Mercury rising, stormy weather - our world is taking a battering
You see it in heat, you see it in ice, you see it in storms. Climate change
without doubt became the critical environmental issue of 2005. The evidence
of global warming occurring here and now mounted up during the year and is proving
ever harder to ignore, even by habitual sceptics.
The past 12 months have been one of the hottest periods ever recorded. When
all the figures are in, this may prove to have been the warmest year in the
global temperature record, although in mid-December British meteorological scientists
were saying it was still just exceeded by 1998.
But, around the world, there have been unprecedented heat-waves. The thermometer
reached an astonishing 50C - that's 122F - in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and
Algeria. Canada and Australia had their hottest-ever weather, while a record
drought in Western Europe saw bush fires devastate much of Portugal's countryside.
Two other phenomena besides high temperatures pointed directly at climate change
in 2005. One was the record melting of ice in the Arctic Ocean, and of land-based
glaciers and ice sheets; the other was the record incidence of tropical storms.
In September, satellite measurements showed that the Arctic sea ice had melted
to a record low extent - about 20 per cent below the long-term average - prompting
fears that an irreversible decline has set in, and that the whole of the Arctic
Ocean may be ice-free relatively soon, perhaps within two to three decades.
This means not just that the North Pole will be a point in the sea; it means
that animals that need the ice to live, such as polar bears, may be doomed.
In December, there were reports of polar bears being drowned because the gaps
between ice masses were too great for them to swim.
There are other significant reports of ice melting, especially in the glaciers
and ice-sheets of Alaska and Greenland. Measurements taken in 2005 showed that
the Kangerdlugssuaq glacier, which drains about 4 per cent of Greenland's massive
ice sheet, is moving into the sea three times faster than a decade ago. If the
Greenland ice sheet were to melt completely, sea levels around the world would
be raised by about seven metres (23ft). But even a rise of just one metre would
be catastrophic for many low-lying areas, such as Bangladesh. In November, American
scientists revealed that sea levels are now rising by about two millimetres
a year, twice as fast as 150 years ago.
Stronger, more frequent tropical storms are the other pointer towards a changing
climate. Scientists predict that the greater energy available in a warmer atmosphere
will intensify hurricanes and typhoons, and 2005 has indeed been a record year
in terms of both intensity and frequency.
According to the World Meteorological Organisation, there were 26 tropical
storms in the 12-month period, exceeding the previous record of 21, set in 1933.
Of the year's storms, 14 reached the status of hurricanes. Hurricane Wilma,
which hit Florida in October, was confirmed as the strongest hurricane ever
But it was Hurricane Katrina, of course, which attracted the most publicity.
The devastation of New Orleans in August posed the critical question - was there
a link with climate change? Some scientists are uncertain about this, but in
September Sir John Lawton, who chairs the Royal Commission on Environmental
Pollution, said unequivocally that the super-powerful hurricanes battering the
United States were the "smoking gun" of global warming.
Not surprisingly, the mounting evidence of a destabilised atmosphere gave a
new urgency and dynamic to the politics of climate change during the year, although
the administration of George Bush continued to stonewall on the issue. Tony
Blair, with his special opportunity as chair of the G8 group of rich countries,
while at the same time holding the presidency of the European Union, put climate
change at the top of the agenda (along with Africa) at the G8 summit at Gleneagles
in Scotland in July.
What emerged was not a change of heart from the US over the Kyoto protocol
on greenhouse-gas emissions - as the environmental pressure groups had been
demanding, entirely unrealistically - but something just as important. China
and India, whose future emissions of carbon dioxide will be a crucial factor
in the struggle to control climate change, agreed to talk about them for the
Later in the year, the world took another step forward when almost 200 countries
agreed at the UN climate conference in Montreal to start shaping a second stage
to the Kyoto treaty to replace the first emissions reduction period, which ends
There was a mix of good and bad news on other fronts, such as rainforest destruction
and wildlife. The Amazon was struck by its second-greatest bout of forest clearance,
new figures revealed - but in September, in Kinshasa, nations home to populations
of the four great apes - gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees)
and orang-utans - agreed on a strategy to try to preserve man's closest relatives
in the face of ever-increasing threats to their existence from habitat destruction