Earth’s Relentless Warming Sets a Brutal New Record in 2017

By Tom RandallTom Randall and Blacki MigliozziBlacki Migliozzi

The burn continues. What follows are 138 years of scientific records tracing the human transformation of Earth’s climate. The bold pink line up top represents 2017, the third-hottest on record. The only years to exceed it—2015 and 2016—occurred amid a powerful El Nino weather pattern that ripped heat from the Pacific Ocean into the atmosphere. In the absence of El Nino, the swelter of 2017 was unprecedented.

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Last year was 1.51 degrees Fahrenheit (0.84 Celsius) warmer than the 20th century average, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration figures released on Thursday. That may not sound like much, but on a planetary scale it’s a profound shift that has decimated coral reefs, thawed polar ice at a devastating rate and raised global sea levels.

“We’re warming up pretty much at the rate we anticipated a decade ago,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “Basically, all of the warming of the past 60 years is attributable to human activities.”

An astounding number of climate records have been broken in recent years. New annual records were set in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The monster El Nino spanning that period added a fraction of a degree Celcius to the temperature extremes, according to NASA, and triggered the longest consecutive stretch of record-breaking monthly temperatures in the modern age.

In 2017, El Nino flipped to a cooling weather pattern known as La Nina. In more stable climatological times, one might have expected an average year for the surface of Earth. But these are not stable times.

Climate scientists don’t place much weight on a single record-hot month, or even a single record-hot year. What sets off alarms is the rapid accumulation of warming that’s been building over decades. Seventeen of the 18 hottest years have come to pass in the 21st century, and temperatures are rising 10 times faster than during the bounce back from the last ice age.

Results from the world’s top climate-monitoring agencies vary slightly—NASA had 2017 as the second-hottest year on record—but data compiled by NASA, NOAA, the Japan Meteorological Agency and the U.K.’s Met Office all agree: 2017 was one of the hottest years experienced by any creature currently living on this planet. The heat was felt differently around the world, but most regions were unusually warm to downright scorching for much of the year.

Image Source: NOAA

As climate change continues apace, unusual weather is expected to grow more frequent and destructive. In 2017, extreme floods, fires, droughts and hurricanes in the U.S. caused more than $306 billion in damages. That’s a whopping 43 percent higher than the previous record for climate disasters, set in 2005. Hurricane Harvey dropped as much as 60 inches of rain in Texas, and more than three months following Hurricane Maria, some 40 percent of Puerto Rico is still without power. These are the sort of events one should expect in a warming world.

Amid the scorching heat and weather disasters of 2017, President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord and downplayed global warming as a security threat. His administration took steps to repeal the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, and his Environmental Protection Agency advanced a scheme—ultimately rejected by regulators—to subsidize coal.

Efforts to curb greenhouse gases were seen elsewhere. In India, the growth of renewables is on track to soon outpace fossil fuels for the first time. China is leading the world’s conversion to electric cars. Solar and wind power are poised to become the cheapest forms of new electricity across large swaths of the globe. These shifts are yet insufficient to fend off the catastrophic climate change that will be experienced by children alive today, according to analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Climate change used to occur over millennia. Now it’s happening over decades. Next year will be “almost certainly a top-five year, and quite possibly a top-two year” for heat, said NASA’s Schmidt. There will be ebbs and flows for the surface of Earth, but the direction we're headed is clear.