We should take a moment to appreciate how hot it’s actually been so far in 2016. To think about what it means to be in a world that’s already so damn hot. To think about how far behind the 8 ball we are on responses to human forced climate change. And to consider how urgent it is to swiftly stop burning coal, oil and gas. To stop adding more fuel to an already raging global fire.
Global policy makers, scientists, and many environmentalists have identified an annual average of 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial marks as a level of heat we should try to avoid. The Paris Climate Summit made a verbal pledge to at least attempt to steer clear of such extreme high temperature ranges. But even the strongest emissions reduction commitments from the nations of the world now do not line up with that pledge. And it’s questionable that they ever could given the massive amount of greenhouse gas overburden that has already accumulated and is already rapidly heating the world’s airs, waters, ice, and carbon stores.
Current emission reduction pledges, though significant when taking into context the size and potential for growth of all of carbon-spewing industry, don’t even come close to the stated 1.5 C goal. Under our presently accepted understanding of climate sensitivity, and barring any response from the global carbon stores unforeseen by mainstream science, pledged reductions in fossil fuel use by the nations of the world under Paris would limit warming to around 3 C by the end of this Century. Rates of carbon emission reduction would necessarily have to significantly speed up beyond the pledged Paris NDC goals in order to hit below 3 C by 2100 — much less avoid 2 C.
As for 1.5 C above preindustrial averages — it already appears that this year, 2016, will see temperatures uncomfortably close to a level that mainstream scientists have identified as dangerous.
(Japan’s Meteorological Agency shows that March of 2016 remained at global temperature levels above 1.5 C higher than the preindustrial baseline.)
The most recent warning came as the Japan Meteorological Agency today posted its March temperature values. In the measure, we again see a major jump in readings with the new March measure hitting a record of 1.07 C above the 20th Century average or about 1.55 C above temperatures last seen during the early 1890s. These temperatures compare to approximate 1.52 C above 1890s temperatures recorded by the same agency during February and a 1.35 C positive departure above 1890s levels during January. Averaging all these rough anomaly figures together, we find that the first three months of 2016 were about 1.47 C above the 1890s, or near 1.52 C above the IPCC 1850 to 1900 preindustrial baseline.
So for three months now, we’ve entered a harsh new world. One brought about by an atrocious captivity to fossil fuel burning. One that many scientists said it was imperative to avoid.
Due to the way the global climate system cycles, it is unlikely that the rest of 2016 will see such high global temperature marks and that the annual average will bend back from a near to, or slightly higher than, 1.5 C peak during early 2016. A La Nina appears to be on the way. And as the major driver of the cooler side of natural variability, La Nina taking hold should draw some of the sting out of these new record atmospheric temperature readings.
That said, overall ocean heat still looks quite extreme. Pacific Decadal Oscillation values hit their second highest ever monthly values during March of 2016. And a strongly positive PDO can tend to bleed a great amount of heat into the world’s airs even absent the influence of El Nino. In addition, Arctic warming this year has hit new record levels. Arctic sea ice is now at or near seasonal record low levels in most measures. Albedo is very low with many dark ice and open water regions forming throughout the Arctic Ocean. Snow cover levels are also low to record low — depending on the measure. Very early Greenland melt is already hampering the reflectivity of that great ice mass.
As summer advances, these factors may tend to continue to generate excess heat in Arctic or near Arctic regions as new dark surfaces absorb far more solar radiation than during a typical year. New evidence of increasing Arctic permafrost carbon store response may add to this potential additional heat contribution.
There is danger then, that an La Nina driven and natural variability related cooling later in the year may tend to lag — pulled back by a positive PDO and amplifying feedbacks in the Arctic. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels peaking between 407 and 409 parts per million during the months of March and April — the primary and increasingly dangerous driver of all this excess heat we are now experiencing — risk bending the upper end of that temperature threshold still higher and in ways that we probably haven’t yet completely pinned down. But the fact that March appears to have lingered near February’s record high anomaly values is cause for a bit of heightened concern. In other words, 2016 is setting up to be hot in ways that are surprising, freakish, and troubling.