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Column: Looking back over nature’s unprecedented year in 2020
Rudi Kiefer

On March 15, 2019, cyclone Idai made landfall at the coast of Mozambique, putting a violent end to the last summer days in the area (seasons in the southern hemisphere are the opposite of ours). Among the grief that the hurricane inflicted upon the economically challenged nation, it also helped bring the climate change topic back into public focus. It became clear that hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones — all the same thing — can now travel farther from their tropical origins than they used to. 

Then came 2020. Just as the climate debate was becoming overshadowed by the rapid spread of the Covid pandemic, nature kicked into high gear with an unprecedented series of events. Western states were well aware of the wildfire risks. As early as March, the governor of California declared a state of emergency due to the dry condition of the forests, anticipating numerous outbreaks of fire. In April, Arizona officials warned that a challenging fire season might be under way. By the end of May, dozens of large wildfires were burning thousands of acres in the two states. At the end of the year, NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Information published a $16.5 billion estimate of the damage cost.

With the first fires still spreading, hurricane season 2020 got an early start with tropical storm Arthur forming on May 16, and Bertha one day later. Cristobal, Dolly, Edouard and Fay came next, followed by many more into summer. Laura hit Lake Charles, Louisiana hard in August. On September 14, the day’s satellite image showed six tropical weather systems in the Atlantic at once. Sally, Paulette, Rene, Teddy, Vicky and Invest97L were active and growing, with Sally bringing the second hurricane visit to Louisiana. When the list ended with Wilfred, the Greek alphabet had to supply more storm names. Delta was the third hurricane to hit Louisiana last year on October 9. Only 18 days later, the state got clobbered again, this time by hurricane Zeta. In November, storm activity migrated to the warmer waters farther south. Both Eta and Iota caused devastation in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. 

Throughout 2020, dozens of huge wildfires in the U.S. West plus 31 named Atlantic storms provided plenty of research material about the ongoing climate change. Ironically, western Pacific coastal countries beat that number with 33 named storms of their own.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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