Earth Sets a Temperature Record for the Third Straight Year
Marking another milestone for a changing planet, scientists reported on
Wednesday that the
Earth reached its highest temperature on record in 2016, trouncing a
record set only a year earlier, which beat one set in 2014. It is the
first time in the modern era of
global warming data that temperatures have blown past the previous
record three years in a row.
The findings come two days before the inauguration of an American
president who has called global warming a Chinese plot and vowed to roll
back his predecessor’s efforts to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases.
In reality, the Earth is heating up, a point long beyond serious
scientific dispute, but one becoming more evident as the records keep
falling. Temperatures are heading toward levels that many experts
believe will pose a profound threat to both the natural world and to
In 2015 and 2016, the planetary warming was intensified by the weather
pattern known as El Niño, in which the Pacific Ocean released a huge
burst of energy and water vapor into the atmosphere. But the bigger
factor in setting the records was the long-term trend of rising
temperatures, which scientists say is being driven by increasing levels
of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
single warm year is something of a curiosity,” said Deke Arndt, chief of
global climate monitoring for the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s really the
trend, and the fact that we’re punching at the ceiling every year now,
that is the real indicator that we’re undergoing big changes.”
The heat extremes were especially pervasive in the Arctic, with
temperatures in the fall running 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit above
normal across large stretches of the Arctic Ocean. Sea ice in that
region has been in precipitous decline for years, and Arctic communities
are already wrestling with enormous problems, such as
rapid coastal erosion, caused by the changing climate.
“What’s going on in the Arctic is really very impressive; this year was
ridiculously off the chart,” said Gavin A. Schmidt, head of the
Goddard Institute for Space Studies
in Manhattan, a unit of the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration that tracks global temperatures.
But Arctic people were hardly alone in feeling the heat. Drought and
afflicted Africa. On May 19, the people in the town of Phalodi lived
hottest day in the recorded history of India, 123.8 degrees
El Niño has now ended, and climate scientists almost universally expect
2017 to be cooler than the year before. But the scale of the heat burst
has been startling to many of the experts, and some of them fear an
accelerated era of global warming could be at hand over the next few
Even at current temperatures, billions of tons of land ice are melting
or sliding into the ocean. The sea is also absorbing most of the heat
trapped by human emissions. Those factors are causing the ocean to rise
at what appears to be an accelerating pace, and coastal communities in
the United States are beginning to spend billions to fight
increased tidal flooding. Their pleas for help from Congress have
largely been ignored.
The finding that a record had been set for the third year in a row was
released on Wednesday by three government agencies, two of them American
and one British, that track measurements made by ships, buoys and
land-based weather stations. They analyze the figures to correct for
known problems, producing an annual average temperature for the surface
of the Earth. The national meteorological agency of Japan confirmed the
findings in a preliminary analysis.
In the British data set, 2016 set a record by only a small amount; the
margin was larger in the NOAA data set and larger still in NASA’s. NASA
does more work than the other groups to take full account of Arctic
temperatures, and several scientists said they believed the NASA record
to be the most accurate for 2016 for that reason.
NASA’s calculations suggested that the planet had warmed by well over a
half-degree Fahrenheit from 2013 to 2016. That is a huge change for the
surface of an entire planet to undergo in just three years, and it
appears to be the largest temperature increase over a three-year period
in the NASA record, which begins in 1880.
The findings about a record-warm year were also confirmed by the
Berkeley Earth surface temperature
project, a nonprofit California group set up to provide a temperature
analysis independent of governments. That group, however, did not find
that three records had been set in a row; in its analysis, 2010 was
slightly warmer than 2014.
In addition to the surface measurements, satellites are used to measure
the temperature of the atmosphere within a few miles of the surface. Two
groups that analyze these figures showed a record-warm 2016 in data
going back to 1978, though in one data set it was a record by only a
Since 1880, NOAA’s records show only one other instance when global
temperature records were set three years in a row: in 1939, 1940 and
1941. The Earth has warmed so much in recent decades, however, that 1941
now ranks as only the 37th-warmest year on record.
The modern era of global warming began around 1970, after a long stretch
of relatively flat temperatures, and the past three years mark the first
time in that period that three records were set in a row. Of the 17
hottest years on record, 16 have now occurred since 2000.
