants, on a journey farther north into Europe, moving along a forested path that had long been a common route. A shepherd had found the first of the bodies just after the fire roared through, and then police arrived to find more. The remains, so charred and reduced, scarcely resembled human form, and the fire had done away with any tattoos, surgical scars, or jewelry. Police took DNA samples. A few Syrian families eventually provided matches and claimed the remains. But the 18 others have become the responsibility of a chain-smoking local coroner, Pavlos Pavlidis, who still has folders for each case on his computer, and who has stored the bodies in two freezer trailers behind the hospital where he works.

“They’re right outside my office window,” he said.

He said he would keep the bodies for as long as he had space for them, or until they are claimed by relatives. On his office wall he has a map of the region, separated from Turkey by a river. Being a coroner in this part of Greece means dealing with immigrant deaths, and over decades he’s handled hundreds of cases — drownings, traffic accidents, train accidents, plus one of the most common causes of death: hypothermia.

“This was the first year nobody died of the cold,” Pavlidis said.

Dinas, the retired attorney, lived just miles away from where the bodies were discovered, and said those deaths left him shaken.

“A house can be rebuilt. But life?” he said.

The skeleton of his home still straddles the hillside, its interior nothing more than a bed of fragments from shingles that once made his roof. Dinas said it’s taken months to fully realize what has been lost, even into winter, his favorite season, when he’d typically gather at his home with friends, drinking around the fireplace, watching the snow outside. Of course this year there’s no fireplace. And no snow.

Dinas said he feels depressed, unmoored. He’s waiting on government compensation, but it probably won’t be enough to rebuild.

“At a certain point, it’s a lonely path,” he said.

For months, he’s been living with a friend in a nearby coastal city. Almost every evening, he returns to his old village by car, walking into his old bar, playing cards with his friends. For a while, during those games, it feels like he still has a home in Avas.

Then the game ends and he heads back out of town.

Elinda Labropoulou contributed to this report.

More on climate change

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

What about your role in climate change? Our climate coach Michael J. Coren is answering questions about environmental choices in our everyday lives. Submit yours here. You can also sign up for our Climate Coach newsletter.

By Chico Harlan Chico Harlan is The Washington Post’s global climate correspondent. Previously, he was The Post’s Rome bureau chief, covering southern Europe as well as the Catholic Church. He has also been a member of The Post’s financial and national enterprise teams, as well as East Asia bureau chief.  Twitter

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