Record heat. Record rain. Record fires. Recording-breaking environmental news is starting to sound like a broken record.

As Samantha Burgess, the deputy director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), summed it up: “2023 was an exceptional year, with climate records tumbling like dominoes."

These record-breaking extremes serve as a sobering warning of what is to come if the world does not stop burning fossil fuels. 

"As long as greenhouse gas concentrations keep rising, we can't expect different outcomes from those seen this year,” C3S director Carlo Buontempo told Al Jazeera.

These weather-related events do not exist in a vacuum. They are having serious consequences for millions of people across the globe. 

Over the past 15 years, over 376 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced by floods, windstorms, earthquakes, or droughts. The projection is even more staggering. By 2050, the forecast is that 1.2 billion people will become climate refugees, most of them from the countries with the least ability to deal with the fallout from climate change.

These are the worrying climate records that were broken in 2023.

1. 2023 Was the Planet’s Hottest Year on Record

In 2023 the Earth's temperature rose to its highest level in the last 100,000 years.

In fact, the planet was 1.48 degrees Celsius warmer than in the 1850-1900 pre-industrial period, putting it “in a league of its own” according to Buontempo.

2.  18.5 Million Hectares Burned in Canada

In this aerial image, wildfires burn in Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, on Wednesday, May 31, 2023.
Image: Communications Nova Scotia/The Canadian Press via AP

Canada experienced a record-breaking wildfire season in 2023, which began in March and intensified in June. During this time, the blazes burned an estimated 18.5 million hectares of land, which is roughly the size of North Dakota. This surpassed the previous record of 7.6 million hectares scorched in 1989, according to Global News

Wildfires tend to happen amid staggering heat waves and droughts, impacts of climate change that create the perfect conditions for these monstrous fires to flourish. 

Additionally, when temperatures are higher than average, plants on the land lose moisture due to increased rates of evaporation. This drying creates conditions that make it easier for a fire to spread rapidly over large areas if ignited.

According to Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist at Penn State University, climate change is so clearly linked to these events that saying otherwise would be like denying a link between smoking cigarettes and cancer.

3. Record-Breaking Rains in China

In August 2023, northern China experienced a week-long record-breaking rainfall that caused massive flooding, affecting the lives of millions. The heavy rainfall and flooding were caused by the aftermath of Typhoon Doksuri, which swept northwards over China after hitting Fujian province in the south on July 28, after first passing through the Philippines.

The flooding had the most impact on China's capital, Beijing, with hundreds of roads flooded, hundreds of flights delayed or canceled, and villages in mountainous areas cut off, prompting authorities to deploy helicopters to drop off food, water, and emergency supplies. 

The flooding and rainfall also led to the deaths of 33 people, including five rescuers.

Climate change has caused increasingly severe floods over the past few decades — a trend that is expected to continue. 

4. Oceans’ Surface Temperatures off the Charts

In August 2023 the surface temperature of the world’s oceans hit an all-time record high of 20,98 degrees Celsius (or 69.73 degrees Fahrenheit), according to Copernicus, the Earth observation component of the European Union’s Space program.

These record high temperatures can have devastating impacts on ocean ecosystems, making waters lethal for fish, ravaging coral reefs, and raising sea levels in the longer term.

What’s more, hotter ocean water makes for stronger tropical storms and hurricanes. The warmer water heats up the air above the sea surface which means that powerful storms — which extract a lot of their force from warm, moist air from the ocean surface — gather more energy and generate fiercer winds. 

“It’s not that those warm temperatures cause the storm to form,” Allison A. Wing, an associate professor of earth, ocean and atmospheric science at Florida State University, told the New York Times. “It’s more that, if a storm is able to form, it can take advantage of those incredibly warm temperatures and become a strong storm.”

5. Deadliest Wildfire in the US in More Than a Century

The wildfires that took place in Hawaii took more lives than any other fire since 1918 with the death toll sitting at 114 on Aug. 21, 2023. Thousands more were displaced. Part of the reason the fires were so lethal is because the winds were too strong to send helicopters into the sky to help contain the fires on the first day, leaving firefighters to battle the blazes from the ground.

What sparked the fires is still a mystery but hurricane winds and dry conditions induced by climate change definitely fueled the flames.

This photo provided by County of Maui shows fire and smoke filling the sky from wildfires on the intersection at Hokiokio Place and Lahaina Bypass in Maui, Hawaii on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023. Wildfires in Hawaii fanned by strong winds burned multiple structures in areas including historic Lahaina town, forcing evacuations and closing schools in several communities Wednesday, and rescuers pulled a dozen people escaping smoke and flames from the ocean.
Image: Zeke Kalua/County of Maui via AP

According to Mojtaba Sadegh, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering at Boise State University, over the past two decades, a total of 21.8 million US citizens found themselves living within 3 miles (5 kilometers) of a large wildfire. 

“Nearly 600,000 of them were directly exposed to the fire, with their homes inside the wildfire perimeter. That number — people directly exposed to wildfires — more than doubled from 2000 to 2019,” they said. 

6. Largest Fire Ever Recorded in the EU

In late August and early September, wildfires in northern Greece became the largest ever recorded in the European Union, scorching 310 square miles (810 sq km) according to the EU’s civil protection service — an area bigger than New York City.

In total, the blaze killed 20 people, at least 18 of them migrants and refugees.

7. Pakistan’s Floods Triggered Largest Disaster Displacement in a Decade

Families sit near their belongings surrounded by floodwaters in Sohbat Pur city of Jaffarabad, a district of Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province, Aug. 28, 2022.
Image: Zahid Hussain/AP

Record-breaking rains left one-third of Pakistan underwater, leaving more than 1,739 people dead and 20 million homeless.

The flooding — driven by glacier melt intensified by human-induced climate change — washed away entire buildings, collapsed hundreds of bridges, breached more than 40 reservoirs, and ultimately displaced 1 in 7 citizens, or 33 million people.

Pakistan consistently ranks among the top 10 most climate-vulnerable countries in the world — despite being responsible for less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions


Defend the Planet

7 Climate Records That Were Broken in 2023

By Tess Lowery  and  Fadeke Banjo