Climate Action

These striking visuals show how rising temperatures are affecting the Earth

image of 2 penguins on a rock with no snow or ice in Antarctica

Average global temperatures in the 19th century are strikingly lower than those today. Image: Unsplash/Torsten Dederichs

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Gill Einhorn
Head, Innovation and Transformation, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum
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How to Save the Planet

  • 2020 was the hottest year on record, having risen to 1.2°C above the level at the end of the 19th century.
  • A new series of time-lapse images shows the dramatic impact of this warming.
  • From flooding to increasingly severe weather events, cities, businesses and citizens are being forced to adapt.

Earlier this year, 2020 was confirmed as the hottest year on record, continuing a seven-year trend. But how is this warming affecting our planet?

NASA observations show that global average temperatures in 2020 were higher than in 2016, the previous warmest year, with temperatures 1.02°C above the baseline 1951-1980 mean and 1.2°C above the average at the end of the 19th century.

Now Google Earth has released time-lapse imagery showing the dramatic impact across the globe, from the Poles to Africa and Central Asia.

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a map of the world showing Global temperature anomalies in 1880-1884
Global temperature anomalies in 1880-1884. Image: Google Earth/NASA
a map of the world showing global temperature anomalies in 2013-2017
Global temperature anomalies in 2013-2017. Image: Google Earth/NASA

Meanwhile, the below images show the dramatic impact of the planet’s warming on some of its most vulnerable places.

1. Columbia Glacier, Alaska, United States

image of columbia Glacier, Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1984
Columbia Glacier, Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1984. Image: Google Earth
image of columbia Glacier, Prince William Sound, Alaska in 2020
Columbia Glacier, Prince William Sound, Alaska in 2020. Image: Google Earth

The Columbia Glacier, which flows down the Chugach Mountains into Prince William Sound, has retreated more than 20 kilometres in the time elapsed between the capture of the above two images. This makes it one of the fastest-changing glaciers on the planet, with rising temperatures one of the factors in the decline.

NASA says the glacier’s retreat adds to rising global sea levels as chunks of ice break off in a process known as “calving”. However, it says it’s likely the retreat will slow when the glacier reaches the shoreline.

2. Mylius-Erichsen Land, Greenland

image of ice sheets around Mylius-Erichsen Land, Greenland, in 1984
Ice sheets around Mylius-Erichsen Land, Greenland, in 1984. Image: Google Earth
image of ice sheets around Mylius-Erichsen Land, Greenland, in 2020
Ice sheets around Mylius-Erichsen Land, Greenland, in 2020. Image: Google Earth

Northern Greenland’s melting ice sheets add directly to the global rise in sea levels. Although some of Greenland’s glaciers have grown in recent years, NASA says this is due to a temporary cooling in sea temperatures that is likely to flip back to warming and accelerate the rate of melting.

The Greenland Ice Sheet covers 1.7 million square kilometres, an area three times the size of the US state of Texas. But despite the regrowth of some glaciers, scientists say the overall rate of ice melting from Greenland is faster is accelerating at a faster pace.

3. Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica

image of Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica in 1984
Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica in 1984. Image: Google Earth
image of Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica in 2020
Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica in 2020. Image: Google Earth

Pine Island Glacier is one of the fastest-retreating glaciers in Antarctica, where more than 97% of the surface is covered in ice sheets that hold almost three-quarters of the world’s supply of fresh water. The Pine Island Glacier is currently 2,000 metres deep resting on the seafloor, and scientists say warming seawater could cause it to retreat even faster.

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Major cities face flood risk

The US Geological Survey says if all of the world’s glaciers were to melt into the ocean, global sea levels would rise 70 meters, flooding the world’s coastal cities.

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As the animation illustrates, the warmer the planet gets, the more major cities will be impacted by a rise in sea levels driven by climate change. A temperature rise of 4°C would see the Chinese city of Shanghai wiped almost entirely from the map, displacing more than 20 million people.

Floods are just one threat. Heatwaves, droughts, hurricanes and wildfires all present a growing risk. In this video, Richard Mattison, of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Biodiversity & Natural Capital, expands on these threats, noting 60% of S&P 500 companies have one or more assets exposed to direct risk from extreme weather events.

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