Two of the agencies that issued Wednesday’s figures, NOAA and NASA, will
soon report to cabinet secretaries appointed by President-elect Donald
J. Trump, who has expressed doubt about the findings of climate science.
In 2012, Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter, “The concept of global warming was
created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing
Fear has erupted within the agencies about whether their data will now
be subject to political manipulation. Mr. Trump and his cabinet nominees
have given no detailed indication of what their broad climate policies
are likely to be, much less how they will manage the scientific
enterprise of monitoring the climate.
Since he was elected president, Mr. Trump has
acknowledged there may be “some connectivity” between human activity
and climate change, and he promised to keep an open mind on the subject.
On Wednesday, in questioning before the Senate Environment and Public
Works Committee, Mr. Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental
Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, said, “I
do not believe that climate change is a hoax.” He did not, however,
say whether he believed that Mr. Trump was wrong on climate change.
The three record-setting years in a row undercut longstanding claims by
a handful of contrarian scientists that global warming stopped after
1998. That argument was never backed by good statistical evidence, but
it was highlighted repeatedly in Congress and on the presidential
campaign trail in 2016.
When the heat buildup in the ocean is taken into account, global
temperatures are rising relentlessly. Scientists have calculated that
the heat accumulating throughout the Earth because of human emissions is
roughly equal to the energy that would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima
atomic bombs exploding across the planet every day.
It is true that at the Earth’s surface, the warming seems to be
proceeding in fits and starts. “The arc of global warming will be
variously steep and less steep,” said Richard Seager, a climate
scientist at the Lamont-Doherty
Earth Observatory of Columbia University. “It never stopped.”
In fact, the rate over time has been reasonably close to predictions
that scientists first offered decades ago. Those same scientists have
long warned that humanity is courting disaster by failing to bring
fossil-fuel emissions under control.
For example, many experts on sea level believe that a rise of 15 or 20
feet has already become inevitable, though they cannot say how fast it
will happen. A rise that large would drown most of the world’s coastal
cities without heroic efforts to fortify them.
How 2016 Became Earth’s Hottest Year on Record
Global temperatures have continued to rise,
making 2016 the hottest year on the historical record and the third
consecutive record-breaking year, scientists say. Of the 17 hottest
years ever recorded, 16 have now occurred since 2000.
In the historical record, months early in the
year, like February and March, have moved further away from the norm
than the rest of the year. Scientists expect that the early months
of 2017 will continue to show levels of warming beyond the norm, but
likely not at the level of 2016 because a strong El Niño weather
pattern is now subsiding.
The Earth’s temperature has risen since record-keeping began in the
19th century. Warming began to accelerate around the 1980s.
Human-induced climate change has made it at least
160 times more likely that three consecutive years after 2000 would
be record-setting, according to Michael E. Mann, a climate scientist
at Pennsylvania State University.
His findings show that if human-induced climate
change was not part of the equation, the amount of warming in 2016
would have less than one-in-a-million odds of occurring.
“One could argue that about 75 percent of the
warmth was due to human impact,” Dr. Mann said.
2016 was the first time that the hottest year on record occurred
three times in a row.
The later months of 2015 and the first half of
2016 experienced faster warming partly due to the El Niño climate
pattern in the Pacific Ocean, which sent a surge of heat into the
The El Niño pattern occurs irregularly, in
intervals of about two to seven years, and scientists say that the
most recent El Niño was among the largest in a century. The peak of
the most recent El Niño occurred during winter of 2015, and
temperatures were dramatically higher than normal. It began to
subside over the course of 2016.
Scientists are working to understand whether
climate change is also making El Niño phenomena stronger.
Scientists predict that warming will continue to exceed records.
Historical records of global temperature are
compiled by two American government agencies: the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration. Meteorological agencies in Britain and
Japan also compile reliable datasets of global temperature.
The analyses by the agencies are based on
thousands of measurements from weather stations, ships and ocean
buoys around the world. Each group tracking global temperature uses
different methods to take account of problems in the data, but
usually reach similar conclusions about the significant long-term
trend of global warming.
