2016 was the world’s hottest year since record keeping began, according to data released by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday. And fresh data from British Columbia shows that a new record has also been set provincially—a result that may surprise some, given that last year didn’t give the appearance of being exceptionally hot.
Last year might not have felt like a record year for temperatures in BC. Dry winter conditions in the northeast and a low snow pack lead to the forest fire season kicking off early, and in neighbouring Alberta, the city of Fort McMurray succumbed to a devastating wildfire in May—but the fires abated in June. And unlike 2015’s destructive forest fires and blistering summer heatwaves, the spring and summer of 2016 were quite wet. Then right at the end of the year, much of BC, and indeed the country, was suffering from a cold snap resulting from an Arctic air mass.
But fresh analysis from researchers with PICS’ sister institute, the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium out this week has confirmed that 2016 was indeed the hottest on record, and the second record-setting year in a row.
They attribute the anomaly to a combination of El Niño and anthropogenic global warming. Even though 2016 saw a transition from El Niño to La Niña conditions, which typically signal a cooling for BC, the province still experienced a record year.
The 2016 record amounts to a tiny margin over 2015’s record temperatures. The difference between the two years is so small—about a tenth of one degree—that it actually lies within the margin of error, placing them in a statistical tie.
But if 2016 didn’t really feel like a particularly hot year, what happened that allowed it to break the previous year’s record?
The researchers gathered temperature and precipitation data from BC Hydro, BC provincial ministries and Environment Canada to compare monthly and seasonal averages from 1900-2016 against the long-term average of the period 1971-2000. This was then broken down for different smaller ecological regions within BC that the researchers term ‘eco-provinces’, looking at the average minimum daily temperature and the average maximum daily temperature.
They found that the daily maxima were slightly hotter than normal, but nothing special. Indeed, in midsummer, daily max temperatures in the southeast were actually below normal. It was the daily minima that were exceptional, outweighing the only slightly hotter-than-normal daily maxima to squeeze the year into the record books.
The researchers explain that this was due to much cloudier conditions throughout the year. Daytime clouds lower the temperature because not as much radiation from the sun is able to reach the ground. But at night, clouds trap some of the heat radiating back from the earth, preventing it from heading back out into space. Indeed, the researchers conclude that very warm nights due to such cloudiness were a large part the reason for 2016’s record-setting temperatures.
Meanwhile the new global record set by 2016 was the world’s third consecutive year of record surface temperature rises.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.