Marking another milestone for a changing planet, scientists reported on Wednesday that the Earth reached its highest temperature on record in 2016 — trouncing a record set only a year earlier, which beat one set in 2014. It is the first time in the modern era of global warming data that temperatures have blown past the previous record three years in a row.
The findings come two days before the inauguration of an American president who has called global warming a Chinese plot and vowed to roll back his predecessor’s efforts to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases.
The data show that politicians cannot wish the problem away. The Earth is heating up, a point long beyond serious scientific dispute, but one becoming more evident as the records keep falling. Temperatures are heading toward levels that many experts believe will pose a profound threat to both the natural world and to human civilization.
In 2015 and 2016, the planetary warming was intensified by the weather pattern known as El Niño, in which the Pacific Ocean released a huge burst of energy and water vapor into the atmosphere. But the bigger factor in setting the records was the long-term trend of rising temperature, which scientists say is being driven by increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
The good news is with El Nino over, 2017 will probably not be a global record-breaker. But there are still major problems in the Arctic.
Even at current temperatures, billions of tons of land ice are melting or sliding into the ocean. The sea is also absorbing most of the heat trapped by human emissions. Those factors are causing the ocean to rise at what appears to be an accelerating pace, and coastal communities in the United States are spending billions of dollars to fight increased tidal flooding. Their pleas for help from Congress have largely been ignored.
The finding that a record had been set for the third year in a row was released on Wednesday by three government agencies, two American and one British, that track measurements made by ships, buoys and land-based weather stations. They analyze the figures to correct for known problems, producing an annual average temperature for the surface of the Earth. The national meteorological agency of Japan also confirmed the findings in a preliminary analysis.
The findings about a record-warm year were also confirmed by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, a nonprofit California group set up to provide a temperature analysis independent of governments. That group, however, did not find that three records had been set in a row; in its analysis, 2010 was slightly warmer than 2014.
So the Trump regime will try to legislate all mention of the problem away as Republicans are salivating over cuts to climate science and research. But it's looking more and more like it's too late to stop the first stages of a positive feedback loop in the polar ice zones. Science doesn't require your belief, as the truism goes.