Last year has tied 2016 as the hottest year on record, the European Union’s climate monitoring service said yesterday, keeping Earth on a global warming fast track that could devastate large swathes of humanity.
The six years since 2015 are the six warmest ever registered, as are 20 of the last 21, evidence of a persistent and deepening trend, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) reported.
Last year’s record high — a soaring 1.25°C above preindustrial levels — was all the more alarming because it came without the help of a periodic natural weather event known as El Nino, which added up to two-tenths of a degree to the 2016 average, according to data from NASA and the UK Met Office.
“It is quite clear that in the absence of El Nino and La Nina impacts on year-to-year temperatures, 2020 would be the warmest year on record,” said Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, California.
During El Nino, which occurs every two to seven years, warm surface water in the tropical Pacific Ocean can boost global temperatures. La Ninas — such as one currently underway — have the opposite cooling effect.
“Twenty twenty stands out for its exceptional warmth,” C3S director Carlo Buontempo said.
“This is yet another reminder of the urgency of ambitious emissions reductions to prevent adverse climate impacts in the future,” he added.
In 2015, the world’s nations vowed to cap global warming “well below” 2°C, and 1.5°C if possible.
A subsequent report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change left no doubt that 1.5°C was the safer threshold.
With just over 1°C of warming so far, the world has seen a crescendo of deadly droughts, heat waves, flood-inducing rainfall and storms made more destructive by rising seas.
For example, last year saw a record number of hurricanes in the Atlantic — so many that the World Meteorological Organization ran out of letters in the alphabet to name them.
Some regions last year experienced warming well beyond the global average, according the Copernicus report, based largely on satellite data.
Europe’s average surface temperature across last year was 2.2°C above the preindustrial benchmark — and nearly half a degree above 2019, the previous record year.
Warming in the arctic region was even more spectacular, with northern Siberia and parts of the arctic itself nearly 7°C above mid-19th-century levels.
Wildfires across Siberia lasting well into autumn released a record quarter-billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, equivalent to the annual emissions of Spain, Egypt or Vietnam, and a third more than in 2019, the previous record year.
Carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere peaked at 413 parts per million, nearly 50 percent more than in the early 18th century, before fossil fuel burning began to load the skies with heat-trapping greenhouse gases, C3S reported.
These unprecedented levels were reached despite a 7 percent drop in emissions due to pandemic lockdowns.
“Since CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere like water in a bathtub, if we turn down the tap by seven percent, the CO2 level just rises a bit more slowly,” said Stefan Rahmstorf, head of Earth system analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
“We need to shut off the tap to get a stable climate again,” he added.
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