For 2016, the records from NASA were likely the
most accurate, because of data collection in Antarctica and a more
sophisticated statistical analysis in the Arctic. The combination
allows NASA to have more reliable coverage in the polar regions of
the world, which have been highly affected by rising temperatures.
Global sea ice extent reached near record low levels late in 2016.
“We expect records to continue to be broken as
global warming proceeds,” Dr. Mann said.
Global Warming Caused By ‘Natural Variations’ In Climate
Global temperature change observed over the last hundred years or so is well within the natural variability of the last 8,000 years, according to a new paper by Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) lead author Dr. Philip Lloyd.
Dr. Philip Lloyd is a South Africa-based physicist and climate researcher, Dr. Lloyd examined ice core-based temperature data going back 8,000 years to gain perspective on the magnitude of global temperature changes over the 20th Century.
What Lloyd found was that the standard deviation of the temperature over the last 8,000 years was about 0.98 degrees Celsius– higher than the 0.85 degrees climate scientists say the world has warmed over the last century.
“This suggests that while some portion of the temperature change observed in the 20th century was probably caused by greenhouse gases, there is a strong likelihood that the major portion was due to natural variations,” Lloyd wrote in his study.
The United Nations’ IPCC claims there’s been 0.85 degrees Celsius of warming since the late 1800s, and concludes that most of this warming is due to human activities– mainly, the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use. The IPCC says that “more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010” have been caused by human activity.
If Lloyd’s results hold, the IPCC may have to revise how much warming it attributes to mankind. In any case, the IPCC’s estimate of man-made and natural warming (0.85 degrees) is still below the standard deviation for the last 8,000, according to Lloyd’s results. This means that warming is not very significant within the context of the Earth’s recent climate history.
Lloyd arrived at his conclusion after the “differences in temperatures between all records which are approximately a century apart were determined, after any trends in the data had been removed.” Lloyd noted the “differences were close to normally distributed.”
But Lloyd’s study hits at a larger debate within climate science: how much warming is attributable to mankind or nature. Clearly, Lloyd and the IPCC he once contributed to now represent different ends of the spectrum.
“The key challenge in understanding climate change is to assess the natural climate variability,” Dr. Judith Curry, a climate scientist at Georgia Tech, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in April.
At the time, Ronald Bailey, a science write for Reason magazine, wrote that there has still not been enough observed warming to meet the IPCC’s standard of “enhanced warming” — that is, warming above natural levels.
In his article, Bailey noted that there has not been enough temperature rise since the IPCC set its benchmark for “enhanced warming” in 1990. Curry noted that there was a big jump in temperature between 1993 and 1998, but that was basically because of the latter year’s El Niño.
“The magnitude of natural climate variability over the past 1000 years and even the past 100 years is hotly debated,” Curry added. “Personally, I think the role of natural climate variability has been substantially underestimated in our interpretation of recent climate change.”
But not all scientists agree with Bailey’s article, and some argue that signs of human influence on the Earth’s climate were evident in the 1970s. Indeed, by 1995 the IPCC stated that the “balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” The international body has only made stronger statement on man’s climatic influence ever since.
“I would not pin anything on what was said by IPCC in 1990,” Dr. Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told TheDCNF in April. “In the reports since then there have been thorough evaluations of past IPCC projections and whether they were out of line.”
Human influence on the climate may have been observable in the 1970s, but scientists have had trouble explaining why satellite data shows that average global temperatures have been virtually flat for more than 18 years. Satellites measure the troposphere — the lowest few miles of the atmosphere — in contrast, to surface temperature measurements, which most climate bodies rely on for estimates of global average temperature average.
But even surface temperature data showed a hiatus in warming for about 15 years or so. Scientists have offered up dozens of explanations for why global temperatures have been flat since the late 1990s. The most prominent explanation is that oceans have been absorbing most of the “heat” from increased greenhouse gas emissions, meaning surface temperatures show less warming than they otherwise would.
“What is evident now is that the signal of global warming emerged from the noise of natural variability about the mid 1970s,” Trenberth added. “There are fluctuations in global mean temperatures: from year to year with El Niños, etc., and from decade to decade, so that trends reflecting global warming need to be taken over at least 20 years.”