The Hottest Year on Record and its Impact on the Americas

In mid-January NOAA and NASA released data showing that 2015 was the hottest year on record globally. The record marked the latest in an alarming warming trend, driven by increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Even in the context of the ongoing El Nino, which can contribute to the warmer temperatures, NASA finds these global temperature anomalies to be “remarkable.” The rising global temperatures are fueling costly and deadly extreme weather around the world, including droughts, floods, heat waves, and hurricanes.

The long term trend of global warming will continue, with the pace dependent on our emissions of greenhouse gases. That is why it is imperative that nations of the world act to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases while preparing for the growing impacts of climate change.

Below is a list of the top five extreme weather events that affected the Americas in 2015.

1. El Niño

El nino

Satellite image of the flooded Rio Paraguay on 12 January after heavy December and January, rains linked to El Nino swamped the area of Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, and southern Brazil. Source: El Niño Fueled Rains Swamp South America, NASA Earth Observatory, 17 January 2016

2015 saw the emergence of one of the strongest El Niños on record . El Niño is the name of a periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean with global climatic consequences. Flooding in Peru, a common effect of El Niño already hit in early December, displacing thousands. Though sea surface temperatures have already peaked and begun to decline, the strongest effects of El Niño in the Americas will be felt this winter.

2. Drought in Western US

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Dried up lake caused by the ongoing drought in California

As of January 12, 2016, 42% of the Western US was experiencing drought conditions, with almost 43% of California under “exceptional” drought – the highest category of drought. This ongoing drought has seriously impacted everything from agriculture to household water usage as groundwater wells continue to dry up.

3. Hurricane Patricia

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Satellite image of Hurricane Patricia 

Hurricane Patricia, the strongest hurricane ever recorded, made landfall near Cuixmala, Mexico on Oct. 23, 2015 with maximum sustained winds of 165 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Patricia strengthened from a tropical storm to a Category 5 storm in under 24 hours, energized by sea surface temperatures that were the highest on record for October, reflecting both El Niño conditions and long-term global warming. No hurricane in the Western Hemisphere has ever intensified that quickly.

The hurricane caused 14 deaths and $410 million+ in damages by one estimate.

4. California Wildfires

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Wildlifes in California

By mid-October, fires in California had burned more than 820,000 acres in California, causing $2 billion or more in damages. Two of California’s top 10 most damaging wildfires occurred in 2015—the Valley and Butte wildfires. Together, they burned over 2,700 structures and caused 6 deaths. The gravity of these record-breaking wildfires were exacerbated by the ongoing drought in the West.

5. Floods in Northern Chile

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Floods in Chile

The Atacama Desert saw 7 years’ worth of rain in just a few hours in March 2015. The desert there has a hard and rocky terrain, so even though just .9 inches of rain fell in 12 hours, none of the rain was absorbed into the ground. The storms knocked out power, flooded roadways, and killed several in the region, causing $1.5 billion or more in damages.

As the planet warms in response to accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we will continue to see the climate extremes and anomalies. To slow the pace of climate change, the U.S. must reduce its own emissions of greenhouse gases, as it is one of the world’s largest emitters. We must simultaneously prepare for the impacts of climate change on the U.S. while also supporting efforts in the developing countries of Latin America and elsewhere to shift towards a low-carbon, climate-resilient future.

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