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Current record-shattering temperatures are shocking even to climate scientists

Posted on 21 March 2016 by dana1981

“Stunning,” “wow,” “shocker,” “bombshell,” “astronomical,” “insane,”“unprecedented”– these are some of the words climate scientists have used to describe the record-shattering global surface temperatures in February 2016.


NASA GISS global monthly (red) and 12-month average (blue) surface temperatures as compared to pre-industrial temperatures. Illustration: Dana Nuccitelli

It’s difficult to see any ‘pause’ or slowdown in the global warming over the past 50 years.

To put the current temperatures into context, prior to last October, monthly global surface temperatures had not been more than 0.96°C hotter than the 1951–1980 average, according to Nasa. The past 5 months have been 1.06°C, 1.03°C, 1.10°C, 1.14°C, and 1.35°C hotter than that average, absolutely destroying previous records. Estimates from Noaa are in broad agreement with those from Nasa.

Right now, the Earth’s average surface temperature is hotter than it’s been in thousands of years; potentially even longer.

How much of a role is El Niño playing?

We’re currently at the peak of a very strong El Niño event, which has brought warm water up to the ocean surface. That’s certainly played a major role in the current record-breaking temperatures. The hottest years are almost invariably years with El Niño events, although 2014 was the first year in decades to set a temperature record without an El Niño.

However, the past 6 months have been 0.43°C hotter than the corresponding months in 1997–1998. So clearly, while El Niño is a big contributor to the current record-shattering temperatures, human-caused global warming is playing a major role as well. Climate scientist Michael Mann attributed the record to approximately 50% human influences, and 50% a combination of El Niño and natural weather fluctuations.

Are temperatures approaching dangerous levels?

Last December, 195 countries signed the COP21 international climate agreement in Paris. Graham Readfearn summarized the agreement for The Guardian:

The guts of the agreement hang off the so-called “long-term goal” that commits almost 200 countries to hold the global average temperature to “well below 2°C” above pre-industrial levels and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”.

Depending on how exactly we define “pre-industrial,” February temperatures were between 1.5 and 2°C hotter than those in pre-industrial times. So, we’re already starting to tread on thin ice, in the range that the global community has deemed dangerously hot.

However, since we’re at the peak of an El Niño, as they did after 1998, global surface temperatures will temporarily go back down once this event is over. That is, until human-caused global warming pushes them up to and beyond these temperatures once again in the near future. As climate scientists Steve Sherwood and Stefan Rahmstorf wrote,

This is the true climate emergency: it is getting more difficult with each passing year for humanity to prevent temperatures from rising above 2?. February should remind us how pressing the situation is.

A glimpse at the consequences of global warming

In the meantime, we’re getting a glimpse at the future climate consequences of our carbon pollution. Just to name a few, Africa is being battered by heat and drought, with more than 36 million people facing hunger across the southern and eastern parts of the continent as a result. Droughts in Vietnam and Zimbabwe have cost these countries 4% and 12% of their GDP, respectively. Arctic ice is in poor shape as a result of the region’s warmest-recorded winter. Australia has been breaking heat records as well, with 39 consecutive days in Sydney above 26? (double the previous record). And a massive coral bleaching event appears likely on the Great Barrier Reef.

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Comments 1 to 14:

  1. So when climate scientists and policy makers say the target beyond which we are likely to see more worrisome effects is +2°C, what is that in relation to?  I had thought it was the 20th century average.  So if NASA reports we are +1.35C relative to 1951-1980, doesn't that mean we are even higher relative to the other baseline?  Regardless, it is more a semantic question than anything.

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  2. Of course on closer reading I missed the answer to my question.  Sorry.

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  3. A coral bleaching event on the GBR isn't just likely, it has started. The question now is whether the term 'massive' will apply.

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  4. Knaugle - still, you raise an excellent point, imo. The various baselines (1951-1980, 1981-2010, etc.) do a great disservice to getting the idea of 'total warming' across. The total warming, including all the intentions set in Paris, are keying of a pre-industrial baseline which is, of course, lower than ANY of the later ones. I'm sure, to the average person, a reportage of, say, 1.35C above 1951-1980 appears as a "total warming" of 1.35C. But, as this article points out, it is much worse than that. Frustrating.

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  5. Coral Bleaching takes only a few months to be a harbinger of bad!

    Market forces will react if necessary!!

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  6. dagold, the problem is that we have a much clearer picture of the, for example, 1951-1980 baseline, than we do of the 'pre-industrial' value... especially given that 'pre-industrial' itself is an inexact term.

    Given that 'pre-industrial' in this case really means 'before atmospheric CO2 levels started climbing rapidly' I'd think that would be the place to start. Between 1800 and 1850 atmospheric CO2 went from ~280 ppm to ~288 ppm. That's actually a fairly rapid increase rate in comparison to past events, but nothing compared to the rate since 1850. Thus, that time period or a little earlier would seem to be the proper baseline. Unfortunately, our instrumental temperature record prior to 1850 is extremeley limited. That time also happens to coincide with the 'little ice age', when there was some degree of cooling (particularly in NW Europe where most of the few temperature records we do have were taken) likely due to low solar output and/or vulcanism. Hence the difficulty of getting a clear 'pre-industrial baseline'.

    Still, I agree. The various climate summits should long ago have settled on some reasonable standard estimate for the 'pre-industrial' temperature. Without that, the 'limits' they seek to avoid cannot even be computed... by a few outlier accountings, 1.5 C had already come and gone before the Paris pledge to try to avoid it.

