It’s not just that we’re seeing record global heat. It’s that 2016’s jump in global temperatures may be the biggest single-year spike ever recorded. It’s that the world may never again see annual temperatures below 1 C above preindustrial averages. And it’s that this high level of heat, and a related spiking of atmospheric greenhouse gasses due to fossil fuel emissions, is now enough to begin inflicting serious harm upon both the natural world and human civilization.
Seven Straight Months of Record Heat
Last month was the hottest April in the global climate record. Not only was it the hottest such month ever recorded — it smashed the previous record by the largest margin ever recorded. And this April has now become the seventh month in a row in an unbroken chain of record global heat.
(When graphed, this is what the hottest April on record looks like when compared to other Aprils. Note the sharp upward spike at the end of the long warming progression. Yeah, that’s for April of 2016. Image source: Dr. Stephan Rahmstorf. Data source: NASA GISS.)
According to NASA GISS, global temperatures in April were 1.11 degrees Celsius (C) hotter than its 20th Century baseline average. When compared to preindustrial readings (NASA 1880s), temperatures have globally heated by a total of +1.33 C. And that’s a really big jump in global heat, especially when one considers the context of the last seven months. When one looks at that, it appears that global temperatures are racing higher with a fearful speed.
About this raging pace of warming, Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of New South Wales in Australia recently noted in the Guardian:
“The interesting thing is the scale at which we’re breaking records. It’s clearly all heading in the wrong direction. Climate scientists have been warning about this since at least the 1980s. And it’s been bloody obvious since the 2000s.”
(Record atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, as seen in this Sunday May 15 Copernicus Observatory graphic, are the primary force driving an amazing spike in global temperatures during 2016. Image source: The Copernicus Observatory.)
Though 2016 is likely to be a record hot year, overall readings have moderated somewhat since earlier this year as El Nino has begun to fade. But that doesn’t mean we’re out of the danger zone. Quite to the contrary, we’re racing toward climate thresholds at a never-before-seen pace. And that’s really worrisome. Peak monthly readings this year hit a ridiculous +1.55 C above 1880s averages at the height of El Nino during February. And April’s current monthly record is now tied with January of 2016 in the NASA measure. In total, the first four months of 2016 now average +1.43 C above 1880s baselines or uncomfortably close to the +1.5 C mark established by scientists as the first of many increasingly dangerous climate thresholds.
“The 1.5C target, it’s wishful thinking. I don’t know if you’d get 1.5C if you stopped emissions today. There’s inertia in the system. It’s [now] putting intense pressure on 2C.”
And when mainstream scientists start to say things like that, it’s really time for the rest of us to take notice.
A Record Hot World Made by Fossil Fuel Burning and Consistent With Scientific Predictions
Looking at where the globe warmed the most, we find greatest extreme temperature departures during April were again centered over the climatologically vulnerable Arctic. Alaska, Northwest Canada, the Beaufort Sea, a huge section of Central Siberia, the West Coast of Greenland, the Laptev and Kara Seas, and a section of North Africa all experienced monthly temperatures in the range of 4 to 6.5 degrees Celsius above average. Monthly ranges that are screaming-hot. A notably larger region experienced significant heat with temperatures ranging from 2-4 C above NASA’s 20th Century baseline. Overall, almost every region of the world experienced above average readings — with the noted exceptions linked to extreme trough zones related to climate change altered weather patterns and ocean cool pools induced by warming-related glacial melt.
(NASA’s picture of a world with a severe and worsening fever during a record hot April of 2016. Image source: NASA GISS.)
These counter-trend regions include the Greenland melt zone of the North Atlantic cool pool, the trough zone over Hudson Bay, the trough zone over the Northwest Pacific, and the oceanic heat sink zone that is the stormy Southern Ocean. Observed amplification of warming in the Northern Polar Region together with formation of the North Atlantic cool pool and the activation of the heat sink zone in the Southern Ocean are all consistent with global warming related patterns predicted by climate models and resulting from human fossil fuel burning pushing atmospheric CO2 levels well above 400 parts per million during recent years.
Record Heat Spurs Unprecedented Climate Disasters
This pattern of record global heat has brought with it numerous climate change related disasters. Across the Equatorial regions of the world, drought and hunger crises have flared. These have grown particularly intense in Africa and Asia. In Africa, tens of millions of people are now on the verge of famine. In India, 330 million people are under water stress due to what is likely the worst drought that nation has ever experienced. Australia has seen 93 percent its Great Barrier Reef succumb to a heat-related coral bleaching. And since the ocean heat in that region of the world has tipped into a range that will force more and more frequent bleaching events, it’s questionable if the great reef will even survive the next few decades.
“The thing that’s causing that warming, is going up and up and up. So the cool ocean temperatures we will get with a La Niña are warmer than we’d ever seen more than a few decades ago … This is a full-scale punching of the reef system on an ongoing basis with some occasionally really nasty kicks and it isn’t going to recover.”
In Florida, ocean acidification due to fossil fuel emissions is providing its own punches and kicks to that state’s largest coastal reef. A different effect from warming, acidification is a chemical change caused by ocean waters becoming over-burdened with carbon. Kind of like a constant acid rain on the reef that causes the limestone it’s made out of to dissolve.
And if the above impacts aren’t enough to keep you awake at night, unprecedented May wildfires also forced the emptying of an entire city in Canada. Islands around the world are being swallowed by rising oceans due to ice sheet melt and thermal expansion. Cities along the US Atlantic and Gulf Coasts are experiencing ever-worsening tidal flooding events. Glacial melt in Greenland and Antarctica is accelerating. And the Arctic sea ice is so thin and melting so fast that some are questioning if any of it will survive come September.
La Nina is Coming, But it Won’t Help Much
It’s worth noting that global atmospheric temperatures will temporarily cool down from 2016 peaks as La Nina is predicted to settle in by this Fall. However, greenhouse gasses are so high and Earth’s energy balance so intense that the global ocean, ice and atmospheric system is still accumulating heat at an unprecedented rate. As La Nina kicks in, this extra heat will mostly go into the oceans and the ice as the atmosphere cools down a little — preparing for the next big push as El Nino builds once more.
(Global warming spirals toward dangerous climate thresholds. Graphic by climate scientist Ed Hawkins.)
This natural variability-based shift toward La Nina shouldn’t really be looked at as good news. A massive plume of moisture has risen off the global oceans during the current heat spike and as global temperatures cool, there’s increasing risk of very large flood events of a kind we’re not really used to. La Nina also produces drought zones — in particular over an already-suffering California — and the added warming from rising global temperatures will add to drought intensity in such regions as well.
With global temperatures predicted to hit around 1.3 C above preindustrial averages for all of 2016, it’s doubtful that the world will ever even again see one year in which temperatures fall below the 1 C climate threshold. And that means faster glacial ice melt, worsening wildfires, more disruption to growing seasons and crops, more extreme storms and rainfall events, faster rates of sea level rise, expanding drought zones, more mass casualty inducing heatwaves, expanding ranges for tropical diseases, increasing ranges for harmful invasive species, and a plethora of other problems. Over recent years, we’ve tipped the scales into dangerous climate change. And with global temperatures increasing so rapidly, we’re getting into deeper and deeper trouble.
In the end, our best hope for abating these worsening conditions is to rapidly reduce global carbon emissions to zero or net negative. Until we do that, there’s going to be a ramping scale of worsening impacts coming on down the pipe.
Hat tip to Suzanne
Hat tip to Colorado Bob
Hat tip to DT Lange