As ISeeChangers across the world observed, 2020 was a record-breaking weather year on top of a world-wide public health crisis. On a global scale, it was one of the two hottest years on record. With the heat came the most active Atlantic hurricane season, and devastating, record-setting wildfires in Australia, South America, the Arctic and the U.S.
Hidden in those broken records are all of the lives impacted by disaster and more subtle symptoms of climate change. Thanks to the ISeeChange community, we saw in detail what these changes looked and felt like.
Here are ten climate trends that ISeeChangers saw in 2020:
1. First signs of a warming world appear in winter
I haven‘t been writing for quite some time, waiting for anything that could count as snow here in Berlin. But after two full months of “winter” with temperatures that rarely fell below freezing, vast amounts of rain and stormy winds, I’m officially giving up hope that it will get any better. Today again feels more like spring than anything else. This is the view from my office. I remember past years in my youth when we had enough snow for sleigh riding, building snowmans and snowball fights. In my childhood we went skating on the lake every winter. Now it is totally different. The lakes are not safe anymore, as the ice is too thin. The last five years at least had a few days with snow (not much but alas, a bit). This year: no snow at all. Since it is so warm, all the precipitation that’s supposed to come down as snow has turned to rain. Last week our natural drainages were flooded again. We have to visit my parents-in-law in the French Alpes to make my son learn what snow is. And instead of pushing the transition to green energies faster, our government is doing everything to hold on to coal and supporting dirty industries. It’s frustrating.
Things the winter is supposed to be devoid of — like allergies and mosquitoes — were turning up. In Judy Donnelly’s greenhouse in Windham, Connecticut, it got so warm in her greenhouse in early January that her lettuce began to wilt.
Across New England, the first months of 2020 were lacking snow and ice and often feeling like another season altogether. “It’s decidedly springlike – 62 degrees at 10 AM in the middle of January in Massachusetts. Birds chirping away like it’s March,” David Sittenfeld in Cambridge, Massachusetts wrote.
Heavy rain last night but not much flooding island wide. This is more of a what the heck post. February and most of Southern NJ is under a Tornado Warning. About 40 miles North of us in Pitman NJ the tornado siren went off and school children are hunkered down in tornado mode. This is very unusual and really a bit frightening only because of the time of year for the NE.
In Illinois, Mollyann Hesser, spotted signs of active beavers in January and open water where she’d usually expect ice.
The beavers were out chewing saplings. We knew it was a new cut because the brand were still oozing sap.
Last year this time, they were in their lodges and the ditches were frozen over.
We traveled 2 miles up and down the ditch looking for a lodge. Seeing none, we guessed the den must be in the bank of the ditch.
2. A belated snow season brought spring snowstorms
For some, a warm winter was followed by a snowy spring. Some parts of the Northeastern U.S. got most of their snow in March.
In one part of Colorado, heavy snow fell after trees had begun budding out, leading to fears of broken branches and other crop and agricultural damage. A Nebraska-based ISeeChanger reported snow falling just as their tulips had begun to bloom.
— PJ Lela
3. Warmer winters cause signs of spring to pop up in January
The transition to spring began very early in the year for many ISeeChangers.
In Oak Island, North Carolina, Roseanne Fortner’s crocuses first bloomed on January 16, the earliest she’d ever noticed. “In other years, Crocuses have bloomed on Feb 4 , Feb 26 , and January 25 ,” she wrote.
Plants also budded out early in Sofia, Bulgaria.
It wasn’t just plants showing up early. For ISeeChangers in southern Louisiana the early spring brought mosquitoes. And swans arrived over a month early in the mitten-thumb of Michigan and worried Penny Barrons. “It’s going to be real cold — no food for them,” she wrote.
4. Warmer oceans lead to more severe hurricane seasons
Hurricane season also started early in 2020 with the first named storm in the Atlantic basin forming in mid-May.
— Chris S
In July, two named storms — Fay and Isaiahs — caused problems in the Northeastern U.S including flooding in Ocean City, New Jersey and power outages throughout the region.
Hurricane Isiahas. Power was out for an entire week. Trees collapsed on neighboring houses as well as completely blocked streets. As a result, many people in this neighborhood cut down the remaining trees on their property.
New Orleans was in the forecast cone of seven named storms throughout the season.
Only one storm passed directly over the city, Hurricane Zeta on October 28. Zeta was a quick moving storm that didn’t cause street flooding, but it did cause many trees to fall across the city and extensive power outages.
Hurricane zeta blew through from about 3 pm to 8pm. Lost power about an hour into it. The eye over me lasted about 40 minutes. Minimal damage to my 100+ year old building but I could feel the wind swaying the building. Still no power at Jackson and Tchoupitoulas
Miami, where ISeeChange has an active partnership with the City to track flooding, was also unscathed by tropical storms until late in the season. The city, and people across south Florida, felt the impacts of Tropical Storm Eta the weekend of November 7 with many areas experiencing significant flooding.
