This article literally provides a hot-headed perspective, as it’s 39 degrees out as I write this article. At least that’s what my phone is telling me. Lately, to get the latest updates regarding the world we live in, we no longer require a thermometer, a barometer, pollution or humidity measurement tools, only the Internet. And the news I’ve been getting of late is not exactly encouraging.
2023 – the year of record-shattering temperatures. Has global warming picked up speed?
Seemingly unsurprising, this summer too came with new records in terms of weather phenomena. I will give a quick overview as the starting point for this article. Usually, high temperatures come later, once the warm season has started to kick in. Empirically speaking, as a Bucharest dweller I had noticed autumn months seem to feel increasingly more like summer. September continues to be a hot month and an ideal time for the holidays. Moreover, the transition from the cold season to the warm one has become expedited, with very short and elusive periods of spring. This year, however, the scorching days came early, hitting record highs in certain areas and for longer periods of time too. Just like an athlete who breaks the world record as early as the qualifying phases, July got off with a bang – weather alerts against extreme heat spanning several days became increasingly frequent. In Romania, at least, what meteorologists thought to be particularly noteworthy was the fact that nights too have grown “hotter, tropical even”. In the southern regions of Romania, temperatures reached 40 degrees Celsius during the day and 20 at night, which was not unusual for July, even though the 44.5-degree national record reported in August 1951 was not attained.
Elsewhere in the world, the weather is shaping up much in the same way. On July 5, Beijing reported a record high temperature for this month. Also in China, in the Turpan Depression in the Xinjiang province, also known as the Valley of Death, temperatures reached 52.2 degrees on July 16. In another Valley of Death, this time in the United States, the temperature reading was 52.2 degrees Celsius on July 16. On July 18, Phoenix, Arizona reported temperatures over 43 degrees Celsius for nineteen consecutive days, thus breaking the 18-day record dating back to 1974. Last year, the hottest-ever temperature for continental Europe was logged in Sicily near the ancient city of Syracuse – 48.8 degrees. Okay, but that was an August day. This year, on the other hand, temperatures went up to 46 degrees in Rome. Meteorologists have even started naming the heatwaves in Europe, just like hurricanes. The two heatwaves reported in July in Italy, Spain and Greece were called Charon and Cerberus, perhaps an involuntary reference to the smoldering Greek underworld. Yet, irrespective of the continent (Asia, Europe or America), it is clear the situation was worsened by the fact that high temperatures persisted often in densely populated areas.
Meteorologists have also signaled another phenomenon. Most of the Earth’s dry surface is located in the northern hemisphere. Land terrain usually gets warm faster than water. Therefore, it would be expected that average temperatures in the southern hemisphere, where winter is currently in full swing, would not climb as much as in the northern hemisphere. The readings have shown the opposite. Oceans too, covering much of the southern half of the planet, have warmed up in near proportional ratios with the increase in northern-hemisphere temperatures. Starting March 2013, surface temperatures at median or low altitudes reported higher values compared to any other reading since 1979.
July 2023 has been designated the hottest month in the nearly two-hundred-year history of estimates of the Earth’s annual average temperatures. The global average temperature was by 0.3 degrees higher than the previously held record reported in July 2019, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service of the European Union. Shortly before the final assessment and original estimates indicated we could witness a new record-shattering global average temperature, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, said this July mankind entered “an era of global boiling”.
How can we account for these changes? Are we truly witnessing a period of accelerated climate change? Experts have suggested a number of scenarios. First, we have the somewhat neutral explanation provided by “technocrats”. Meteorologists say the build-up of extreme heat in southern Europe is owed to an anticyclone, a high-pressure system that swept the upper atmosphere in the southern continent, more specifically in the Mediterranean. Apart from compressing and heating air, high-pressure systems are also associated with descending air which prevents the forming of clouds, thus allowing for a greater degree of solar radiation to reach the surface. The phenomenon has prompted a substantial increase in the amount of sunlight warming the Earth, producing heat which then rises into the atmosphere. The long days and short nights of summer months maximize this effect. In addition, the heatwaves were exacerbated by African winds.
