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Turbo-charged climate ushered in 'parade of shattered records' in 2015

Last year the Earth saw dozens of record highs, from greenhouse gases to rising seas, according to the 2015 State of the Climate report. 

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A boat floats through light reflected from the illuminated Ada Bridge over the Sava river in Belgrade, Serbia, July 2015. Earth broke dozens of climate records last year, 450 international scientists diagnosed in a massive report nicknamed the annual physical for the planet.

Darko Vojinovic/AP

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Earth's fever got worse last year, breaking dozens of climate records, scientists said in a massive report nicknamed the annual physical for the planet.

Soon after 2015 ended, it was proclaimed the hottest on record. The new report shows the broad extent of other records and near-records on the planet's climatic health. Those include record heat energy absorbed by the oceans and lowest groundwater storage levels globally, according to Tuesday's report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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"I think the time to call the doctor was years ago," NOAA climate monitoring chief Deke Arndt, co-editor of the report, said in an email. "We are awash in multiple symptoms."

The 2015 State of the Climate report examined 50 different aspects of climate, including dramatic melting of Arctic sea ice and glaciers worldwide. A dozen different nations set hottest year records, including Russia and China. South Africa had the hottest temperature ever recorded in the month of October: 119.1 degrees Fahrenheit (48.4 degrees Celsius).

"There is really only one word for this parade of shattered climate records: grim," said Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb, who wasn't part of the report, but called it "exhaustive and thorough."

But it's more than just numbers on a graph. Scientists said the turbo-charged climate affected walrus and penguin populations and played a role in dangerous algae blooms, such as one off the Pacific Northwest coast. And there were brutal heat waves all over the world, with ones in Indian and Pakistan killing thousands of people.

Much of the intense record-breaking and record-flirting weather was because of a combination of a natural El Nino — the periodic warming of parts of the Pacific that changes weather globally — and ever increasing man-made global warming.

"This impacts people. This is real life," said NOAA climate scientist Jessica Blunden, co-editor of the report published Tuesday in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Oklahoma University meteorology professor Jason Furtado said in an email that the report, which he wasn't part of, illustrates the combined power of nature and humans on Earth's climate: "It was like injecting an already amped-up climate system with a dose of (natural) steroids."

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About 450 scientists from around the world helped write the report and in it NOAA highlighted one of the lesser-known measurements, ocean heat content. About 93 percent of the heat energy trapped by greenhouse gases — such as carbon dioxide from the burning of coal, oil and gas — goes directly into the ocean, the report said. And ocean heat content hit record levels both near the surface and deep.

NOAA oceanographer Gregory C. Johnson, a study co-author, said the oceans are storing more heat energy because of man-made climate change with an extra El Nino spike.

Johnson summed up Earth's climate in a haiku, published deep inside the report:

"El Niño waxes,

warm waters shoal, flow eastward,

Earth's fever rises."

Report highlights include these indications of a warming planet:

  • Greenhouse gases highest on record. Major greenhouse gas concentrations, including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide, rose to new record high values during 2015. The annual average atmospheric CO2 concentration at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, the location of the world’s longest direct measurements of CO2, was 400.8 parts per million (ppm), which surpassed 400 ppm for the first time. This was 3.1 ppm more than 2014, and was the largest annual increase observed in the 58-year record. The 2015 average global CO2 concentration was not far below, at 399.4 ppm, an increase of 2.2 ppm compared with 2014.
  • Global surface temperature highest on record. Aided by the strong El Niño, the 2015 annual global surface temperature hit record warmth for the second consecutive year, easily surpassing the previous record set in 2014 by more than 0.1°C (0.2°F). This exceeded the average for the mid- to late 19th century — commonly considered representative of preindustrial conditions — by more than 1°C (1.8°F) for the first time. Across land surfaces, record to near-record warmth was reported across every inhabited continent.
  • Sea surface temperatures highest on record. The globally averaged sea surface temperature was also the highest on record, breaking the previous mark set in 2014. The highest temperature departures from average occurred in part of the northeast Pacific, continuing anomalous warmth there since 2013, and in part of the eastern equatorial Pacific, reflective of the dominant El Niño. The North Atlantic southeast of Greenland remained colder than average and was colder than 2014.
  • Global upper ocean heat content highest on record. Globally, upper ocean heat content exceeded the record set in 2014, reflecting the continuing accumulation of thermal energy in the upper layer of the oceans. Oceans absorb over 90 percent of Earth’s excess heat from global warming.
  • Global sea level highest on record. Global average sea level rose to a new record high in 2015 and was about 70 mm (about 2¾ inches) higher than the 1993 average, the year that marks the beginning of the satellite altimeter record. Over the past two decades, sea level has increased at an average rate of 3.3 mm (about 0.15 inch) per year, with the highest rates of increase in the western Pacific and Indian Oceans.
  • Extremes were observed in the water cycle and precipitation. A general increase in the water cycle, combined with the strong El Niño, enhanced precipitation variability around the world. An above-normal rainy season led to major floods in many parts of the world. But globally, areas in “severe” drought rose from 8 percent in 2014 to 14 percent in 2015.