5. Rainstorms are getting more intense and causing more flooding
In addition to more severe hurricane seasons, non-tropical heavy rainstorms are becoming more common and more intense. Throughout 2020, ISeeChangers documented both street flooding and river flooding from intense rainstorms.
Yesterday it felt like the rain would never stop. We never had a thunderstorm, but rain persistently fell for hours producing almost 4 inches of accumulation in Chicago. The ground was already saturated from the historic two day record rainfall that occurred last Thursday to Friday.
Rain and impervious surfaces increase urban flooding
New Orleans often floods during intense rain. ISeeChangers in the area documented significant street flooding during four different rain events: February 26, May 15, July 10, and July 15. Community observations posted on ISeeChange were used to expand a forthcoming stormwater project.
From the success of their rain gardens, to parking cars on sand bags, NOLA ISeeChangers documented their innovation in dealing with the flooding challenges they face.
Standard sandbags can support the weight on a small car. I put one under each of the two front wheels and then drive on top of them. The extra two inches of elevation can make a big difference in street flooding!
I have never seen this anywhere else but I think it should become more common. This is about as much elevation as you get from parking on a neutral ground.
Sandbags: portable neutral grounds
ISeeChangers in Ocean City, New Jersey also experienced quite a bit of flooding from rain in 2020. Community members reported a dozen flood events from rainfall. (Addition flooding was caused or compounded by high tides, and that will be addressed further down this list.)
Once Ocean City resident, Rosanne Monfardini, who had been documenting the success of a flood remediation project in her area, found the spot flooding like it hadn’t since before the infrastructure changes.
With Tropical Storm Fay, my area which had the flood remediation project and hadn’t flooded for 2 years, flooded really badly again today. Very disheartening. Even the alley where we park our cars flooded today and I barely made it to higher ground with the car because the water came up so fast. Other pictures show kids thinking it’s ok to walk and paddle board and play in that bacteria infested water. I don’t know if the pumps were malfunctioning or just too much water for them to handle.
Rain also raises river and lake levels
Intense rain also led to flooding along rivers, lakes and other bodies of water.
ISeeChanger Deanna Bell in O’Fallon, Illinois reported high river levels in January and June.
In North Carolina, a February storm caused creeks to rise quickly and flash flooding to occur.
“Two-lane Highway with standing puddles in the road means no visibility when a truck passes by you,” Max Cawley wrote. “How do we adapt rural infrastructure for heavier precipitation and more flooding?”
6. Sea level rise is causing more frequent high tide flooding
ISeeChangers in coastal communities in the Eastern U.S. reported flooding from high tides throughout the year and particularly during the fall king tides.
I received a notification earlier today of sightings of sunny day flooding in Little River Pocket Park by Fire Station #13. By the time I arrived around 2:30 p.m. water levels have dropped considerably. I happened to run into a resident who was taking pictures by the river. He approached me and showed me the pictures he took with his cellphone from earlier in the day of how the water had covered the entire road, you could not see the asphalt.
He said he had lived in the neighborhood for a couple of decades and the issue keeps getting worse.
The heat was brutal today and the stench of the sitting water was so strong he had to run back inside his home as we could barely stand it.
Increasingly high tides, and the sea level rise fueling them, also cause erosion in coastal areas. ISeeChangers in Massachusetts and Australia documented eroding shorelines.
In Delray Beach, Florida, Devin Borg worried about new buildings being built near the coast. “This is how we live with water. Pumping it out so we can move in & continue to build in the Southeast Florida region,” she wrote.
7. Extreme heat days and extended heatwaves becoming more frequent
Heatwaves were a global experience in 2020 for ISeeChangers from the U.S. to Germany to Israel. On ISeeChange, observations of extreme heat began in March with record-breaking days in New Orleans and the hottest March on record in Pensacola, Florida.
Throughout the hot summer months, outdoor exercise often presented challenges. One July evening in Virginia, Aidan Lilienfeld waited until after the sun went down to go for a run, but still overheated.
A couple of friends and I already had a bike camping trip planned this past weekend. Its been hard to get enough friend time with covid so we stuck to the biking despite the high heat forecast. However, we did keep our routes to the short distance, max shade 20 mile options. I wish we had also waited til sunset to head home. We eneded up doing the first half of our route in peak heat in late afternoon with real feel temps over 100. I found i was getting headaches 8 miles in. We were able to stop for iced coffee and stayed in the stores’ air condotioning for longer than we would have during these pandemic times. We also ate as many pickles as we could to replenish salt! As my friend would say, it was a “scorchah!”
