Before we go on to explore this most recent and most extreme instance in a long string of record-shattering global temperatures, we should take a moment to credit our climate change denier ‘friends’ for what’s happening in the Earth System.
For decades now, a coalition of fossil fuel special interests, big money investors, related think tanks, and the vast majority of the republican party have fought stridently to prevent effective action to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. In their mad quest, they have attacked science, demonized leaders, gridlocked Congress, hobbled government, propped up failing fossil fuels, prevented or dismantled helpful regulation, turned the Supreme Court into a weapon against renewable energy solutions, and toppled industries that would have helped to reduce the damage.
Through these actions, they have been successful in preventing the necessary and rapid shift away from fossil fuel burning, halting a burgeoning American leadership in renewable energy, and in flooding the world with the low-cost coal, oil, and gas that is now so destructive to Earth System stability. Now, it appears that some of the more dangerous impacts of climate change are already locked in. So when history looks back and asks — why were we so stupid? We can honestly point our fingers to those ignoramuses and say ‘here were the infernal high priests who sacrificed a secure future and our children’s safety on the altar of their foolish pride.’
Worst Fears For Global Heating Realized
We knew there’d be trouble. We knew that human greenhouse gas emissions had loaded the world ocean up with heat. We knew that a record El Nino would blow a big chunk of that heat back into the atmosphere as it began to fade. And we knew that more global temperature records were on the way in late 2015 and early 2016. But I have to say that the early indications for February are just staggering.
(The GFS model shows temperatures averaged 1.01 C above the already significantly hotter than normal 1981-2010 baseline. Subsequent observations from separate sources have confirmed this dramatic February temperature spike. We await NASA, NOAA, and JMA observations for a final confirmation. But the trend in the data is amazingly clear. What we’re looking at is the hottest global temperatures since record keeping began by a long shot. Note that the highest temperature anomalies appear exactly where we don’t want them — the Arctic. Image source: GFS and M. J. Ventrice.)
Eric Holthaus and M. J. Ventrice on Monday were the first to give warning of an extreme spike in temperatures as recorded by the Global satellite record. A slew of media reports followed. But it wasn’t until today that we really began to get a clear look at the potential atmospheric damage.
Nick Stokes, a retired climate scientist and blogger over at Moyhu, published an analysis of the recently released preliminary data from NCAR and the indicator is just absolutely off the charts high. According to this analysis, February temperatures may have been as much as 1.44 C hotter than the 1951 to 1980 NASA baseline. Converting to departures from 1880s values, if these preliminary estimates prove correct, would put the GISS figure at an extreme 1.66 C hotter than 1880s levels for February. If GISS runs 0.1 C cooler than NCAR conversions, as it has over the past few months, then the 1880 to February 2016 temperature rise would be about 1.56 C. Both are insanely high jumps that hint 2016 could be quite a bit warmer than even 2015.
It’s worth noting that much of these record high global temperatures are centered on the Arctic — a region that is very sensitive to warming and one that has the potential to produce a number of dangerous amplifying feedbacks. So we could well characterize an impending record warm February as one in which much of the excess heat exploded into the Arctic. In other words — the global temperature anomaly graphs make it look like the world’s roof is on fire. That’s not literal. Much of the Arctic remains below freezing. But 10-12 C above average temperature anomalies for an entire month over large regions of the Arctic is a big deal. It means that large parts of the Arctic haven’t experienced anything approaching a real Arctic Winter this year.
Looks Like The 1.5 C Threshold Was Shattered in the Monthly Measure and We May Be Looking at 1.2 to 1.3 C+ Above 1880s For all of 2016
Putting these numbers into context, it looks like we may have already crossed the 1.5 C threshold above 1880s values in the monthly measure during February. This is entering a range of high risk for accelerating Arctic sea ice and snow melt, albedo loss, permafrost thaw and a number of other related amplifying feedbacks to a human-forced heating of our world. A set of changes that will likely add to the speed of an already rapid fossil fuel based warming. But we should be very clear that monthly departures are not annual departures and the yearly measure for 2016 is less likely to hit or exceed a 1.5 C departure. It’s fair to say, though, that 1.5 C annual departures are imminent and will likely appear within 5-20 years.
