'Hottest month' records don't always matter – but February 2016 does

Monthly temperature records aren't necessarily important, climate researchers say, but the month-to-month, year-to-year trend is deeply troubling. 

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
A woman enjoys unseasonably warm weather under an early-flowering cherry tree at the Dia Beacon art museum in Beacon, NY, in January 2016. February 2016 was the warmest seasonally-adjusted month in recorded weather history, according to data released by NASA.

February 2016 has now entered the climate hall of fame, or shame.

Not only was it the hottest February on record, but it showed the biggest spike in temperature since scientists starting keeping track more than a century ago, according to NASA data.

On Saturday, the Administration's Goddard Institute for Space Studies released a report showing February 2016 to be not just the hottest February on record, but the hottest seasonally-adjusted month since 1880. 

In other words, NASA tracks not only monthly temperatures, but how they compare to that month's long-term average, and February showed the biggest deviation from any month's average in all 136 years of climate records.

Average temperatures last month soared 1.35° C, or 2.43° F, past February's long-term average, as measured between 1951 and 1980. In January 2016, which set the short-lived previous record, average temperatures were 1.14° C above the month's baseline. The previous record for February was 1998, when average temps were 0.88° C above baseline. 

The all-time absolute hottest month on record was July 2015, which at 16.61° C (61.86°F) was "only" 0.73° C above July's baseline average.

2015 went on to become the warmest year in recorded history, but many scientists think 2016 is already well on its way to taking that prize.

Until October 2015, no month had ever varied more than 1° C from the 1951-1980 average. The coldest months were less than one degree colder than average, and the hottest months were less than one degree hotter.

But every month since then has shattered that threshhold: October 2015 was 1.06° C above average, November was 1.03° C above, then 1.10° C in December, 1.14° C in January, and now 1.35° C in February.

In December, governments at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (or COP21) pledged to take strong measures to stave off more than a 2° C hike. 

The trend is bigger than a few hot months, or even a record-hot year.

"There’s nothing magical about a calendar year," said Deke Arndt, chief of the monitoring branch of the National Centers for Environmental Information at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to Discover Magazine:

We (myself included) really, really overdo the cook-off comparisons of one year versus another.... But the fact is, we’ve been setting a new 'warmest 12 month stretch in recorded history' record almost every month for the past year. That’s the story, scientifically. 

The monthly rise above baseline average may dip down again this spring, as the El Niño-fueled ocean warming that helped create higher temps falls off; the phenomenon also drove drought and ensuing forest fires this year, pushing up CO2 levels as well, according to Weather Underground.

But the huge difference between February 1998 and February 2016's record-breaking temperatures, despite both being El Niño years, is just one reason climate scientists believe the long-term trend is clear: global warming, not just storm systems, played a role.

But storms are a major reason to worry about the impact of climate change, particularly in the world's poorest countries, which pushed at the COP21 conference for a temp-raising limit of 1.5° C. Disasters as diverse as drought in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia; cyclones in the Pacific; and rising coastal waters have all been linked to warming temperatures, and the hardest-hit nations, which tend to emit fewer greenhouse gases, often lack the resources to adjust. Developed countries at COP21 pledged $100 billion per year by 2020 to help.

Of course, some up and down fluctuations in global temperature are normal. "We have had 10,000 fairly warm, fairly boring years, with little wiggles caused by the sun getting brighter or dimmer, and wiggles caused by volcanoes exploding and blocking the sun with dust for a couple years," Penn State University geoscience professor Richard Alley told NPR at the end of the climate conference.

The problem is that we're not wiggling anymore. Since the 1880s, global temperatures have already risen about 1° C. This February, in comparison, was 1.35° C above the monthly average from just 1951-1980, when the impact of global warming was already in play. It was more than 1.6° C warmer than the average temperatures between 1880 and 1900.

"This result is a true shocker, and yet another reminder of the incessant long-term rise in global temperature resulting from human-produced greenhouse gases," Jeffrey Masters and climate journalist Bob Henson wrote at Weather Underground. "We are now hurtling at a frightening pace toward the globally agreed maximum of 2.0° C warming over pre-industrial levels."

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