Hottest-ever year in Asia sees region blasted by droughts and extreme weather

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This aerial picture taken from an airplane on July 27, 2021, shows the smoke rising from a forest fire outside the village of Berdigestyakh, in the republic of Sakha, Siberia. - Russia is plagued by widespread forest fires, with the Sakha-Yakutia region in Siberia being the worst affected. According to many scientists, Russia -- especially its Siberian and Arctic regions -- is among the countries most exposed to climate change. The country has set numerous records in recent years and in June 2020 registered 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in the town of Verkhoyansk -- the highest temperature recorded above the Arctic circle since measurements began. (Photo by Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP) (Photo by DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)
Smoke rising from a forest fire outside the village of Berdigestyakh, in the republic of Sakha, Siberia. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP)

Last year was the hottest ever in Asia, with extreme weather displacing millions of people and causing billions in economic damage, according to data from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

Asia’s warmest year on record saw the mean temperature rise 1.39C above the average seen in 1981–2020.

Heat extremes included a temperature of 38C at Verkhoyansk, Russian Federation, provisionally the highest known temperature anywhere north of the Arctic Circle.

The soaring temperatures pose a direct danger to people, WMO officials warned.

Watch: Which country suffers the most from extreme weather?

Professor Petteri Taalas, WMO secretary general, said: “Weather and climate hazards, especially floods, storms, and droughts, had significant impacts in many countries of the region, affecting agriculture and food security, contributing to increased displacement and vulnerability of migrants, refugees, and displaced people, worsening health risks, and exacerbating environmental issues and losses of natural ecosystems.

“Combined, these impacts take a significant toll on long term sustainable development, and progress toward the UN 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals in particular.”

Read more: Why economists worry that reversing climate change is hopeless

In 2020 floods and storms affected approximately 50 million people in Asia and resulted in more than 5 000 fatalities.

Tropical cyclones, floods and droughts induced an estimated average annual loss of several hundred billion dollars, according to ESCAP (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific).

The average annual loss is expected to be as high as 7.9% of GDP for Tajikistan and 5.9% of GDP for Cambodia.

The worst-hit areas were affected by droughts.

Intense cyclones, monsoon rains and floods hit highly exposed and densely populated areas in South Asia and East Asia and led to the displacement of millions of people in China, Bangladesh, India, Japan, Pakistan, Nepal and Viet Nam in 2020.

High Mountain Asia is home to approximately 38610 square miles of glaciers centred on the Tibetan Plateau and Himalayas.

It contains the largest volumes of ice outside of the polar regions and is the source of 10 important Asian rivers.

Read more: A 1988 warning about climate change was mostly right

Glacier retreat is accelerating and it is projected that glacier mass will decrease by 20% to 40% by 2050, affecting the lives and livelihoods of about 750 million people in the region.

Last week’s UN climate change report warned that extreme weather events like heatwaves and droughts which previously would have happened every 50 years could soon happen every four.

Annual mean temperature anomalies 1900–2020 (°C) averaged over Asia, relative to the 1981–2010 (Met Office, UK)
Annual mean temperature anomalies 1900-2020 averaged over Asia, relative to 1981-2010. (Met Office, UK)

The report was the first to quantify the likelihood of extreme events across a wide variety of scenarios.

The researchers also warned that other ‘tipping point’ events are a possibility.

The researchers wrote, “Abrupt responses and tipping points of the climate system, such as strongly increased Antarctic ice sheet melt and forest dieback, cannot be ruled out”.

Read more: Melting snow in Himalayas drives growth of green sea slime visible from space

Dr Robert Rohde, lead Scientist of Berkeley Earth, said: “What were once-in-50-year heat extremes are now occurring every 10 years.

“By a rise of 2C, those same extremes will occur every 3.5 years.”

The report found that (for example) once-in-a-decade heavy rain events are already 1.3 times more likely and 6.7% wetter compared with the 50 years leading up to 1900 when human-driven warning began to occur.

Droughts that previously happened once a decade now happen every five or six years.

Xuebin Zhang, a climatologist with Environment Canada in Toronto, warned that as the world warms, such extreme weather events will not just become more frequent, they will become more severe.

Zhang said the world should also expect more compound events, such as heat waves and long-term droughts occurring simultaneously.

He said: “We are not going to be hit just by one thing, we are going to be hit by multiple things at the same time.”

Watch: What is COP26 and how will it affect the future of climate change?

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