Energy/Environment First Look

Last year was the warmest year on record – for the third time in a row

Last year was the third year in a row to shatter global heat records, a trend that scientists say shows 'big changes' are already underway.

A woman cools herself on a hot summer day in Hyderabad, in the southern Indian state of Telangana. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that 2016 passed 2015 as the hottest year on record.
Mahesh Kumar A./AP/File | Caption

After 12 months of heat waves, wildfires, and severe storms around the world, it’s official: 2016 was the warmest year on record.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced Wednesday that Earth’s average surface temperature last year was 58.69 degrees F., the highest since worldwide record-keeping began in 1880. This also makes 2016 the third year of record-setting warmth in a row, a finding that NASA confirmed using a different method.

In scientists’ view, this three-in-a-row trend makes the 2016 data especially significant. Years of record warmth were once anomalies. Now, many argue, they signal a shift: Human burning of fossil fuels is pushing Earth’s climate into warmer territory.

“A single warm year is something of a curiosity,” Deke Arndt, NOAA’s chief of global climate monitoring, told The New York Times. “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.”

Scientists attribute these “big changes” primarily to human emissions of greenhouse gases. Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, says that 12 percent of last year’s record heat was caused by the cyclical El Niño phenomenon, while the rest likely originated with burning of fossil fuels.

A warmer climate made itself felt worldwide last year. According to Dr. Schmidt, the Arctic stayed “enormously warm.” Near the Equator, India set a temperature record on May 19, with the town of Phalodi reaching a sweltering 123.8 degrees Fahrenheit, according to The New York Times.

In addition to higher temperatures, 2016 saw several natural disasters, ranging from wildfires in Alberta, Canada, to hurricane Matthew in the Caribbean, that scientists predict will become more common as the atmosphere retains more heat.

Rising temperatures are also taking their toll on the world’s oceans. In September, The Christian Science Monitor reported:

“The ocean has played a disproportionate role in mitigating the effects of human caused climate change, but increasingly extreme storms, bleaching coral, and massive fish die-offs are indications that the oceans can't take much more.”

The latest bleak news on climate change comes three months after the Paris Climate Accord, in which 125 nations agreed to lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, went into effect.

Last May, when early temperature data suggested that 2016 was on track to break another round of global temperatures, the Monitor reported that current warming trends could make it difficult to avoid hitting that 1.5-degree mark.

Many observers argue that the degree to which the climate warms in coming decades depends on political will to limit greenhouse gas emissions. With Donald Trump, an outspoken skeptic of climate change, about to take office as US president, some see little leadership on climate change for the next four years.

But other observers predict that even President-elect Trump will soon feel the heat. Mark Maslin, professor of climatology at University College London, told Reuters that “the hottest year on record is such a clear warning siren that even President-elect Trump cannot ignore.”

This article contains reported material from the Associated Press.