Scientists alarmed at pace of rising temperatures and the “extraordinary margin” by which records are being broken

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 earlierand 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.”

“We are in a kind of climate emergency now.”
—Stefan Rahmstorf, Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research

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.”

What is going on? Are we facing a climate emergency?  El Niño is contributing to the current spike (perhaps 20% of it), but then the warmer/warming ocean is contributing to this El Niño.  Unfortunately, we have done little about the underl ying warming. If unchecked, this will cause these breaches to happen more and more often, with a greater than 2℃ breach perhaps closer than we have thought.

February temperatures from 1880 to 2016 from NASA GISS data. Values are deviations from the base period of 1951-1980. Stefan Rahmstorf

The greenhouse gases slowly heating the Earth are still increasing in concentration. The 12-month average surpassed 400 parts per million roughly a year ago – the highest level for at least a million years. The average rose even faster in 2015 than previous years (probably also due to the El Niño, as this tends to bring drought to many parts of the globe, meaning less carbon is stored in plant growth).

Does the “spike” change our understanding of global warming? In thinking about climate change, it is important to take the long view. A predominant La Niña-like situation over recent years did not mean global warming had “stopped” as a few public figures were (and probably still are) claiming.

Likewise, a hot spike due to a major El Niño event – even though it is surprisingly hot – doesn’t mean global warming was underestimated. In the longer run the global warming trend agrees very well with longstanding predictions. But these predictions nevertheless paint a picture of a very warm future if emissions are not brought down soon.

The situation is similar to that of a serious illness like cancer: the patient usually does not get slightly worse each day, but has weeks when the family thinks he may be recovering, followed by terrible days of relapse. The doctors do not change their diagnosis each time this happens, because they know this is all a part of the disease.

Although the current El-Niño-driven spike is temporary, it will last long enough to have some severe consequences. For example, a massive coral bleaching event now appears likely on the Great Barrier Reef.

Australia has seen continually broken heat records in the past few months, including 39 straight days in Sydney above 26℃ (double the previous record). News reports seem to be focusing on the role of El Niño, but El Niño does not explain why oceans to the south of Australia, and in the Arctic, are at record high temperatures.  The other half of the story is global warming. This is boosting each successive El Niño, along with all its other effects on ice sheets and sea level, the global ecosystem and extreme weather events.

This is the true climate emergency: it is getting more difficult with each passing year for humanity to prevent temperatures from rising above 2℃. February should remind us how pressing the situation is.

Adapted from https://theconversation.com/februarys-global-temperature-spike-is-a-wake-up-call-56341