Our Burning Planet

HOTTEST YEAR IN HISTORY

November breaks heat records in SA — a clear reminder of what’s to come in a warming world

November breaks heat records in SA — a clear reminder of what’s to come in a warming world
A bus en route to Swellendam in the Western Cape. Climate scientists are predicting that 2023 will be the hottest year in recorded history. (Photo: Julia Evans)

As parts of the country reach day 10 of a heatwave, it’s not hard to imagine that scientists are predicting that 2023 will be the hottest year in history – a clear reminder that the world is catapulting toward the dangerous 1.5°C threshold, and that extreme climate events (like heatwaves) are only going to increase in intensity and frequency as we go.

November is racking up to be the hottest month of the year in South Africa, with a number of highest maximum temperature records broken and heatwave conditions lasting 10 days across parts of the country.

Meteorologist Annette Botha, from Vox Weather, told Daily Maverick temperatures reached record-breaking highs this week – above 40°C in the Northern Cape, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State, and the high 30s in Gauteng and North West.

heat records

Temperatures in each province during the heatwave from 23 to 27 November 2023. (Image: Vox Weather)

Botha explained that we do get heatwaves in South Africa at this time of the year, as a result of high-pressure systems sitting over parts of the country that act like a heat dome, and as air sinks under the high pressure it heats up one degree every 100m.

“We are used to getting it at this time of the year, but having a heatwave that’s gone on for 10 days is definitely a little bit out of the ordinary and extreme,” said Botha.

This prolonged heatwave is likely a result of global warming – Botha explained that higher global temperatures mean that it’s easier for temperatures to reach the heatwave threshold – and that we have entered El Niño, which tends to have warmer and drier conditions across the country.

Francois Engelbrecht, professor of climatology and director of the Global Change Institute at Wits University, agreed, saying that “what we are looking at this year is the combined effects of ongoing global warming, with a strong El Niño event, and that has led to all these temperature records being broken across the world”.

The hottest year yet recorded

Leading up to this year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP28), which kicks off in Dubai tomorrow (Thursday), Climate Central scientists assessed worldwide air temperatures over 12 months (1 November 2022 to 31 October 2023), and found that with an average warming of more than 1.3°C, the past 12 months were the hottest on record.

The UN Environment Programme’s latest Emission Gap Report, released this month, said that this year (until the beginning of October) 86 days were recorded with temperatures of more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, and September was the hottest recorded month, with global average temperatures 1.8°C above pre-industrial levels.

Read more in Daily Maverick: New UN report (once again) warns that the world is well behind emission targets

And scientists have found that June, July, August, September and October 2023 were the hottest months since records began in the mid-1800s.

“So, you can see we are on the verge of exceeding the 1.5°C threshold of global warming for the first time,” said Engelbrecht, explaining that in terms of a single calendar year, we won’t exceed that threshold this year, but we are very close to that happening (some estimates say the late 2020s, the IPCC predicted the early 2030s).

But this is still going to be the warmest year on record. We’ve already seen exceptionally warm periods in the northern hemisphere – from Asia to Mediterranean Europe, to the southern US.

And now, as scientists predicted, these heatwave conditions have made their way to the side of the hemisphere during our summer months, because we have entered the El Niño period.

“And therefore, we can now say with certainty that 2023 will be the warmest year ever recorded by humans, with records going back to roughly 1850,” said Engelbrecht. 

Yes, it really is climate change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment, published in August 2021, found: “It is indisputable that human activities are causing climate change. Human influence is making extreme climate events, including heatwaves, heavy rainfall and droughts, more frequent and severe.” 

Francois Engelbrecht and Coleen Vogel, from the Global Change Institute at Wits University and contributing authors to several IPCC reports, previously explained to Daily Maverick that “this [the global warming since pre-industrial levels we’re experiencing now] is likely the warmest Earth has been in 125,000 years. It is possible that during the Last Interglacial, about 125,000 years ago, the Earth has been warmer.”

Not convinced? Read in Daily Maverick: On the fence about climate change? We check the facts with scientific experts

But the difference is those periods of higher temperatures were caused by slow changes in the orbital characteristics of Earth, occurring over tens of thousands of years – the warming that has occurred since the pre-industrial era is rapid, and cannot be explained by any natural process. 

Thus, they found that “global warming since the pre-industrial era is unequivocally the consequence of human activities, specifically the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, through the burning of fossil fuels”.

Risks El Niño may bring

Engelbrecht explained that the heatwaves we are seeing are typical during El Niño, because this period sees big high-pressure systems form over southern Africa, which suppress rainfall, causing more sunlight to reach the surface, warming it more than normal and lasting very long.

Vogel explained that “heatwaves and periods of extreme heat can negatively impact on people and can lead to heat dizziness, headaches and fainting”, and that “oppressive temperatures can also result in heat stroke, organ damage and unconsciousness”.

The worst-case scenario would be heat-related deaths. Heatwaves can also negatively affect livelihoods, including farming and water access and supply. 

