This summer could be even hotter than last year, climate scientists warn

Shattered temperature records and a chaotic hurricane season promise to feature heavily this summer

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 24, 2024 1:29PM (EDT)

Children are crossing a dried-up lake at Boklung near Kathiatoli in Nagaon District, Assam, India, on April 13, 2024. (Anuwar Hazarika/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Children are crossing a dried-up lake at Boklung near Kathiatoli in Nagaon District, Assam, India, on April 13, 2024. (Anuwar Hazarika/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Marine scientist Sharon Gray lives on a catamaran off the Florida west coast. Even though her state's governor, Ron DeSantis, recently signed a controversial law that effectively wipes references to climate change out of the state's statutes, Gray deeply worries about global heating. As the cyclical La Niña weather pattern in the Pacific combines with rising sea surface temperatures (SST), Gray predicts a "devastating" hurricane will occur in summer 2024.

While La Niña is unavoidable, the planet's rising temperatures are thanks to human burning fossil fuels. From Gray's point-of-view, this makes it "tragic" that climate change is now a politically-charged issue.

"My advice to voters is to make climate change the top priority and research [their] candidates’ positions before going to the polls."

"At its core, it’s basic physics," Gray said. Her employer the Rising Seas Institute — an organization that provides scientific education and advocacy to prepare for rising sea levels — tries to stay politically neutral precisely because climate change impacts most people equally. The organization's president and co-founder, oceanographer, John Englander, says that “ice melts at 32 degrees whether you’re a Republican or Democrat." Gray elaborates by pointing out that when climate change raises sea levels, the impact will not be limited to people living on the coasts.

"It has the potential to affect agriculture and freshwater supplies, disrupt supply chains and shipping routes, threaten critical assets and infrastructure, and [threaten] our national security," Gray said. "Hundreds of millions of people could be displaced — and they will all need somewhere to go. My advice to voters is to make climate change the top priority and research [their] candidates’ positions before going to the polls."

Gray is just one among many climate scientists who feel a growing sense of urgency as summer 2024 approaches. Earlier this month, the European Union's Copernicus Climate Service reported that rising heat caused the world's oceans to break temperature records every single day over the past year. 2023 overall was the hottest year on record, averaging temperatures 1.4º Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels. Nations that signed the 2015 Paris Agreement aimed to keep temperatures at 1.5º C lower than pre-industrial levels.

When it came time for the year's hottest season, summer 2023 brought with it suffocating wildfires, blistering heatwaves and billions of dollars in costly weather disasters. In summer 2024, conditions are expected to get even worse, although La Niña may offset this somewhat with its cooling effect.

"It may likely not be as hot as 2023 — because that was an El Nino event, which has now died down," said Imperial College London glaciology professor Martin Siegert. Yet despite this encouraging news, summer 2024 is still likely to be filled with natural disasters as a result of climate change.

"However, ocean surfaces are still warm," Siegert added. "And I expect heat waves and flash flooding from downpours over the summer. With weather, it is difficult to be precise, but the general trend will be for heat and increased sudden rainfall."

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"The patterns of where the flooding occurs — the droughts, the wildfires, the heatwaves — is yet to be set. Watch out!"

Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished scholar at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who has published more than 600 articles on climatology, also told Salon that he believes in many respects, summer 2024 will be "more of the same."

"Wildfires are already breaking out in Canada," Trenberth said. "But which region will be most favored for drought and wildfire is yet to be determined. El Niño is about over: not quite yet. Under La Niña, the dry spots are quite different." He added that the "biggest risk is probably a very active hurricane season in the Atlantic. DeSantis and Florida should watch out, since they do not plan for such!"

In fact, on Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said on Thursday there's an 85% chance that this year's hurricane season will be an above-normal season, with an estimated 17 to 25 named tropical storms and 4 to 7 major hurricanes.

"Already, we are seeing storms move across the country that can bring additional hazards like tornadoes, flooding and hail," Federal Emergency Management Agency deputy administrator Erik A. Hooks said in a statement. "Taking a proactive approach to our increasingly challenging climate landscape today can make a difference in how people can recover tomorrow."

As bleak as the prospects are for humanity in summer 2024, it's likely only going to get worse after the current El-Niño-La-Niña cycle runs its course.

"The weather over the next year will be very different than over the past two years," Trenberth said. "The patterns of where the flooding occurs — the droughts, the wildfires, the heatwaves — is yet to be set. Watch out!" 

Trenberth also expressed alarm about the continued erosion of sea ice in the Antarctic and Arctic. "Thawing permafrost is a worry in Alaska and elsewhere," Trenberth said. "That destabilizes many buildings, roads and infrastructure, but each bit is local and getting a complete picture is hard."

Gray said that the upcoming summer will bring with it increased melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which will contribute to global sea level rise "with profound implications for coastal communities and ecosystems worldwide." As sea levels rise, a system of ocean currents that controls weather patterns all over the world known as AMOC (the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation) will destabilize.

"The slowing of these currents can alter weather patterns and even the carbon cycle (by reducing the ocean’s capacity to sequester [carbon dioxide]), as well as amplify climate feedback loops," Gray said. She also raised alarm about a recent study in the journal PNAS that shows the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is in danger of collapsing as warm water from the ocean causes it to melt from underneath.

"The glacier itself holds ~2 feet of sea level rise, but these events never occur in a vacuum, and almost always lead to domino effects," Gray explained.

Englander added to that by saying, "Thwaites is the largest and most vulnerable, so is often the focus. But it is associated with five other glaciers, sometimes referred to as the 'Pine Island Glaciers.' By itself Thwaites is roughly capable of causing a foot and a half of global sea level rise. But the group would cause roughly 10 feet. It is sometimes referred to as a 'domino effect' but more accurately the same warming that affects Thwaites affects them all. Indeed, they are all melting, and accelerating in their speed to the ocean. Often we say they are destabilizing."

In the meantime, the "greatest immediate concern" is the melting polar sea ice, according to Siegert.

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"It acts to cool the planet by reflecting sunlight and when not present, the sunlight is absorbed by the sea, leading to further heating," Siegert said. "Sea ice retreat since the early 1970s has led to Arctic heating at four times the rate of the rest of the planet, and in Antarctica two times. The polar regions seem to be accelerating warming rather than preventing it."

Yet even though Siegert described the climate crisis as "getting worse," he also proposed a solution that could help humanity make a long stride toward solving the ongoing existential problem.

"One way forward may be to consider emitting greenhouse gases as a 'pollution' that leads to extreme events and damages to lives and livelihoods," Siegert said. "In that case, it may be that the law can protect us from the emitters — holding them to account when known to willingly pollute the planet — and forcing damages to be paid for. Climate litigation thus would place a liability on companies and countries, and the way to reduce the risk would be via decarbonizing. The law exists to protect us, and our future."

Gray observes that the scientific community is currently debating how to raise awareness and communicate the science in ways that inspire action. The very fact that this debate is occurring is itself promising, as the gamut of approaches suggested all have the potential to catalyze meaningful change.

"Many believe that the message needs to remain positive so that people aren’t terrified into paralysis," Gray said. "Personally, I don’t think we should be making that decision for others. I believe our job is to honestly communicate the realities of the challenges we’re facing and trust people to handle the message."

She added, "The media has a large role to play in this, too. Accurate and consistent reporting is key."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Climate Change Droughts Floods Global Warming Heat Wave Ocean Heat Content Reporting Sea Level Rise Wildfires