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  7. I think that the current surface temperature spike that has been caused by AGW and a strong El Nino is an opportunity for the scientific community to convince many people here in the U.S. that climate change is a real threat. However, caution is required due to the probability that surface temps over the next few years will be somewhat lower than 2015-2016. Scientists and activists should use this time of heightened interest and awareness to explain to the general public the importance of ocean warming and overall heat content.

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  8. bozzza@5,

    I am skeptical of the marketplace 'reacting to any developing better understanding of what is required to advance all of humanity to a lasting better future'.

    The way the 'marketplace' has reacted to the better understanding of the unacceptability of already fortunate people continuing to get benefit from the burning of fossil fuels is clear proof that the 'current popular and profitable for some' marketplace driven by popularity and profitability is in many cases a destructive barrier to the advancement of humanity.

    The biggest problem is clearly the way that misleading marketing can promote less acceptable action plans that are 'temporarily' more profitable and rewarding for a portion of the entirety of humanity (the entirety includes future humans) for as long as they can be gotten away with.

    Less acceptable is almost always quicker and cheaper (or less acceptable choices like pursuing violent actions like invasion or promoting rebellion in other regions being potentially more successful actions). Therefore, the most profitable and popular activity 'winning in the marketplace' is likely to be the least acceptable activity that can be gotten away with. And misleading marketing is a proven significant factor in prolonging and even expanding activity that can be understood to not be advancing humanity to a lasting better future for all on this or any other amazing planet (political misleading marketing clearly being potentially more damaging than commercial misleading marketing, but commercial misleading marketing paired with misleading political marketing being clearly being the greatest weapon of mass destruction ever created).

    Humanity's only real future is through figuring out how all of humanity can live decently as sustainable parts of the robust diversity of life. Humans trying to thrive or survive solely through technological advancement succeeding in the marketplace of popularity and profitability clearly have no future.

    Faith in the 'marketplace' advancing humanity to a sustainable better future is obviously misplaced, especially when misleading marketing promoting self-interest can succeed in drumming up popular support against the advancement of humanity.

    The global warming case is only one of many clear cases of the obvious fatal failings of the 'fabled invisible-handed marketplace drive by self-interested and likely misleading pursuers of what they want to get away with' that is promoted as something that must be revered, something that can never be questioned no matter how much evidence there is proving that believing in it is foolish.

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  9. Recommended supplemental reading:

    The Next Great Global Warming ‘Hiatus’ Is Coming! by Ethan Siegel, Starts with a Bang, Forbes, Mar 16, 2016

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  10. Tamino has a take on this. Surprising, but not shocking.

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  11. @ 8,


    Markets are meant to be robust. All markets are governed and a coral bleaching event of sustained significance will change the intervened free-hand one way or the other.

    Richie Rich provides what is needed: his enterprise is rewarded but always collared!

    The stock market may look anarchic but like any gambling event there are players in charge!

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  12. bozzza@11,

    There is ample evidence supporting my explanation of what is going on in marketplaces. Your claim and faith in the marketplace appears to only be a preferred belief, lacking actual proof.

    In most cases a potentailly beneficial development that people attempt to claim is due to market action, is actually the result of government intervention which regrettably usually only happens when the damaging failure of the marketplace to actually advance humanity has become too massive to excuse or ignore.

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  13. bozzza @11,

    I am not sure of your life learning, but I am an Engineer with an MBA who has been living in Alberta and observing the political and business activity in and from that region for decades.

    The following is another way of presenting my comment @12:

    It would be far easier to find and present a case studies showing that the free actions of players in the marketplace (and their ability to get political leadership to allow and support less acceptable pursuits of benefit and reward) have been barriers to the advancement of humanity (advancing humanity to a lasting better future for all as sustainable parts of the robust diversity of life on this amazing planet), than it would be to present a case study that supports the theory that the free action of players in the marketplace (of popularity and profitability) has developed a lasting advancement of humanity.

    However, it would be possible to develop a case study in support of the theory that the free action of players in the marketplace (of popularity and profitability) has developed a lasting advancement of humanity. And the following would need to be done to develop and most effectively present that case study:

    - Try to redefine the measure of success to be some less relevant “Measure of growth of something that seems like improvement, even if it could be fundamentally unsustainable or would mask inequity like 'Total Wealth or GDP'.
    - Seek out an example to present as the case proving the point. It would still be challenging to find a good case to support the claim that the free actions of people resulted in achieving the less relevant definition of advancement (in many cases government regulation and enforcement contrary to the desires of players in the marketplace actually led to the result). It would be very difficult to find a case that could prove such actions resulted in a truly lasting advancement of humanity.
    - The chosen case study would require some message massaging to create the appearance that it was truly a lasting advancement of humanity and had been the result of players in the marketplace being free to do as they please. And to improve the 'selling success' of the message it would probably include some points to trigger a temptation for self-interest such as greed and try to discredit anyone who would present a contradicting claim.
    - A person whose credentials appear to indicate they would be an expert in the field would need to be selected to 'pitch' the case study to reduce the number of people who would question and further investigate the validity of claim.
    - And all of the above wold need to be done while deliberately ignoring or excusing all the other information encountered that contradicts the case that is attempting to be made.

    That sequence of actions should be familiar. They are very similar to the actions required to most successfully argue against the developing better understanding of climate science and the resulting need for already more fortunate people to be stopped from “freely choosing to fight to get away with getting more reward and benefit from the burning of fossil fuels”.

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  14. Hey all: I just had this article publsished - "Condemning Our Grandchildren to a Real-life Video Game" - that seeks to place the recent global temp data intoa context that is a bit more "entertaining" than the typical climate article:

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