State of the climate: Not good, 2015 decimated temperature records

A new report from 450 scientists looks past broken temperature records to examine a host of indicators and effects of climate change and El Niño that were visible in 2015 – the hottest year on record.

Andres Kudacki/AP/File
Children play as they cool down in a fountain beside the Manzanares river in Madrid, Spain, in June 2015. Earth’s temperatures got worse last year, breaking dozens of climate records, say 450 international scientists in an annual report.

Recent months have left climate and temperature records decimated. The news that 2015 was the hottest year on record was followed by month after month carrying that trend forward: The first six months of 2016 have now been the hottest recorded.

Symbolic milestones have also been reached – the carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have surpassed the alarming 400 parts per million and the average global threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels has been broached, although not permanently.

Following up on announcements about the record-breaking heat, which is augmented by this year’s El Niño weather phenomenon, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report Tuesday with details about 50 different markers pointing to the tangible consequences of the heating planet in 2015.

The report, which was written by about 450 scientists from around the globe, also names a central proponent to these effects: the levels of heat-trapping gasses carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide hit record highs last year.

The tangible markers that the report focuses on include groundwater storage (now at a global low), drought (which last year covered a third of the Earth), and extreme weather (15 more cyclones worldwide than the yearly average), the report said. Then there were the heat waves, which killed thousands in India and Pakistan alone.

"There is really only one word for this parade of shattered climate records: grim," Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb, who wasn't part of the report, told the Associated Press.

Scientists say that these phenomena are the combined effects of climate change and El Niño, which brings unusually warm water into the Pacific Ocean and affects weather patterns.

"Last year's El Niño was a clear reminder of how short-term events can amplify the relative influence and impacts stemming from longer-term global warming trends," said Thomas Karl, director of the NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information. The report, he said, shows that "that 2015's climate was shaped both by long-term change and an El Niño event."

The scientists working on the report, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, also found that the amount of energy absorbed by the ocean was also a a record high. This "ocean heat content" is directly related to greenhouse gasses. Roughly 93 percent of the heat energy trapped by greenhouse gases – such as carbon dioxide from the burning of coal, oil, and gas – goes directly into the ocean, the report said. Both in the ocean's depths and at the surface this marker was record high.

The tangible implications of a hotter ocean and climate include severe melting of the Artic sea ice and glaciers, the resulting highest sea levels on record, dangerous algae blooms, and species instability for marine mammals and birds.

The report, which delved deeper into what the cross-milestone and broken records mean, serves to underline a point articulated by NOAA climate scientist Jessica Blunden, co-editor of the report, who said: "This impacts people. This is real life."

Material from the Associated Press and Reuters were used in this report.

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