In a powerful testament to the warming of the planet, two leading U.S. science agencies Wednesday jointly declared 2016 the hottest year on record, surpassing the previous record set just last year — which, itself, had topped a record set in 2014.
Average surface temperatures in 2016, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, were 0.07 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than 2015, and featured eight successive months (January through August) that were individually the warmest since the agency’s record began in 1880.
The average temperature across the world’s land and ocean surfaces was 58.69 Fahrenheit, or 1.69 degrees above the 20th century average of 57 degrees, NOAA declared. The agency also noted that the record for the global temperature has now successively been broken five times since the year 2000. The years 2005 and 2010 were also record warm years, according to the agency’s dataset.
NASA concurred with NOAA, also declaring 2016 the warmest year on record in its own dataset that tracks the temperatures at the surface of the planet’s land and oceans, and expressing “greater than 95 percent certainty” in that conclusion.
The agency noted that just since the year 2001 the planet has seen “16 of the 17 warmest years on record.”
Last year “is remarkably the third record year in a row in this series,” said Gavin Schmidt, who directs NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in a statement. “We don’t expect record years every year, but the ongoing long-term warming trend is clear.”
The record comes just two days before Donald Trump, who has tweeted that global warming is a “hoax,” assumes the presidency and with it, control over the two science agencies that just announced these records.
It is also the same day that Scott Pruitt, Trump’s controversial nominee for the Environmental Protection Agency, appears before the Senate in what is expected to be a tense confirmation hearing. Pruitt has written that the “debate” over climate change is “far from settled.”
Trump’s other nominees, such as State Department nominee Rex Tillerson and Interior Department nominee Ryan Zinke, have been less dismissive of climate change in their confirmation hearings, acknowledging at least some human contribution to the phenomenon, but also raising questions either about the extent to which it is human caused, or about our capacity to predict the consequences.
Scientists have been far less guarded. “2016 is a wake-up call in many ways,” said Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona, of the year’s temperatures. “Climate change is real, it is caused by humans, and it is serious.”
NASA and NOAA produce slightly different records using somewhat different methodologies, but have now concurred on identifying 2014, 2015, and 2016 as, successively, the three warmest years in their records.
Last year’s warmth was partly enhanced by a strong weather pattern known as El Niño, but scientists underscore that this is not the only cause.
For example, 1998 was also, at the time, the warmest year on record thanks in part to a strong El Niño — but the 2016 planetary temperature now far surpasses that year.
The reason is that the Earth has been warming since then, allowing another El Niño event, unlocking heat from the vast Pacific Ocean, to push overall temperatures to new heights.
Thus do natural wobbles of the planet’s temperature interact with an overall warming trend to produce new records on a regular basis — but as Schmidt notes, not every single year. At present, while scientists would expect 2017 to be quite warm relative to (say) a year in the 1990s, there has been little talk of a fourth record year in a row. And indeed, El Niño has subsided.
Two other global agencies, the Japan Meteorological Agency and the U.K.’s Hadley Center, also track global temperatures and may soon declare records for their own datasets, but that has not formally happened yet.
Based on an analysis of the Hadley Center’s data through November of this year shared with the Post, Michael Schlesinger, a climate scientist at the University of Illinois, also found that 2016 ranked as the hottest year. That dataset dates back still farther to 1850.
“While the 2016 datapoint is stunning, please remember that these observed temperature departures … contain natural variability as well as the signal of human-caused Global Warming,” Schlesinger noted.
Natural variability would include El Niño. NASA further noted in its analysis that compared with the late 19th century, the planet has now warmed about 1.1 degrees Celsius, or 2 degrees Fahrenheit.
That’s very significant because the global community has been striving to limit overall warming to considerably below a 2 degree Celsius rise, and even, if possible, to hold it to a 1.5 degree Celsius increase.
That is now only about .4 degrees away, based on these figures. “
It is the second year in a row that the annual global temperature has been more than 1 Celsius degree warmer than the pre-industrial level, and shows that the world is moving ever closer to the warming threshold of 1.5 Celsius degrees, beyond which many scientists have concluded the impacts of climate change will be unacceptably dangerous,” said Bob Ward, who is director of policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, part of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Last year’s warmth was manifested across the planet, from the warm tropical ocean waters off the coast of northeastern Australia, where the Great Barrier Reef experienced its worst coral bleaching event on record and large scale coral death, to the Arctic, where sea ice hit regular monthly record lows and overall temperatures were also the warmest on record, at least from January through September of 2016.
Among major 2016 events, the devastating bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 did not stand alone.
In a catalogue of some of the extremes the planet witnessed during the year, NOAA also noted the megafire that engulfed Fort McMurray, Canada, at the beginning of May, relatively early in the year for wildfires.
That event was certainly consistent with a warming climate, as well as with the role of El Niño, although scientists are reluctant to formally say that climate change has played a role in an individual event without conducting extensive analysis.
Extreme high temperatures were seen from India — where the city of Phalodi recorded temperatures of 51 degrees Celsius (123.8 Fahrenheit) in May, a new national record — to Iran, where a temperature of 53 degrees Celsius (127.4 F) was recorded in Delhoran on July 22.
For the contiguous Unites States, 2o16 was merely the second warmest year on record, but for Alaska, it was the warmest yet recorded, underscoring once again the sharpness of Arctic warmth in particular.
The particular signature of warming in 2016 was also revealing in another way, Overpeck said, noting that the stratosphere, the layer of the planet’s atmosphere stretching from about 8.5 to 13.5 miles above us, saw record cold temperatures last year.
“The pattern of record warmth in the lower atmosphere, coupled with record cold in the stratosphere provides an clear fingerprint of the cause of the unprecedented warming – greenhouse gases trapping heat in the lower atmosphere instead of letting it escape to the stratosphere, and then to space.
No doubt about it any more – humans, mainly by burning fossil fuels, are cooking the planet,” Overpeck said. All of that said, because of the extreme warmth that occurred early in 2016, the record just announced does not come as much of a surprise to weather and climate watchers.
On April 15 of last year, NASA’s Schmidt tweeted, “Too soon? I estimate >99% chance of an annual record in 2016 in @NASAGISS temperature data, based on Jan-Mar alone.”