It is hot and getting hotter. The evidence for global warming is growing with a long string of successive global heat records. The hottest months, the hottest seasons and the hottest years are stacking up. While individual weather records should not be confused with climate, decades of temperature data convincingly make the case for a warming world.
Hot weather forces people to acknowledge our changing climate. Unlike CO2, heat is tangible and accessible to all even those that are unfamiliar with or unmoved by the reams of climate research.
How hot can it get?
The two hottest temperatures ever recorded have occurred in recent years. Last summer, the Iranian city of Bandar Mahshahr recorded temperatures of 165 degrees (74 Celsius) when the humidity was factored in. The highest temperature ever recorded was 178 degrees (81 Celsius) and it occurred in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia on July 8, 2003.
2016 heat waves
In 2016, we have seen powerfully anomalous heat everywhere from Siberia to Greenland and Alaska. There have been deadly heat waves in Southeast Asia including Thailand and India. This year, sections of north-west India recorded temperatures of 51 C (123.8 F), this is the highest temperature ever recorded in the country. Last year, thousands of people died in India because of heat waves.
Excruciating heat is not only an issue in places like Iran and India. The U.S. has seen its share of extreme heat in 2016. Even before the start of the summer, heat records were being broken in many parts of the country including Columbia, Missouri, and Iowa. The Southwest and Midwest suffered from an unprecedented heat dome. In mid-June, 20 percent of the American population were under the heat dome and in Arizona, Nevada, and California temperatures approached 120 Fahrenheit.
As explained in a recentGlobal Warming is Real post:
"The evidence is piling up that global warming has likely intensified heat waves in recent decades. And [this] fits squarely into this emerging storyline." The post goes on to quote Ryan Maue, a meteorologist at WeatherBell Analytics, who found that these "extremely intense heat domes have become more frequent in recent decades."
Monthly heat records
In 2014, we broke a number of monthly heat records including a particularly hot period between August and October. In 2015, the months of April, May, June, July, September, October, November and December all broke records. In 2016, we have broken records in January, February, March, April, May and now June.* We have seen 14 consecutive months of record-breaking heat. We have not seen below average temperatures in 371 consecutive months.
As explained in a Huffington Post article:
"The last time the global monthly temperature was below average was February 1985. That means if you are 30 years old or younger, there has not been a single month in your entire life that was colder than average."
Departures from the mean
What made April's record heat stand out was the fact that it broke the previous monthly temperature record by the largest margin in known history. According to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), May 2016 was the warmest such month on record for the planet. May was also another month when the temperature departed from the mean by a large margin. This makes four consecutive months that the monthly record has been broken by the largest margins ever. The increasing monthly departure from the mean clearly suggests accelerated warming. The rate of warming is now occurring twice as fast as it did at the end of the 70s.
As reported in the Guardian, Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of New South Wales in Australia, "The interesting thing is the scale at which we’re breaking records. It’s clearly all heading in the wrong direction."
Nowhere is the temperature increase more pronounced than at the poles, especially the Arctic. The high Latitude regions of the Northern Hemisphere are 2-4 C above average. This has dramatic implications for global weather patterns.
Mark Eakin, coordinator of NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch puts it this way: “It’s a completely different world we’re already living in.”
"What is even more troubling is the speed at which it is happening," Eakin added.
Last year, we had the hottest summer on record followed by the hottest fall. Christmas weather was freakishly warm. We then experienced the warmest winter on record and the period between December and February saw temperatures that were five degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average. We also had the warmest spring on record and the summer of 2016 is starting like the start of the summer of 2015 with waves of extreme heat. We can expect another scorcher this summer. According to forecasts from NOAA, the heat is going to make this another summer to remember. Temperatures are expected to soar well above average this summer.
Annual heat records
Things get really interesting scientifically speaking when we start to look at annual temperature data. While 2015 broke the average global heat record set in 2014, 2016 promises to be even warmer. Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says that 2016 will be the hottest year on record with near 100 percent certainty. This will be the third consecutive year that we have broken heat records. All but one of the warmest years on record have occurred in the 21st century. We have recorded more than three decades of above average temperatures.
Staying within 1.5C in doubt
We are already 1C above 20th Century averages and, by the end of 2016, we will be around 1.2 C above 1880s averages. This is only .3 C away from the upper threshold limit of 1.5°C (3°F) set at COP21 and is certainly an alarming statistic.
David Carlson, director of the World Climate Research Programme, has said the trend is “much cause for alarm.”
Pitmans is doubtful that we can stay within the 1.5C upper threshold limit set in Paris.
“The 1.5C 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 2C,” he said.
Why fear a little heat
We should be concerned about extreme heat as it wreaks havoc with ecosystems around the world. It has a range of impacts from power outages due to excessive energy demand, to drying up waterways and exacerbating droughts. It also kills people, crops, and livestock.
We are already seeing the impacts of a warmer world in a number of ways, from more coastal flooding to earlier wildfires and unprecedented coral die-offs. The Guardian reports that recent research indicates recent bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef was made 175 times more likely because of climate change.
The weather is clearly more unstable today than it was prior to the industrial revolution. We need to appreciate that the food we depend on for our survival is made possible by stable weather.
Extreme heat is an immediate existential threat. According to a recent study, annual heat-related deaths in New York City could soar by more than 500 percent by the 2080s. Already more than 600 people die from heat-related causes each year in New York City. That number could skyrocket to 3,331 per year by the end of the century. This mirrors expectations for other cities.
A diminishing El Niño and a developing La Niña may attenuate warming somewhat, however, the overall trend warrants our urgent attention. The levels of heat we are experiencing are unrivalled in the climate record. Although the situation is dire, Michael Mann tells Huffington Post there is still time to reverse our perilous trajectory. “There is still time to act to reduce carbon emissions to avoid truly dangerous warming of the planet,” he said.
"All of these record breaking temperatures and attendant implications that we have had, such as record-breaking fires, for example, and droughts in India, are all reminders that we cannot afford to do anything except to accelerate the solution agenda - we absolutely have no other option but to accelerate."
We know that higher atmospheric concentrations of GHGs are the cause of the warming. We also know that fossil fuels are the primary source of GHGs. So the answer to the serious and worsening crisis is obvious. We must eradicate the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.
* At the time of writing this article it is not clear whether June will be the hottest or the second hottest such month on record.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: Jan, courtesy flickr