May was Earth's warmest on record, NOAA says. Will 2014 set a record, too?

According to NOAA, the average global temperature this May was 59.93 degrees F., 1.33 degrees above the 20th century average and .09 degrees above May 2010.

Mike Hutmacher/AP
A field of corn withers under triple-degree heat north of Wichita, Kan., in Sedgwick County Monday, July 16, 2012.

While temperatures across the United States in May were unimpressive, it was a different story altogether for the entire planet, which experienced its warmest May since records began in 1880 and could be headed to its warmest year ever, climate scientists say.

According to the latest report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), released on Monday, the average global temperature this May was 59.93 degrees F., 1.33 degrees above the 20th century average. This breaks the previous record, set in 2010, by 0.09 degrees.

In the US, May was only the 32nd warmest in history, though various locations were significantly warmer. Alaska, for instance, experienced its sixth warmest May on record.

Internationally, much of Australia saw its hottest May since national records began in 1910, as did South Korea, Norway, and parts of Kazakhstan and Siberia.

Worldwide, NOAA also recorded extremes in precipitation patterns in May. NOAA noted that 37.3 percent of the contiguous United States was still suffering from drought, which helped “fuel several large wildfires” and “deteriorating conditions” across much of the West. Parts of northern South America also suffered a dry spell, with areas of Colombia and Venezuela experiencing their driest May ever.

Though parts of Norway and Austria saw record rainfall, snow and ice was fleeting. The extent of Arctic Sea ice was at its third smallest on record, and Eurasian and Northern Hemispheric snow cover at its sixth smallest.

NOAA says that much of May’s heat was concentrated on ocean surfaces, which were 1.06 degrees F. above the 20th century average, and scientists say that a developing El Niño meteorological pattern — which brings warm water to the surface of the eastern Pacific Ocean — could make 2014 a record-breaking year.

“I agree that 2014 could well be the warmest on record, and/or 2015, depending on how things play out,” said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., to the Weather Channel.

John Christy, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, agreed, asserting last week that the El Niño pattern could break previous records for the greatest monthly deviations from mean temperatures.

“That isn't to say it will, but even an average-sized warming event will have a chance to get close to that level,” he was quoted as saying in a press release.

The last time that May temperatures were below average for the post-1880 period was in 1976, during the presidency of Gerald Ford. The five warmest Mays have all occurred in the past 16 years, though all seasons have been anomalously warm as of late: May 2014 was the 351st consecutive month above 20th century averages.

The recent NOAA report confirms two studies that came out last week, which said that May was the hottest on record – one by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and another by the Japanese Meteorological Agency.

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