This year is set to be the hottest year since records began in Victorian times, with average global temperatures beating those of 2015, the last record-breaking year, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
The global weather monitoring body released preliminary figures for January to September 2016 to coincide with United Nations (UN) climate talks in Marrakech, Morocco, which continue this week.
Average temperatures this year will have hit 1.2°C above pre-industrial times, less than a third of a degree away from the high-ambition global warming limit agreed at UN talks in Paris last year.
The researchers say that a particularly strong El Niño weather event has helped kick up the temperatures for both this year and 2015, but this sits atop underlying warming resulting from the human-caused release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They assess the El Niño contribution to this year’s result as about two tenths of a degree (0.2°C), with the rest a product of anthropogenic actions.
The first nine months of this year were 0.88°C above the average for the 1961-90 period that the WMO uses as its baseline. All of 2015 was 0.77°C above that reference point.
But such globally averaged temperature changes can mask the much greater increases that are being experienced regionally, particularly areas in the Eurasian and North American far north. Temperatures in many Arctic and sub-Arctic regions in northwestern Canada, Alaska, and Russia were more than 3°C above the baseline, and in some parts of Arctic Russia, they hit 6-7°C above this same long-term average.
“Because of climate change, the occurrence and impact of extreme events has risen. ‘Once in a generation’ heat waves and flooding are becoming more regular,” said WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas. “Sea level rise has increased exposure to storm surges associated with tropical cyclones,” he said.
Some of the heat waves he mentioned are themselves setting fresh records, getting close to temperatures that are beyond the ability of humans to survive for long. In the Indian city of Phalodi, temperatures hit 51°C on 19 May, a fresh record for the subcontinent. Mitribah in Kuwait hit a blistering 54°C on 21 July, which pending confirmation by the WMO would have been the highest temperature ever recorded in Asia and may be the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth. The next day, Basra in Iraq hit 53.9°C, which the WMO expects to be confirmed as the second highest temperature ever recorded on the planet, while Delhoran in Iran hit 53°C on the same day.
The WMO also highlighted how temperatures have been above normal over most ocean areas, contributing to the bleaching of coral reefs. The loss of reefs not only undermines fisheries but also shoreline protection against damage from waves and tropical storms—phenomena we expect to see more of as the climate changes.
It should be noted however that even if humanity were to halt all emissions tomorrow, the planet would still be on an upward temperator some time as it takes about 40 years for the earth system to respond to the CO2 we emit. We have not yet seen the full rise in temperature that will occur as a result of the CO2 we have already emitted.
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