“I’m very concerned about what’s going to happen this summer in terms of heatwaves, and the impacts on our outdoor workers,” Engelbrecht said, referring to the January 2022 heatwave in the Northern Cape that killed seven farmworkers.

“A heatwave is not only a period of oppressive temperatures, it’s also a period of below-normal rainfall, and maize crops are vulnerable to heatwaves.”

Engelbrecht emphasised that extreme El Niño periods – which are naturally occuring, but whose impacts are more intense and longer lasting due to climate change – will put pressure on the agricultural sector, noting that in 2015/16, during the El Niño period, our maize crops reduced by 40% and our cattle industry, which is vulnerable to heatwaves, suffered.

El Niño can also bring the risk of drought of unprecedented duration and intensity, which also puts pressure on our water systems – less rainfall means dams will not be as full. And we are not prepared.

“Other vulnerable groups, of course, are older people living in informal settlements,” said Engelbrecht.

“This El Nino will be another important opportunity for us to learn how vulnerable we are when it comes to the impacts of drought and heat that occur in combination,” said Engelbrecht, explaining that we need to prepare for the consequences a world that has warmed by 1.5°C will bring, along with making our fair and strong contribution to mitigation (moving out of coal). DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Louise Louise says:

    Climate change is real – our planet changes over centuries and millenia. It’s natural, it’s normal, it’s our planet! It’s nothing to do with the ridiculous notion of “carbon emissions”. Oh, but if we tax you to the tune of billions of dollars/rands/pounds/euros then we can save the planet and turn the temperature down! Yeah, right.

    • JDW 2023 says:

      Oh please. Are you for real? Wake up and smell the coffee. There is a vast and enormous body of evidence that this is taking place and that it is human-induced, and that it happening far too fast for it to be ‘natural’ and ‘normal’. Honestly, just accept the hard and painful truth and stop fooling yourself.

      • Ben Harper says:

        No there’s not

      • Ben Harper says:

        SA has only been keeping weather records since the mid 1800’s and even then, the highest temperature ever recorded in the short time records have been kept was 50 Deg C on 3rd November 1918.

      • Louise Louise says:

        There is no need to be rude! I hold the opposite opinion from you, and I’m perfectly entitled to do that. The data on alleged “warming” or even “cooling” has been manipulated by politicians as well as alleged climate scientists. Don’t you remember the scandal from around 14 or 15 years ago? The UK scientists fudged the figures. CO2 is the gas of life my friend. That’s why gardeners and agricultural experts pump CO2 into their greenhouses and tunnels – you see, it’s actually very good for plants, believe it or not! CO2 is 0.04% of the upper atmosphere and, in fact, some current scientists believe that this level is too LOW. If we remove all the CO2 from our upper atmosphere, then life on planet Earth DIES. It is not I who has been fooled JDW. For sure there is too much pollution – on that we would agree. But that is a very different subject from the insanity of “net zero”. We are all carbon-based life forms. So “net zero” means what precisely? Oh but it means “we shall tax you, stop you from living/travelling/eating and fix the problem”. Like I said, it is not I who has been fooled…………

        • JDW 2023 says:

          My humblest apologies if you saw my vexed response as rude. I am however sick to my core of people denying that there is a serious problem. This is without a doubt the worst existential crisis modern humans have had to face. You are absolutely right that carbon dioxide is essential to life. But that is in moderation and in balance with the entire system in which is finds itself. Mercury is also important to the balance of the earth and its, no surprise, still poisonous. It has been proven over and over again that too much CO2 leads to too much heating which leads to a host of knock on effects. A famous NASA astronaut once said that when he looked back at Earth from his spaceshuttle, he realised that Earth itself is just a large spaceshuttle. That means a bubble with limited resources to sustain the life inside. Pump too much CO2 into the literal spaceshuttle and all the astronaughts will soon die. Thats a logical example. Extrapolate that to Earth now? You cannot explain away glacial collapse, intense Amazonian droughts, coral bleaching, insect and bird loss, etc and still argue that politicians are simply fooling us. To what end would they want to stop the extraction of fossil fuels when it lines their coffers? Yes C02 is needed, but we are creating too much of it. It really isn’t a hard thing to understand. And in any event, I would want to err on the side of caution before the entire ecosystem collapses. Wouldn’t you?

          • Louise Louise says:

            I accept your apology with good grace JDW. I know that these subjects can get quite heated (excuse the pun!). I would so love to sit with you and chat about this because there is absolutely zero evidence that the CO2 levels correlate to the heating of the earth EXCEPT that the CO2 levels FOLLOW that of the Earth’s temperature. If you truly have an open mind – and I sincerely hope that you do – then you can research the Club of Rome and see that it was they who realised that they could manipulate people into believing that humans are the enemy of life itself. I do agree that too much CO2 is obviously not healthy and that a balance is needed BUT there have been times in the history of the Earth that the CO2 levels have been much, much higher and yet life has thrived AND one could not blame humans for the increase in CO2. Politicians say what is expedient and what suits at the time plus they are not climate scientists. The first step to understanding our world is to understand that we cannot trust our governments. Not a single one of them. Governments don’t run our countries either. And no, I’m not a hothead or an idiot or any other pejorative term! I’m simply an ordinary person who has done a lot of research and reading and I question things until I get to the root of an issue.

