Violent weather has become one of the hallmarks of modern life as climate change pushes our planet into a new, more volatile state. And unfortunately, 2019 was a painful reminder of that.
Severe storms, wildfires, and cyclones have left communities around the world to deal with damage that could, at least in some cases, never be undone. The destructive weather of 2019 also revealed the yawning chasm between how the rich and poor experience the impacts of climate change.
While some wealthier countries were hit hard by weather disasters—the U.S., for example, saw multibillion-dollar crop losses and infrastructure damage due to spring flooding, and some farmers are still digging out—poorer countries bore a disproportionate burden. Mozambique’s subsistence farmers were in a harder spot than their American counterparts before twin cyclone struck this year. In the months since, they haven’t had nearly the level of assistance as impacted Americans, and food insecurity has spread throughout the country. Without international assistance, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network forecast shows Mozambique would be facing emergency or crisis-level food insecurity levels, the latter just a step below famine.
This isn’t to say American farmers who lost everything or families that lost a relative in the recent European heat waves made out good. Extreme weather—and by extension, climate change—means we all suffer. What 2019 showed is that nobody can escape. With the dawn of a new decade, we have a lot of work to do to ensure we prepare for and respond to our increasingly dangerous weather in ways that are just.
There was a lot of terrible weather this year, but not all of it was destructive. Before diving into the real Bad Shit, let’s talk about some weirdo storms that saved their worst for the sea. That makes them the best kind of record-setters, meteorological marvels you can gawk at without feeling too guilty.
Hurricane Lorenzo formed in September and became the strongest storm ever recorded so far north and east in the Atlantic. It cranked up to a Category 5 at its most intense when it was well out to sea. It later weakened as it whipped by the Azores and plowed into Ireland as an extratropical storm, adding another layer of weirdness.
The Indian Ocean had a weirdo as well when Cyclone Kyarr spun up in October. It became the strongest storm on Earth during a period of rapid intensification. The storm’s central pressure dipped to 915 millibars, setting a new record for the Arabian Sea. It didn’t have much impact on land, making it a good freak storm.
This year, unfortunately, continued a string of horrible Atlantic hurricane seasons. While Tropical Depression Imelda drenched Texas and Tropical Storm Barry gave New Orleans a brush with disaster, the worst storm of the season was easily Hurricane Dorian. The storm cranked up to a Category 5 and then slowed to a crawl over the Bahamas.
Dorian’s Category 5 winds raked the islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco for hours on end. Storm surge came rushing inland and rains pummeled the islands. When the storm had passed, devastation extended as far as the eye could see, communities had been wiped clean off the map, and forests were turned to toothpicks. The winds ripped an oil facility to shreds, sending toxic oil into freshwater resources ensuring the impacts will last for decades. And the destruction also likely wiped out an endangered bird, ensuring the impacts will last forever.
The only thing worse than one powerful cyclone is two. That’s exactly what Mozambique, one of the least developed countries in the world, dealt with in a little more than a month. Cyclone Idai hit the country in March as a Category 4 monster and became the deadliest tropical storm ever recorded in the southern hemisphere while leaving large parts of the country’s fourth-largest city in ruins. Idai’s rains essentially created an inland lake, sparking a food security issue that was compounded when Cyclone Kenneth made landfall roughly five weeks later. Despite clear, widespread suffering, donors had barely kicked in half of what was needed for recovery a few months later. If it’s any indication of a future with more disasters, the pre-existing gaps in development and who suffers most will only grow.
The U.S. set the record for its wettest 12-month period multiple times this year. But nowhere was soggier than the Midwest, which saw epic winter snow turn into epic spring floods that were then worsened by epic rainstorms that also spawned widespread tornadoes. Rivers overtopped into farmers’ fields and rushing waters scraped away topsoil that took centuries to build up. Tribes and Superfund sites were also hit hard. The record snow and rain are part of a larger flooding crisis in the U.S. where heavy rain is becoming more common due to climate change. You can bet this isn’t the last time we see the breadbasket underwater.
Heat waves are one of the clearest signs of the building climate crisis, and Europe was the epicenter of heat for the second year in a row. A series of blistering heat waves broke records across Europe from France to the UK, to the Czech Republic. Despite the record-setting heat, the continent didn’t see a repeat of the tragic 2003 heat waves that left tens of thousands dead. It shows that with proper financing and the political will, you can stop dangerous weather from turning deadly. That’s a sharp contrast to Mozambique and shows why the world needs a more equitable solution the climate crisis
There’s no other way to end this list. This was the year of fire with seemingly every corner of the globe ablaze. The Arctic? Lit up. The Amazon? Smoking. Indonesia? Charred to a crisp. The UK? Record-setting blazes. Australia? Still very much on fire.
Sure, some of these fires aren’t “wildfires” in the sense that they didn’t have natural causes. Farmers, miners, and criminal gangs intentionally set fire to the Amazon, for example. But that doesn’t mean the fires there aren’t connected to the weather. Those same Amazon fires blotted out the sun in São Paulo. But more dramatically, the trees going up in smoke there and elsewhere around the world are releasing decades—and sometimes even centuries—of stored carbon into the atmosphere. That means that the fires of the future will be even worse.
Even the fires that didn’t ignite show how our new weatherscape has changed us. In 2018, extreme fire conditions in California coupled with a few downed power lines led to the largest and most destructive fires in state history. This year, utilities facing similar circumstances cut the power to millions in order to avoid a repeat. The wildfire season this year was much less eventful (though not without dangerous fires), but the blackouts led to mass confusion, lost wages, and other impacts that show adapting to our increasingly fiery landscapes will require more than just cutting the power and hoping for the best.