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Record heat fueled unexpected and deadly storms in 2023

The record heat of 2023 severely disrupted the global water cycle, contributing to extreme weather events such as severe storms, floods, megadroughts, and bushfires, according to a study from The Australian National University (ANU). 

The research is outlined in a new report released today by the Global Water Monitor Consortium and led by ANU researchers. 

“Record temperatures across most of the world in 2023 also affected water resources and water-related hazards. Heatwaves contributed to deepening and new droughts in South America and Canada. There were many extreme rainfall events, including several cyclones,” wrote the experts. 

Consequences of persistent fossil fuel burning

Study lead author Professor Albert Van Dijk said the report underscores the consequences of persistent fossil fuel burning on natural disasters, water resources, biodiversity and food security. 

“Record-breaking heat waves swept across the globe in 2023, shattering previous records, from Canada to Brazil and from Spain to Thailand,” said Professor Van Dijk. 

“The lack of rainfall and high temperatures exacerbated multi-year droughts in South America, the Horn of Africa, and around the Mediterranean.”  

“Extremely hot and dry conditions inflicted extensive ecological damage on the world’s largest forests. Massive wildfires ravaged Canada during the northern summer, while the Amazon rainforest and rivers rapidly descended into severe drought in late 2023.” 

Unusually strong cyclones 

According to the researchers, some of the year’s worst disasters were linked to unusually strong cyclones bringing extreme rainfall to New Zealand, Mozambique and Malawi, Myanmar, Greece, Libya, and Australia.  

Professor van Dijk noted that rising sea surface and air temperatures caused by fossil fuel burning have been intensifying the strength and rainfall intensity of monsoons, cyclones, and other storm systems. This was evident when Cyclone Jasper battered northern Queensland and severe storms hit southeast Queensland. 

“Some areas around Cairns recorded more than 800 millimeters of rain. The torrential rains caused widespread flooding. That was because the cyclone moved much slower than expected.”

A clear global pattern

“The recent cyclones and intensive storms in Queensland and elsewhere in Australia should not be seen as isolated freak events but part of a global pattern that was quite clear in 2023,” said Professor van Dijk.  

“In 2023, we saw cyclones behave in unexpected and deadly ways. The longest-lived cyclone ever recorded battered southeastern Africa for weeks. Warmer sea temperatures fueled those freak behaviors, and we can expect to see more of these extreme events going forward.” 

Rising temperatures and declining humidity 

Professor van Dijk noted that the last two decades have seen increased air temperatures and declining air humidity, causing increased heat stress and water requirements for people, crops and ecosystems, while intensifying droughts. 

The report comes just as 2023 has officially been named the hottest year on record, and possibly even the hottest in more than 100,000 years. According to the Copernicus Climate Change Service, every day of the year reached temperatures 1.8°F (1°C) above the pre-industrial average. 

The growing threat of climate change 

Professor Van Dijk said 2023 was a year of extremes, with increasing extreme dry and wet conditions and more unprecedented weather events. This is correlated with ongoing changes in the water cycle over the last two decades. 

“The events of 2023 show how ongoing climate change is threatening our planet and lives more with every passing year,” said Professor van Dijk. 

“Globally, we’re seeing an increase in the frequency and intensity of rainfall events and river flooding. But at the same time, there are also more frequent and faster developing droughts, or ‘flash droughts.’”

“That can cause crop failure and destructive wildfires in a matter of weeks or months. With the global food challenge, biodiversity crisis and an extremely urgent need to reduce carbon emissions, these droughts and wildfires are among our greatest global threats.” 

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