It is HOT today! Unusual for my location to get this warm. Air conditioning is virtually nonexistent in private homes unlike in the United States where practically everyone has one and runs it as soon as it gets a bit warm. Luckily, we have these window coverings called ‘rolladen’ that really help to block out the heat. They took awhile to get used to so we used them most effectively but I think we’ve got it down. Nearly 100° F outside but still in the 70s in our home!
Fled to the beach along with everyone else this very hot weekend! The water was still so cold in NH (64) compared to places like the Cape! It’s crazy how just an hour or so north or south affects the water temperatures so much.
Marcy Dubois in New Orleans documented how the poor state of her apartment complex keeps residents from being able to escape the heat. “The AC shuts down. Called on a Wednesday about it, no one came til almost a week later because they have ‘10+ AC units not working,’” she wrote. “The 4-6 pools they have are often covered in scum.”
Let me tell you a story. My 20 month old son and I live at the Parc Fontaine apartments in New Orleans, LA on the Westbank. First my ceiling started leaking at my old apartment, my maintenance and office team didn’t come address the situation for FOUR weeks. By then the ceiling fell thru and had filled up three plastic tubs with rain water overnight. The leasing team expected me to stay there til they had a new apartment ready, which took another week and a half. When they did come, they decided to tell me the roof in the apartment above me had collapsed. So I had to stay in my old mildewy smelly apartment with my son, confined to my small bedroom, til we could move. I had to pay and zero out my rent for that apartment before we could even move. The leasing manager told me to put out some baking soda to get rid of the mildew smell and mold. I paid $200 to hire two guys and use their trucks to move all the heavy stuff. Then I had to do the rest of moving by myself, with no babysitter. I moved everything I could before the ceiling again started collapsing while we were in there, so I left the rest of my stuff and got out of there with my son. The leasing manager told me I needed to go back in there and clear out everything I had left, despite the ceiling still coming down. I told her unless she pays my health insurance, there’s NO legal way she can make me do that. Then I get in my new apartment and the AC shuts down. Called on a Wednesday about it, no one came til almost a week later because they have “10+ AC units not working” in 700 apartments. So I had to spend $325 on an AC unit (almost 20 miles away because everywhere else was out of stock) because it was 85 degrees in there. Then they wanted to “credit me” the $325 I just spent out of pocket for the AC because they wanted to keep the AC unit once my AC got fixed, which three months later still isn’t cooling. They would not reimburse me for moving expenses because “it’s not like you moved across town or anything”, yet was going to charge me $60-70 because it took me longer than 48 hours to move. I was specifically told by a leasing office member to take my time in moving because they weren’t in any hurry to get the apartment back because of the damages. I was then told by the leasing manager I had to go back in the apartment with the falling ceiling and remove everything I left. The leasing manager tried to kick me out of the leasing office because I said one curse word out of frustration during a conversation with her. I had to apply for rental assistance. I’ve never had to do that. Unfortunately, as many rental assistance programs told me, unless I have an eviction notice, I don’t qualify for rental assistance. How is this legal, or safe? I also found out the leasing manager had gotten fired for lack of results, then rehired because no one else wanted the job! My son had heat exhaustion, he sweated non-stop for a week. He drank a lot of water. But do they care about my little boy? Or me? Nope. I had to get a lawyer, luckily Hannah Adams from Louisiana Legal Aid. Then to top it off, I had to sign a new contract and the correct address wasn’t even on there, it was the wrong one. They claim they can’t fix the contract, that theyre waiting on an email from the leasing company to do it. The new apartment was riddled with termites, you could hear them in the ceiling where a leak was and had multiple holes. I had to spend all my money I’d saved to move out of these slum apartments on all this, so now my son and I are stuck here for another year. And the safety and maintenance issues just keep coming. Code enforcement was already here, surveying the buildings. Many tenants are frustrated. The 4-6 pools they have are often covered in scum. The pools are the main reason I moved here, then I found out they don’t take maintain this place. Plus, the apartment is on the third floor with nothing under it (except a walkway where the mailboxes are), so the apartment shakes a lot from the smallest thing like the wind or a truck passing
In New Orleans, ISeeChangers used stationary sensors and teamed up with CAPA Strategies to collect data about urban heat in the city.
8. Dry winters and hot springs and summers fuel dangerous wildfires in the Western U.S.
While parts of the Southeast, like North Carolina, experienced one of their wettest years in history, the opposite was true across the country. ISeeChangers in the Western U.S. began noticing concerning signs of a drought year in the winter months. Snowpack was low in Grand Mesa, Colorado, and in El Cerrito, California, Lauren McNulty reported unusually little rain. “Peaceful sunset, but the good weather is deceiving,” she wrote of the missing rain.