One of the classic explanations when it comes to the rise in global temperatures is the increase of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere, which amplifies the greenhouse gas effect. The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii recorded a new record-high level of carbon-dioxide particles released in the atmosphere. Other greenhouse-effect gases, methane and nitrogen oxide, have also peaked to previously unreported levels.
It's an aggravating factor that has now become a chronic matter. Yet the analysis also factored in phenomena that were specific to the current year. El Niño, a natural-occurring phenomenon that has become a recurring pattern every seven years on average, consists in the unusual warming of surface waters in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. Although the El Niño effect was surprisingly quick to kick in this year (it usually takes a year before El Niño could influence global temperatures), it has arguably played a role in shaping up the unusual climate evolution this season.
Another “natural” explanation was based on the massive eruption of the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai submarine volcano in the Southern Pacific in January 2022. Experts estimated at the time that the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai released one hundred million tons of water vapor into the atmosphere, which resulted in a 13% surplus of the atmosphere’s mass of water. Water vapors condense in the lower atmosphere, but they endure for longer periods of time in the stratosphere, producing a strong greenhouse gas effect. Other experts have refuted this theory, arguing that the effects should have dissipated one year and a half later.
Cutting emissions will only stop global warming. How can we really cool down our planet?
The lessons of the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai eruption also served as a reminder. The previous eruption on a similar scale was in 1991 in the Philippines. Among other noxious gases, the Mount Pinatubo eruption released sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, a gas reflecting sunlight. As a result, temperatures dropped on average by 0.5% degrees Celsius over the following year. The obvious question in this case is whether man can build a shield to partially protect Earth from sunlight. It’s not an easy endeavor, and if it were undertaken now, it would certainly be premature.
Since mankind has taken steps to curb its dependency on fossil fuels, experts have noted a decrease in sulfur dioxide in industrial combustion. For instance, cargo boats used to be detected by the trail of smoke they left in their wake. Today, this type of monitoring is simply no longer feasible, because all combustion is now filtered. However, less gas means less sunlight is reflected. Paradoxically, The Economist writes, efforts to reduce pollution can themselves cause global warming. Should mankind also review the amount of sulfur dioxide it releases into the atmosphere?
One solution is “solar geoengineering”. The theory was advanced as early as 2006, suggesting the release into the stratosphere of a few million tons of sulfur dioxide. This would compensate in one go the effects of a hundred million tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-effect gases that people release into the atmosphere. Besides, since this is the stratosphere we’re talking about, there is no risk the sulfur dioxide should get mixed with the rainfall and cause serious diseases to mankind. It would function as a high-altitude atmospheric shield which would filter part of the sunlight effects.
Not all of them though – for instance, not those that are absorbed by the ozone layer. As you know, the ozone layer absorbs the detrimental ultraviolet radiation before it reaches the Earth. This is where the main controversy linked to the sulfuric shield arises: how will it impact the ozone layer? Experts are divided in their response, but many of them tend to believe that, by creating a sulfuric shield, mankind is fixing one problem and potentially causing another, with equally significant consequences. Every year, oceans absorb nearly a quarter of the man-made carbon dioxide emissions, altering the water chemistry and bringing consistent damage to marine ecosystems. Solar geoengineering does not directly eliminate carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but merely reflects sunlight back into the atmosphere. The solar shield theory must thus be combined with other attempts at restoring the planet’s water balance.
Research studies could reduce uncertainty regarding the potential benefits and risks of this technology. However, for dozens of years, solar engineering research was limited. Ethnical concerns were also voiced, particularly regarding the fact that governments that rely on this technology could become complacent in their efforts to combat climate change. Recently, however, the National Academy of Sciences in the USA as well as large environmental organizations such as the “Environmental Defense Fund” or the “Natural Resources Defense Council” have started endorsing studies in this area. Also in the USA, the Climate Science Special Report has also addressed the tenets of solar geoengineering, calling for further research in this field.
One thing is certain. All the efforts of reducing polluting emissions are designed to curb global warming. With the right amount of tenacity and luck, perhaps this objective could be fulfilled by the end of the century. However, as The Economist writes, all these efforts will reduce global warming, but at no rate will they cool down the planet, in which case solar geoengineering might turn out to be the right solution.