If we use the 1997-1998 El Nino year as a baseline, we find that global temperatures for that event peaked at around 1.1 C above 1880s averages during February. The year, however, came in at about 0.85 C above 1880s averages. Using a similar back of napkin analysis, and assuming 2016 will continue to see Equatorial sea surface temperatures continue to cool, we may be looking at a 1.2 to 1.3 C above 1880s average for this year.
(El Nino is cooling down. But will it continue to linger through 2016? Climate Prediction Center CFSv2 model ensembles seem to think so. The most recent run shows the current El Nino restrengthening through Fall of 2016. Such an event would tend to push global annual temperatures closer to the 1.5 C above 1880s threshold. It would also set in place the outside potential for another record warm year in 2017. It’s worth noting that the NOAA consensus is still for ENSO Neutral to weak La Nina conditions by Fall. Image source: NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.)
NOAA is currently predicting that El Nino will transition to ENSO neutral or a weak la Nina by year end. However, some model runs show that El Nino never really ends for 2016. Instead, these models predict a weak to moderate El Nino come Fall. In 1998, a strong La Nina began to form — which would have helped to suppress atmospheric temperatures by year-end. The 2016 forecast, however, does not seem to indicate quite as much atmospheric cooling assistance coming from the world ocean system. So end 2016 annual averages may push closer to 1.3 C (or a bit higher) above 1880s levels.
We’ve Had This Warming in the System for a While, It was Just Hiding Out in the Oceans
One other bit of context we should be very clear on is that the Earth System has been living with the atmospheric heat we’re now seeing for a while. The oceans began a very rapid accumulation of heat due to greenhouse gas emissions forcing during the 2000s. A rate of heat accumulation in the world’s waters that has accelerated through to this year. This excess heat has already impacted the climate system by speeding the destabilization of glaciers in the basal zone in Greenland and Antarctica. And it has also contributed to new record global sea ice losses and is a likely source of reports from the world’s continental shelf zones that small but troubling clathrate instabilities have been observed.
(Global ocean heat accumulation has been on a high ramp since the late 1990s with 50 percent of the total heat accumulation occurring in the 18 years from 1997 though 2015. Since more than 90 percent of the greenhouse gas heat forcing ends up in the world ocean system, this particular measure is probably the most accurate picture of a rapidly warming world. Such a swift accumulation of heat in the world’s oceans guaranteed that the atmosphere would eventually respond. The real question now is — how fast and far? Image source: Nature.)
But pushing up atmospheric heating will have numerous additional impacts. It will put pressure on the surface regions of global glaciers — adding to the basal melt pressure jump we’ve already seen. It will further amplify the hydrological cycle — increasing the rates of evaporation and precipitation around the world and amplifying extreme droughts, wildfires and floods. It will increase peak global surface temperatures — thereby increasing the incidence of heatwave mass casualty events. It will provide more latent heat energy for storms — continuing to push up the threshold of peak intensity for these events. And it will help to accelerate the pace of regional changes to climate systems such as weather instability in the North Atlantic and increasing drought tendency in the US (especially the US Southwest).
Entering the Climate Change Danger Zone
The 1-2 C above 1880s temperatures range we are now entering is one in which dangerous climate changes will tend to grow more rapid and apparent. Such atmospheric heat has not been experienced on Earth in at least 150,000 years and the world then was a much different place than what human beings were used to in the 20th Century. However, the speed at which global temperatures are rising is much more rapid than anything seen during any interglacial period for the last 3 million years and is probably even more rapid than the warming seen during hothouse extinction events like the PETM and the Permian. This velocity of warming will almost certainly have added effects outside of the paleoclimate context.
(Anyone looking at the temperature anomaly graph on the top of this post can see that a disproportionate amount of the global temperature anomaly is showing up in the Arctic. But the region of the High North above the 80 degree Latitude line is among the regions experiencing global peak anomalies. There, degree days below freezing are at the lowest levels ever recorded — now hitting a -800 anomaly in the Arctic record. In plain terms — the less degree days below freezing the High Arctic experiences, the closer it is to melting. Image source: CIRES/NOAA.)
One final point to be clear on is then worth repeating. We, by listening to climate change deniers and letting them gum up the political and economic works, have probably already locked in some of the bad effects of climate change that could have been prevented. The time for pandering to these very foolish people is over. The time for foot-dragging and half-measures is now at an end. We need a very rapid response. A response that, at this point, is still being delayed by the fossil fuel industry and the climate change deniers who have abetted their belligerence.