After the poor winter precipitation McNulty documented, spring was very hot in Northern California, leading to worries about what the wildfire season would be like. Similar worries existed in Colorado where warming winters and drought have left large swaths of forest vulnerable to pest damage creating plenty of fire fuel.
The damage from Mountain Pine Beetles was extensive in the San Juan National Forest. Controlled fires and shorter, warmer winters have left the beetles in greater numbers and more damage than previous years.
The first major wildfires of the year posted on ISeeChange occurred in Arizona in June. By mid-July Amber Kleinman in Paonia, Colorado was going on three weeks of red flag fire weather warnings.
In August, a series of lightning storms in California’s Bay Area ignited the dry land and spread into some of the largest wildfires in history. Wildfires continued to light and scar Northern California, Oregon and Washington through September. Colorado also saw some of their largest wildfires in history in 2020 as well.
Smoke from the fires dimmed skies as far as Boston and made breathing, even indoors, difficult throughout the West.
4th day into the evacuation warning. Bags packed and continue to pray for the containment of the Bobcat Fire and safety of the firefighters. Burning smell really seeping through the doors and windows today; there is no way to escape it, even with air purifier running 24/7. Experiencing mostly respiratory symptoms due to fire smoke.
The sky still covers in smoke with orange glow. The sun looks eerie through the smokey sky even in the morning. This reminded me of the sky I saw in Hot Water Beach, New Zealand back in January 2020; the sky above the NZ coastline was also taken over by the devastating Australian wildfire plume smoke.
— Viv Byrd
9. Drought-stricken New England struggled to manage plants through the hot summer
Across the country, the Northeast was also dealing with drought in the late summer and into fall.
In June, Judy Donnelly in Connecticut wrote, “We only had about 1/4 inch of rain in the past two weeks and there’s none in the forecast. The garden needs daily watering, even the parts under thick mulch. I hope the whole summer isn’t like this.”
Despite her hopes, the dryness continued and developed into moderate drought. It was a hard year on crops, gardens and trees. Ken Haradon in Mansfield, Massachusetts noted that some trees began dropping their leaves in mid-August as they tried to cope with the lack of water.
The drought even caused some sporadic blooming of spring plants like crabapples later in the fall.
10. COVID-19 showed how connected our health is to our environment
Like everything in 2020, the way that people interacted with and understood their environment was shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As lockdowns began in early spring, ISeeChangers sought relief in the outdoors by exploring parks, doing home math class in sidewalk chalk, and appreciating the joy of small things like crocuses blooming. Songbirds seemed louder without traffic to interrupt, and the air was clearer in some places than ever previously remembered.
In Durham, North Carolina, Max Cawley noticed that without the regularly scheduled weed mowing in public spaces, plants were flowering and offering up more food to pollinators.
Nearby, Pam Dickens in Hillsborough, North Carolina, took up painting in her garden.
During the pandemic, ive gone out in my flower garden each day to see the blossoms and wait for the next. I have been inspired by my garden to take up watercolor. I have water colored over 75 paintings during this time— all of flowers which give me connection to the outdoors and my garden. I have actually painted 3 of the flowers in my garden. And sold 2 paintings. Its been fun , rewarding and very relaxing. I dont mind spending 5 hours in my day painting something i love dearly
In Australia, Therese Ralston, found inspiration in a pair of thrushes that nested near her garage.
Grey Shrike Thrushes can have a ten hectare territory for each couple. The pair that live on my mountain already had a brood of chicks last September, in the Australian spring time. Though April is mid-autumn here, the same two birds have made another nest with three eggs in it, in our garage in a toolbox of spiky rivets.
Due to three years of drought, the the worst bushfires in modern history and subsequent local flooding, everything is lush and green like it is in spring. So, mid-autumn in a few days and there are birds nesting, butterflies and caterpillars everywhere in this crazy second spring.
I don’t know if the Thrush chicks will survive April’s cooler weather, six months on from the first brood and at the wrong time of the year. But, somehow I hope they will grow up and fly away to come back and annoy me singing at 6 am with a melodious tune in the pre-dawn.
The environment is changing. Birds, animals, insects and reptiles are confused and think it is spring because it’s green once again. Even the trees are still wearing their bright green leaves, instead of losing them. I have hay-fever from clouds of grass seeds. The temperature is still a balmy 30 degrees and all my windows are still wide open all day.
I’ve been self-isolating on my farm for two weeks. My view is the view in the garage, of a pair mated for life doing their best to bring new life into the world while they can. And if you think being holed up in an apartment is confining, try sitting on a small nest for three weeks straight.
Or, to see more of the birds I love, check out my blog:
We hope the new year finds you healthy and happy. Keep documenting change in your environment this winter and throughout 2021 on ISeeChange.
Cover photo by Eric Coulter for the National Interagency Fire Center.