Record-breaking April temperatures mark a 'climate emergency'

El Niño combined with already rising global temperatures to make April the latest of several 'hottest ever' months, according to NASA data. 2016 will likely be the hottest year on record.

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
A woman sits on a bench under a flowering cherry tree blooming due to unexpectedly warming temperatures at Dia Beacon art museum in Beacon, N.Y. in January 2016. New data from NASA finds temperatures in April hit a new high for the month, continuing a string of record-breaking increases that scientists say could make 2016 the hottest year ever.

April 2016 was the hottest April on record, with rising temperatures across the globe continuing a trend that has also produced the hottest winter on record

Global temperatures from land and sea soared to 1.11 degrees Celsius warmer this April than the average temperature for Aprils between 1951 and 1980, which is commonly used as a climate benchmark, according to new data from NASA released over the weekend.

The record-breaking temperatures are being impacted by an El Niño weather event, a band of warm water across the Pacific Ocean, but climate scientists say man-made climate change is playing a large role.

The temperature increases, which scientists labeled a "climate emergency" back in February, could make 2016 the hottest year on record, possibly by the largest margin ever.

As shown visually in a widely-shared GIF by climate scientist Ed Hawkins, 2016's increases could cast doubt on the first benchmark set during the recent Paris agreement: to avoid an increase of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius beyond pre-industrial levels. 

More than 170 countries signed the agreement to cut emissions to rein in temperature increases, calling 1.5 degrees "a significantly safer defense line against the worst impacts of a changing climate" than the ultimate goal: ensuring temperatures don't exceed 2 degrees C. above those levels.

"The 1.5 C. 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 putting intense pressure on 2 C.," Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of New South Wales in Australia, told The Guardian.

Researchers have long said global warming could eventually reach these levels, Dr. Pitman notes. "The interesting thing is the scale at which we're breaking records. It's clearly all heading in the wrong direction," he adds.

The new record surpassed the previous one, set in 2010, by 0.24 degrees C. During that April, temperatures reached 0.87 degrees above the baseline average.

The increases have also had large-scale environmental impacts, from causing one quarter of the coral colonies around the world to suffer often-fatal bleaching, to making unusually powerful heat waves in Africa not the exception, but the norm.

As climate change continues to be a hotly debated political issue, some researchers have found that rather than personal appeals or trying to strike fear into Americans to spur action on environmental issues, researchers should focus on successes in the field and frame it as a collective issue.

"I think this makes perfect sense," Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication, told The Christian Science Monitor earlier this month. "The public understands that individual actions are like a drop in the ocean. If we are asking people to take action as individuals, people recognize the fallacy in this." 

Slate meteorologist Eric Holthaus believes record temperatures will continue for the next four to six months before they begin to level out, he told The Independent. But the combination of El Niño with increasing global temperatures had created a more unpredictable situation, he said.

"It's scary. I'm at the point where I don't know what will happen next," he said. "We knew an El Niño would impact things, but I don't think anyone expected this jump."

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