UN weather agency marks anniversary with dire warning about heating planet

MAR 23, 2024 LISTEN

Stark climate warnings come ahead of this year's World Meteorological Day, observed on Saturday, with the UN's weather agency confirming that global temperatures had "smashed" heat records in 2023 – raising ocean temperatures and melting glaciers faster than before. Even hotter conditions are expected for the year ahead.

An annual event, World Meteorological Day seeks to raise awareness about the importance of weather and climate-related issues. It commemorates the establishment of the UN's World Meteorological Organisation in 1950.

This year the WMO's State of the Climate report confirmed preliminary data showing that 2023 was by far the hottest year ever recorded. It also caps off the warmest 10-year period on record.

WMO climate monitoring chief Omar Baddour said there was a high probability that 2024 would in turn break the record set in 2023.

The report showed "a planet on the brink", said UN chief Antonio Guterres.

"Earth is issuing a distress call," he said in a video message, warning that "fossil fuel pollution is sending climate chaos off the charts" and "changes are speeding up".

The WMO said that last year the average near-surface temperature was 1.45C above pre-industrial levels – dangerously close to the critical 1.5C threshold that countries agreed to avoid crossing in the 2015 Paris climate accords.

'Red alert'

"I am now sounding the red alert about the state of the climate," stressed Celeste Saulo, WMO secretary-general. "2023 set new records for every single climate indicator."

The organisation said many of the records were "smashed" and that the numbers "gave ominous new significance to the phrase 'off the charts'".

"What we witnessed in 2023, especially with the unprecedented ocean warmth, glacier retreat and Antarctic sea ice loss, is cause for particular concern," Saulo said.

One especially worrying finding was that marine heatwaves gripped nearly a third of the global ocean on an average day last year.

By the end of 2023, more than 90 percent of the ocean had experienced heatwave conditions at some point during the year.

Impacts on oceans

More frequent and intense marine heatwaves will have "profound negative repercussions for marine ecosystems and coral reefs", it warned. 

Meanwhile key glaciers worldwide suffered the largest loss of ice since records began in 1950, "driven by extreme melt in both western North America and Europe".

In Switzerland, where the WMO is based, Alpine glaciers lost 10 percent of their remaining volume in the past two years alone, it said.

Antarctic sea was also "by far the lowest on record".

Rising sea levels

Ocean warming and the rapidly melting glaciers and ice sheets have raised sea levels to their highest point since satellite records began in 1993.

The global mean sea level rise over the past decade is more than double the rate in the first decade of satellite records. 

The dramatic climate shifts are taking a heavy toll worldwide, fuelling extreme weather events, flooding and drought, which trigger displacement and drive up biodiversity loss and food insecurity.

"The climate crisis is the defining challenge that humanity faces and is closely intertwined with the inequality crisis," Saulo said.

'Glimmer of hope'

The WMO did highlight one "glimmer of hope": surging renewable energy generation.

Last year renewable energy generation capacity, mainly from solar, wind and hydropower, increased by nearly 50 percent over 2022.

The report sparked a flood of reactions and calls for urgent action.

And while the cost of climate action might seem high, Saulo said the cost of climate inaction was much higher.

"The worst thing would be to do nothing," she said.

Guterres also emphasised that there was still time to avoid the worst of climate chaos. But he warned: "Leaders must step up and act – now."

(with newswires)