Some of the most momentous events in weather and climate during 2023 were on a truly grand scale. Heat materialized in the world’s atmosphere and ocean at a level never before seen in global averages. The 28th major United Nations climate summit drew record attendance, with two weeks of intense, often-fraught negotiations and protests unfolding in conference halls in the sun-scorched desert city of Dubai.
As always, it’s on the human scale where the effects of weather and the often-disproportionate impacts of climate change truly enter our lives. Below are photos of several of the most remarkable events of the year in weather, climate, and related policy.
A searing, deadly summer of record heat in the U.S. Sunbelt
Across the southern tier of the United States, from Arizona to Florida, this summer was among the most brutal in history. Several Gulf Coast cities — including Brownsville, Texas; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Tampa, Florida; and Miami — had their hottest month in more than 120 years of record-keeping in July, only to end up even hotter than that in August. Phoenix, Arizona, hit 110 degrees Fahrenheit every day from June 30 to July 30, smashing its prior record streak by 13 days. The World Weather Attribution initiative reported that “maximum heat like in July 2023 would have been virtually impossible to occur in the U.S./Mexico region and Southern Europe if humans had not warmed the planet by burning fossil fuels.”
There were at least 579 heat-associated deaths in Maricopa County, including Phoenix, far above the previous record of 425 from 2022. Almost half the fatalities were among people experiencing homelessness.
A tropical storm that mushroomed to Category 5 strength just before landfall in Acapulco
Hurricanes and tropical storms tend to parallel the coast of Mexico near Acapulco, which means their impact on the city is usually muted. Most storms remain offshore or weaken as they pass over land. But on October 25, Hurricane Otis moved directly over the city after intensifying at an unexpectedly blistering pace. Just 28 hours before it came ashore, it was expected to arrive as a tropical storm. Otis instead made landfall at Category 5 strength, shredding the exteriors of high-rise structures near the coast and causing severe damage to vulnerable neighborhoods farther inland. Otis was the strongest hurricane ever recorded on the Pacific coast of North America, and it led to at least 50 fatalities (perhaps dozens more). Damage from Otis is likely to end up in the range of $15-20 billion.
Climate studies: a new discipline takes flight
U.S. colleges and universities are responding to a growing demand for climate-relevant curricula. Typically called “climate studies” or a variant, these new majors and minors go beyond long-standing programs in atmospheric science and environmental studies. Several are designed to be easily paired as a double major with other specialties, from political science to engineering to education. With both state and federal support, the new California Center for Climate Change Education — based at West Los Angeles College and serving the city’s entire nine-campus community college district — is bringing the trend beyond four-year campuses. The center aims to train future practitioners in clean energy and climate technology while enhancing climate-change awareness through activities such as its first Climate Action Palooza.
A desert city on the Libyan coast ripped in two by a 600-year rainstorm
The second-deadliest dam failure in world history unfolded in and near Derna, Libya, on September 10-11. A storm named Daniel moved into the region after triggering disastrous rains and floods in southeast Europe and then crossing the Mediterranean Sea as a strong medicane — a tropical-like cyclone over the Mediterranean.
Storm Daniel’s death toll of more than 4,300 in Libya surpassed the 1927 floods in Algeria (3,000 killed) as the deadliest storm in Africa since at least 1900. Poor maintenance of two dams upstream from Derna likely contributed to the disaster, and prestorm warnings failed to reach many people at risk in the conflict-torn area. An analysis produced by World Weather Attribution estimated that the peak 24-hour rainfall over and near the Jebel Akhdar region of northern Libya would be expected to occur only about once every 600 years. The report also found that global warming of 1.2 °C had made such an event up to 50 times more likely.
Canadian fires bring a smoky summer to parts of the United States
This year produced the most wildfire activity across North America in 40 years of recordkeeping. However, the vast majority of those blazes were in Canada, which saw about 17 times more burned acreage than the U.S., as opposed to a more typical 50-50 split. Instead of wildfire ripping across the U.S. West, it was smoke from Canada that swept southward in recurrent pulses, especially across the Midwest, Northeast, and mid-Atlantic. Goosed by the driest, hottest spring on record across much of southern Canada, destructive wildfires broke out in provinces from British Columbia to Nova Scotia.
One of the worst periods for U.S. smoke was on June 6-7, when some of the nation’s largest cities confronted surreal, copper-yellow skies and shrouded horizons. New York City, Detroit, and Toronto ranked at one point as three of the 12 most polluted major cities on Earth, experiencing some of their worst air quality since the Clean Air Act was instituted more than a half-century ago.
Yet another record year for solar energy
More than half of all the solar capacity in the United States has been installed in just the last four years, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association and Wood Mackenzie. This year’s projected U.S. installation of close to 33 gigawatts of solar energy would be a leap of more than 50% beyond the total installed in 2022.
The Inflation Reduction Act, passed in late 2022, is helping fuel solar’s latest boom by extending and expanding tax incentives into the 2030s that would have otherwise been phased out. At the state level, the outlook is more mixed. For example, in April 2013, California slashed what homeowners can earn by selling solar-generated electricity back to the state’s three biggest investor-owned utilities by up to 50%, which triggered a major drop in home installations. High interest rates and permitting battles are also serving as headwinds on many renewable energy projects across the nation — but the economic challenges may prove temporary if interest rates drop in 2024, as is widely expected.
A fierce windstorm that propelled a catastrophic wildfire in Maui, Hawai‘i
The deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century ripped through the historic city of Lahaina, on the west coast of Maui, Hawai‘i, in a matter of hours on October 5. At least 100 people were killed, and damage topped $5 billion, with more than 2,200 buildings destroyed or severely damaged. The tightly packed, largely wooden structures of central Lahaina, some dating back to the 1800s, were no match for the fierce downslope winds gusting from 40 to 80 mph that drove the fire. Although powerful Hurricane Dora passed more than 700 miles south of Hawai‘i as the fire erupted, it appears the Maui winds were driven mainly by exceptionally strong high pressure north of the island. The circulation around the high pushed dry air over the West Maui volcano into Lahaina, in a mountain-wave pattern notorious for causing deadly fires in other parts of the world. Much of Hawai‘i is becoming more vulnerable to wildfire with the spread of nonnative vegetation across unmanaged landscapes, as well as from long-term warming that exacerbates the impact of seasonal and multiyear drought on ecosystems.
Parsing the wording of COP28
Some 80,000 people — far outnumbering the old record of 49,000 from last year — cajoled, pleaded, discussed, and demonstrated at COP28, the 28th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change. There was a swarm of diplomatic activity, including advances on a Loss and Damage Fund for countries hard hit by climate change as well as progress on agreements involving food, forests, land, and nature.
The meeting came close to derailing when a near-final draft of the closing document led to widespread outrage at the lack of any mention of a general phaseout of fossil fuels. The final statement did include an unprecedented call for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.”
On Substack, Bill McKibben emphasized the importance of those words: “that sentence will hang over every discussion from now on — especially the discussions about any further expansion of the fossil fuel energy.” On X/Twitter, Otomi-Toltec climate justice activist Xiye Bastida stressed: “At the end of the day, the text doesn’t write the future. We do. The real work is outside of negotiations. It’s in community building. It’s in changing systems … let’s choose to be the people who see beyond an industry and beyond profit. Let’s choose life, let’s choose each other, let’s choose a thriving future.”
Website visitors can comment on “Eye on the Storm” posts (see comments policy below). Sign up to receive notices of new postings here.