LONDON: The year 2011 is another ecologically tumultuous year with greenhouse gases rise to record levels, Arctic sea ice nearly equalling 2007’s record melt, and temperatures the 11th highest ever recorded.

It was marked on the ground by unparalleled extremes of heat and cold in the US, droughts and heatwaves in Europe and Africa and record numbers of weather-related natural disasters.

In addition, 2011 saw the world population reach 7 billion, the second worst nuclear disaster and record investments in renewable energy.

The 41 sea, land and air indicators used by the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to measure sea and land temperatures showed unequivocally that the world continued to warm throughout 2011. In July, NOAA reported that the last 300 months had all been above average temperature and that the 13 warmest years had all occurred in the 15 years since 1997. The year 2011 was additionally remarkable, it said, because a “La Nina” event was taking place, a naturally occurring oceanic cooling phenomenon that would normally bring temperatures down.

Despite stagnation or economic recession in many industrialised countries, concentrations of CO2, measured at Mauna Loa in Hawaii, peaked at more than 394 parts per million in May and are now 39 per cent above where they were at the start of the industrial era and approaching the point when some scientists say it will be nearly impossible to contain global warming.

In September, Germany’s University of Bremen reported that Arctic sea ice had hit a record low, based on data from a Japanese sensor on Nasa’s Aqua satellite. Days later, the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre, using a different satellite data set, reported that ice coverage in 2011 was marginally greater, making 2011 the second-lowest on record.

Christophe Kinnard, of the Centre for Advanced Studies in Arid Zones in La Serena, Chile reported in November that both the duration and magnitude of the current decline in sea ice “seem to be unprecedented for the past 1,450 years”.

“Everything is trending up - surface temperature, the atmosphere, and it seems also that the ocean is warming and there is more warm and saline water that makes it into the Arctic. The sea ice is eroded from below and melting from the top,” said Kinnard.

While eastern Europe, Russia, Pakistan and the Middle East suffered the most from weather extremes in 2010, it was the turn of North America in 2011. The continent experienced massive flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, record wildfires and a crippling drought in the south.

More than 2,941 monthly records for extreme heat and extreme cold were broken in all 50 US states in 2011, said the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The costs of weather-related disasters spiralled. The US experienced 14 separate disasters each costing over $1bn. In total, financial losses were estimated at over $50bn.

“In many ways, 2011 rewrote the record books. From crippling snowstorms to the second deadliest tornado year on record to epic floods, drought and heat, and the third busiest hurricane season on record, we’ve witnessed the extreme of nearly every weather category,” said NOAA spokesman Christopher Vaccaro.

The year 2011 was described by many commentators as the “year of the tornado”. Between January and June, 43 major thunderstorms released nearly 1,600 tornadoes in the central, southern and eastern United States. Half happened in April, and 226 of them on April 27.

But 2011 was also the year of too much or too little water. It began with devastating floods in Australia which covered an area the size of France and Germany combined, and ended with tropical storm Washi killing nearly 1,000 people and making 300,000 homeless in the Philippines.

Thailand’s worst floods in 50 years claimed 730 lives, northern China’s drought that started in 2010 continued well into 2011 and was the worst drought to hit the country in 60 years.—Dawn/Guardian News Service

Updated Dec 23, 2011 09:40pm

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