Earth’s climate having a ‘complete blowout’

El Niño has gone off the charts. Literally. In record time, the phenomenon has significantly warmed the southern Pacific Ocean by 3°C. The large-scale ocean-atmosphere-climate interaction is predicted to continue until the end of the year. That takes world temperatures into uncharted territory, after a year in which almost all temperature records have already been broken.

This is a combination of long-term global warming – driven at an unheard-of rate, thanks to humans burning fossil fuels – and the short-term warming that comes from El Niño and other weather phenomena.

The long-term warming means the world is now 0.98°C warmer than it should be, with much of that warming coming in the past few decades. The United Nations’ climate agency says a more than 2°C rise in global temperatures will lead to wholesale ecosystem collapses.

That excessive warming tweaks weather systems and means crops and animals are unable to thrive. Most of South Africa’s crops and herbivores struggle to survive when the temperature heads above 30°C.

Last year’s heat and drought saw the wheat crop drop by a third, and more than 100?000 head of livestock have died in KwaZulu-Natal this year alone. El Niño also means little cloud cover, so night-time temperatures tend to plunge, which also disrupts the ability of plants to thrive.

The record heat has seen even the calmest of minds resorting to hyperbole. Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, said last week that the Earth’s climate system was seeing “a complete blowout”.

Nasa – which uses its satellites to observe climate change – has said this year will probably be the hottest on record. Those records, starting in the 1800s, traditionally showed a random pattern of record years. But nine of the 10 hottest years ever recorded have come in this millennium. The past 12 months have been the hottest on record.

Every month of 2015, except January and April, has set the record for being the hottest such month on record. The rate of record-setting has also increased: October was 0.2°C hotter than the record-holding October of 2014. In that month, Vredendal in the Western Cape set a record for being the hottest place on Earth at the time – at 48.4°C.

Since 2000, average global monthly temperature records have been ­broken 32 times. The last time an average monthly cold record was broken was during World War I.

In South Africa the short-term and long-term heating is affecting the highveld the most. The UN’s climate agency forecasts that, by 2050, this part of the country will be an average 5°C hotter than it is now. November has already seen Johannesburg and Pretoria temperatures nudging 40°C, breaking long-held records.

As a whole, the country is now more than a degree hotter than it should be. That has exacerbated water stresses – South Africa is already water-scarce and semiarid without climate change and El Niño. With no meaningful rainfall predicted until mid-2016 and the Pacific set to keep warming, December should break even more records.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

Related stories

Kicking coal can improve our water supply to all

South Africa’s dependence on the fossil fuel and burning it in power stations uses 5% of water and pollutes even more

Climate change is fuelling social tensions and conflict

Governments need to understand how environmental conditions affect migration and economy

Seven lean years in the Northern Cape

As the Karoo hopes for an end to its worst drought in a generation, the region’s history may hold important lessons for its future

Record 45mn need urgent food aid in Southern Africa — UN

Roughly 45-million people in southern Africa are in urgent need of food aid as a result of drought, flooding and economic hardship, the UN...

Goats against climate change

There is a simple way to boost climate resilience for farmers in vulnerable regions: investment in goat markets

The real water crisis: Not understanding what’s needed

The real crisis with water supply is that South Africa doesn't know what it doesn't know

Vaccine trial results due in December

If successful, it will then have to be manufactured and distributed

White men still rule and earn more

Women and black people occupy only a few seats at the JSE table, the latest PwC report has found

The PPE scandal that the Treasury hasn’t touched

Many government officials have been talking tough about dealing with rampant corruption in PPE procurement but the majority won't even release names of who has benefited from the R10-billion spend

ANC still at odds over how to tackle leaders facing...

The ANC’s top six has been mandated to work closely with its integrity committee to tackle claims of corruption against senior party members

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday