What to Know
- 2016 was the hottest year on record, with a global average temp nearly two degrees higher than the mid-20th century mean, climatologists say
- The world's oceans are a culprit in the lull of rising global temperatures, as the waters attract heat from the air and store it
- 2014, 2015 and 2016 have all recorded higher-than average global temperatures compared to years past
Erica Grow is an AMS-certified meteorologist for NBC 4 New York's Storm Team 4. She sits on the American Meteorological Society's Board on Enterprise Communication.
It happened again — the Earth shattered another historic temperature record.
According to a joint report from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), last year was the warmest on record, with a global average temperature of 1.78 degrees Fahrenheit above the mid-20th century mean.
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This marks the third year in a row the planet has set a new record for global average temperature since NASA and NOAA began collecting measurements in 1880. Last year's record is even more surprising, since the "Super El Niño" that was attributed to 2015's record warmth ended last spring.
Despite a third straight year of record temperatures around the globe, some are still skeptical about climatologist claims that Earth's atmospheric conditions are changing.
Scientists have proven that their theories are fact: our planet isn't just heating up, humans are making a sizable contribution to the warming process. Recent findings in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report note the clear impact of human influence on the environment and many of the "unprecedented" changes.
It's been confirmed that human activity is causing a rise in global average temperature at breakneck pace. Yet the number of dissenting voices could create a real controversy. How is this possible? The complexity of the global warming process and the many ways it manifests itself are to blame.
A crucial element to understanding global warming is recognizing that the process isn't linear. The world's oceans, which cover about 70 percent of Earth's surface, are a very efficient heat sink — natural oscillations cause our oceans to attract atmospheric heat and release it into the air in varying amounts. These oscillations can last for months, but others can persist for decades at a time.
Research has shown the oceans' capacity to ingest heat from air is a culprit in the notorious "pause" of the rise of global temperatures from 1999 to 2013, when temperatures were still warmer than the 20th century average.
Oscillations are a natural and ever-present part of our climate, something that's sparked suspicions as to whether our current warmth is just a part of Earth's natural ebb and flow.
However, a closer look shows this is virtually impossible. Climatologists have created models that accurately replicate the temperature system since 1760. When these models are tested with the exclusion of industrial emissions, the global average temperature actually drops as time goes on, which means that if it were not for humans, Earth would be in a cooling period.
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The advances in climate modeling spanning decades are nothing short of remarkable. Today’s models can recreate conditions that cover centuries of data, yet they still struggle with a 10-day forecast. How could a 200-year forecast be better than a 10-day forecast? The answer is the difference between weather and climate.
Imagine the differences as a baseball player. Weather is the player's single-game performance, whereas climate is his career batting average. It's much easier to predict where a player belongs in your lineup than it is to predict whether or not he will hit a home run in today's game. The same holds true for weather; meteorologists can more accurately predict changes in overall temperature systems than individual temperature records on a single day at a given location.
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While we do not know if the record high temperature that was reached yesterday occurred centuries ago, we do know what the overall climate was like a millenia ago by studying geological record keepers. These climate proxies show us that temperatures are rising faster than ever.
Global warming and climate are like a mosaic: up close, there are pieces that don't seem to fit the picture. Cherry-picked data, such as a periodic increase in sea ice in the Antarctic or inconsistent sea level rise in parts of the globe, are exploited as talking points to inject doubt about the validity of scientific findings on climate change.
However, just as a mosaic's image becomes clearer with perspective, a full review of all the available data show a comprehensible picture of a climate that's heating up, and a human influence on the warming climate. The picture continues to become clearer with each year of record-breaking heat.