          • Mark Hansen says:

            Hi Louise Louise! Could you point me to the research that you have read? Would love to familiarize myself with it. Thank you!

        • Louise Wilkins says:

          Louise Louise – I accept that you may have a different opinion to others, but JDW23 speaks the truth. There is scientific evidence to show that human induced CO2 heats up the planet quicker than the natural cycle. But besides that, yes, politicians will lie to suit themselves, but global heating doesn’t suit anyone and no pockets get lined because of it. It’s quite the opposite.
          In all your comments, you have mentioned governments manipulating the people. It sounds like you’re a bit of a conspiracy theorist. You probably aren’t sure if covid existed and didn’t trust the vaccine at all. Again, you’re entitled to your opinion, but climate change is not only real, it’s very very serious and is damaging our planet badly. If you’ve really done your research as you say you have, you would’ve ended up with the same conclusion. No offense or aggression meant. Have a good day.

        • Apocalypto Soldier says:

          Your opinion is that we should ignore evidence based, independently verifyable scientific facts?

      • Lesley Young says:

        Thank you Louise Louise, I’ve been saying this for a looong time. Same as the hole in the ozone layer – also mad hatter stuff. Don’t hear about that potential disaster any more, do we?

    • B M says:

      If you are right, tax payers won’t have to pay billions of dollars annually to greedy, unscrupulous politicians and climate change scientists. What do you think will happen if you are wrong?

  • parelleen2109 says:

    A good article except :
    the bit that says “sinking hot air”.
    Elementary science says that hot air RISES.
    It does make the rest of the article look dubious, unfortunately.

    • jason du toit says:

      heat waves are caused by high atmospheric pressure at ground level, most common in summer months. when the atmospheric pressure increases over an area, it causes air to sink through the atmosphere. as it falls the air is compressed, and the temperature increases by 1°C for every 100m it falls. on occasion a heat dome will form – this is where an area of high pressure remains over an area for an extended period, trapping the warm air underneath. as the ground heats, moisture is lost causing even greater temperatures. the heat dome will stay stationary until the weather patterns change.

  • Don mingay says:

    The climate change that we are experiencing is dominantly natural and has been over the eons. During the present Holocene period it has been warmer than it is now, both 1 000 years ago as well as 2 000 years ago during the Roman period when grapes were grown in Scotland. The role of CO2 as a greenhouse gas is limited by the physics of the 11 micron infra-red absorption window for CO2 in the troposphere which is already close to saturation. Doubling the present concentration of CO2 (from 4 200 ppm top 8 400 ppm) will lead to a maximum of a further 0.7 degrees of warming. The Arctic ice has not decreased in coverage for the past 15 years, the Great Barrier Reef corals have more than fully recovered from a temporary impact fifteen years ago, Polar bears are flourishing, the IPCC themselves admit that there has not been any dramatic increase in hurricanes or cyclone activity, the current rate of global temperature increase has been constant over the past 44 years at 0.14 degrees per decade and is not accelerating. The sea level is rising at 3 mm per decade. There is no climate emergency. What is required is scientifically addressing the drivers, …. the sun cycles, solar intensity, Milankovic Cycles, space weather and cosmic rays, greenhouse gases, clouds (which are not correctly treated in the climate models CMIP-6) and ocean impacts (El Nino, Le Nina, NADO….) and other drivers which will carry on naturally and rather approach the way in which to handle this phenomenon pragmatically. There are far greater challenges to be attended to in the world today (hunger and energy for example) than that of the slow change of climatic conditions being experienced.

    • Louise Louise says:

      Thank you Don, a very detailed voice of reason and information.

    • B M says:

      You conclude there is no climate emergency, and describe how systems have restored homeostasis, or at least, are trending at a stable rate. This could be because of changes in human behaviour over the last 2 decades? Arguments based on measuring inside the system over a short period must be evaluated from both sides. Yes, perhaps there is no climate emergency because human activity is not increasing CO2 levels significantly, and thus the other systems are the causes in increased temperatures. But, perhaps there is no climate emergency because the other systems are dampening the effect of human activity. No way to know, because we don’t fully understand all the variables, and we are measuring inside the system with a limited timespan/dataset.

      However, of all the factors, only one is controllable by us – human activity. And if change is required (I am not necessarily saying it is), it starts with us.

      As a pessimist, the only caution I would suggest is that if human activities are contributing significantly to increasing CO2 emissions and decreasing CO2 reuptake, that we acknowledge we don’t know what the final impact will be, and that we are more likely to adversely impact the system.

    • Apocalypto Soldier says:

      15 years maybe, but if you change it to 20 years there’s been a significant drop. Looking 30 or 40 years back paints the same picture
      climate. nasa. gov /vital-signs/arctic-sea-ice/

    • Janette Klein says:

      I do believe that the earth has periods of warming and cooling that are a natural occurance. Some I believe are very quick, like if the earths axis moves a fraction. How else do you explain animals and humans being found fully preserved after millenia.

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