Soon after the Paris Agreement was signed in December, scientists confirmed that 2015 was the warmest year on record. While last year’s temperatures were influenced by a strong El Nino, scientists have found that climate change was the key driver of the record warm temperatures. While most global temperature records are surpassed by slim margins, last year’s average global temperature broke the previous record set in 2014 by 0.16°C —22 percent higher! To put that in perspective, if this were the men’s record for fastest mile, the current mark of 3 minutes and 43 seconds would have been shattered by a new record of 2 minutes and 54 seconds.
Record warmth experienced each month of 2016
Temperature records have continued to be smashed in the first quarter of 2016.January, February and March each surpassed the warmest average temperature ever recorded for those months. This record-setting warmth aligns with expectations that 2016 could end up being as warm or warmer than 2015. In fact, the record annual global temperature in 2015 only included three months that exceeded 1°C above their respective monthly averages (each of the last three months of the year). The 1°C threshold has been exceeded in each of the first three months of 2016.
Arctic sea ice peak reaches record low
Each winter, the Arctic sea ice extent reaches its peak and then declines as the spring and summer months come. During this past winter, the peak in Arctic sea ice was the lowest it has ever been since records began 37 years ago. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center and NASA, this year’s peak sea ice was 13,000 square kilometers miles. Since records of Arctic sea ice began, its average annual extent has decreased by more than 1,810,000 million square kilometers.
West Antarctic Ice Sheet at significantly greater risk to rapid melting
The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) holds so much ice that if it melts, it could raise sea level by 12 feet or more. Historically, most scientists believed that the worst scenarios of the ice sheet’s melting would not happen for hundreds or thousands of years. But in late March 2016, a Nature article found that if emissions continue on a carbon-intensive trajectory, we could see more than 3 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century from WAIS melting alone. Considering additional contributing factors to sea level rise, we could witness 5-6 feet altogether by 2100. This would catastrophically redefine the world’s coastlines. After 2100, the rise in seas grows exponentially, with more than 45 feet by 2500.
As dire as these findings are, all of the studies note that if we get off our carbon-intensive trajectory, we can avoid some of the worst consequences of climate change. The Paris Agreement established the framework for doing so, but it will be up to each government and its citizens to not only implement their existing commitments, but find additional ways to transition to a zero-carbon future.