Last year was supposed to be a pivotal year for climate. It was the year for COP26 which would mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement. Indeed, 2020 followed a year where climate change had been propelled onto newspaper front pages by Greta Thunberg, school strikes and Extinction Rebellion. Yet in spite of a year dominated by COVID-19, there was was still space to report on climate change. This post first published in Carbon Brief highlights the top ten climate papers of 2020.
Top Ten Climate Papers
As normal life was turned upside down, newspaper headlines and social media conversations were dominated by lockdowns, vaccines and infection rates.
Yet thousands of newly published peer-reviewed climate papers vied for media attention throughout the year. These studies were covered around the world in news articles and blogs. They were also shared on social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
Using Altmetric data for 2020, Carbon Brief has compiled its annual list of the 25 most talked-about climate change-related papers that were published the previous year. The infographic above shows which ones made it into the Top 10
Last year was truly extraordinary for press and social media attention of scientific journal papers.
In the six years that Carbon Brief has been undertaking this annual review, 2018 was the first year where a paper – on any topic – hit an Altmetric score of more than 10,000. In 2019, Altmetric found two papers that passed this milestone.
The year of 2020 had 60. And all but a few were about Covid-19.
It is, perhaps, no surprise then that the top climate paper of 2020 was also about Covid-19. It was the Nature Climate Change paper, “Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the Covid-19 forced confinement”, by Prof Corinne Le Quéré, a Royal Society research professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia, and colleagues.
Taking second spot with an Altmetric score of 3,696 is “Future of the human climate niche”, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Its lead author is Dr Chi Xu, an ecologist at Nanjing University in China.
The study shows that, for thousands of years, “humans have concentrated in a surprisingly narrow subset of Earth’s available climates, characterised by mean annual temperatures around 13C”. It warns that between one and three billion people could be left outside this “environmental niche” in the next 50 years, depending on the rate of warming and population growth.
Taking third place on the rostrum is “Global increase in major tropical cyclone exceedance probability over the past four decades”, with an Altmetric score of 3,669.
The study finds that major tropical cyclones – category 3 or higher – have become 15% more likely at a global level between 1979 and 2017.
The North Atlantic has seen the most significant increases in cyclone intensity, the study says, with the chances of a major hurricane occurring in the North Atlantic increasing by 49% per decade.
In fourth place is “Sandy coastlines under threat of erosion”, published back in March in Nature Climate Change, with a score of 3,065. The study was led by Dr Michalis I Vousdoukas, a coastal oceanography researcher at the European Commission Joint Research Centre.
The research, which uses satellite data, suggests that erosion driven by rising sea levels could cause “the near extinction of almost half of the world’s sandy beaches by the end of the century”.
Rounding off the Top Five
Taking fifth spot is the Nature paper “Rebuilding marine life”, which accumulated an Altmetric score of 2,848. The review study “document[s] the recovery of marine populations, habitats and ecosystems following past conservation interventions”.
It concludes that “recovery rates across studies suggest that substantial recovery of the abundance, structure and function of marine life could be achieved by 2050, if major pressures – including climate change – are mitigated”.
Just missing out on the Top 5 is “Dynamic ice loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet driven by sustained glacier retreat”, which is the first-ever article published in Nature’s new online journal Communications Earth & Environment.
The research finds that retreating glaciers resulted in a “step-change” in Greenland ice sheet melt in the early 2000s and a “switch to a new dynamic state of sustained mass loss that would persist even under a decline in surface melt”.
(For more on the state of the Greenland ice sheet – and discussion of this study – see Carbon Brief’s guest post from September.)
In seventh place, with a score of 2,543, is the Nature paper “Temperate rainforests near the South Pole during peak Cretaceous warmth“. This study presents evidence that the parts of West Antarctica was covered with temperate rainforests during the mid-Cretaceous period – one of the warmest intervals of the past 140m years.
Landing in eighth place is another polar paper – “Fasting season length sets temporal limits for global polar bear persistence”. Published in Nature Climate Change and clocking up a score of 2,528, the research warns that Arctic sea ice decline is likely to see polar bears spend more time on land, increasing how long they are required to fast and putting their survival and ability to reproduce at risk.
In ninth position is the 2020 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change, focusing on “responding to converging crises”, which has an Altmetric score of 2,468.
The annual report is the latest in a project involving 35 academic institutions and UN agencies from across the world, which began in 2015. The 2020 report “tracks the relationship between health and climate change across five key domains and over 40 indicators”. Its executive summary warns:
“The changing climate has already produced considerable shifts in the underlying social and environmental determinants of health at the global level. Indicators in all domains…are worsening. Concerning, and often accelerating, trends were seen for each of the human symptoms of climate change monitored, with the 2020 indicators presenting the most worrying outlook reported since The Lancet Countdown was first established.”
Rounding off the Top Ten
Taking the final spot in the Top 10 is “The emergence of heat and humidity too severe for human tolerance” in Science Advances, with a score of 2,400. The study looks specifically at “wet-bulb” temperatures of more than 35C, which is considered to be the upper limit for the human body to “efficiently shed heat”.
Analysing weather station data from around the world, the researchers find that some coastal subtropical locations have already reported wet-bulb temperatures of 35C and “that extreme humid heat overall has more than doubled in frequency since 1979”.
Across the Top 25 papers identified here, the journal that features most frequently is Nature, with six papers in total. Nature also took first, or joint first, spot in Carbon Brief’s Top 25 in 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2015.
The next highest is Nature Climate Change with five papers represented. Then follows three journals with two papers each – PNAS, Communications Earth & Environment, and Science – and then nine journals with one paper in the Top 25.
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