Global temperatures leapt in February, lifting warming from pre-industrial levels to beyond 1.5 degrees, and stoking concerns about a “climate emergency”. NASA this weekend released new data which shows that February 2016 was not only the hottest in recorded history, but it soared past all previous records, prompting scientists to describe the announcement as “an ominous milestone in our march toward an ever-warmer planet.”
The average global surface temperature for February was 1.35°C warmer than the global average for the month between 1951-1980—a margin that shattered the previous record of 1.14°C, which was set just one month earlier—and exceeded preliminary figures released earlier this month.
“NASA dropped a bombshell of a climate report,” wrote meteorologists Bob Henson and Dr. Jeff Masters, founder of the Weather Underground. “February 2016 has soared past all rivals as the warmest seasonally adjusted month in more than a century of global recordkeeping.”
February’s new temperature record beat that set in January 2016 by a full 0.21°C, which Masters and Henson described as “an extraordinary margin.”
Scientists are normally wary of highlighting a single month’s temperature spike, particularly in an El Niño cycle. However, this record bests even the one set during the “super” El Niño of February 1998 by 0.47°C.
Stefan Rahmstorf, from Germany’s Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research and a visiting professorial fellow at the University of New South Wales, told the Sydney Morning Herald that the new figures are “quite stunning … it’s completely unprecedented.”
And given the increasing concentration of carbon in the global atmosphere, which is driving higher long-term temperature increases as well as other extreme weather events, the string of monthly records is a foreboding sign.
Henson and Masters explain:
The real significance of the February record is in its departure from the seasonal norms that people, plants, animals, and the Earth system are accustomed to dealing with at a given time of year. Drawing from NASA’s graph of long-term temperature trends, if we add 0.2°C as a conservative estimate of the amount of human-produced warming that occurred between the late 1800s and 1951-1980, then the February result winds up at 1.55°C above average. If we use 0.4°C as a higher-end estimate, then February sits at 1.75°C above average. Either way, 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.
They conclude, “we are now hurtling at a frightening pace toward the globally agreed maximum of 2.0°C warming over pre-industrial levels.”
“We are in a kind of climate emergency now,” Professor Rahmstorf said, noting that global carbon dioxide levels last year rose by a record rate of more than 3 parts per million.
“Governments have promised to act [to curb greenhouse gas emissions] and they need to do better than what they promised in Paris” at the global climate summit last December, he said.
Australia has not dodged the heat, either, with record national temperatures falling at the start of March, the Bureau of Meteorology said in a special climate statement.
The most northerly latitudes of the planet were the most abnormally hot regions in February, with large areas reporting temperatures 12 degrees or warmer than average, the NASA data shows.
The unusual heat in the far north means the Arctic sea ice will be thinner and more vulnerable to melting as the region heads into the warmer months, Professor Rahmstorf said. Arctic sea ice is already at its smallest extent for this time of year on record. The relatively warm seas are contributing to a warmer atmosphere, reinforcing the long-term trend.
As the Wunderground blog noted, the impacts of the unusual global heat have been felt far and wide, including in severe droughts in Vietnam and Zimbabwe.
Fiji, meanwhile, continues work to recover from Cyclone Winston, the most powerful storm recorded in the southern hemisphere.
“[This warming] is not harmless,” Professor Rahmstorf said. “It has quite a negative impact on society and the biosphere.”
While February’s global heat spike is unlikely to be sustained as the El Nino winds down, the latest indicators “are all symptoms of the general warming trend”, he said.
The Japan Meteorological Agency has confirmed NASA’s reading of a surge in global temperatures in February.
According to the JMA, the global average surface temperature in February was 0.62 degrees above the 1981-2010 average and 1.04 degrees above the 20th century average, and was the warmest since records began in 1891.
Last month’s anomaly far exceeded the previous largest deviation for the month – set in 1998 – which came in at 0.43 degrees.