A World on Fire: July Was Hottest Month Ever Recorded

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A World on Fire: July Was Hottest Month Ever Recorded

Record set for hottest month of the year puts 2015 on track to be hottest year ever recorded... and the consequences are mounting

Firefighters work to dig a fire line on the Rocky Fire in Lake County, California July 30, 2015. This week, three scientific agencies announced that July was the hottest month on Earth since records were started in 1880. (Photo: Reuters/Max Whittaker)

The world is burning up.

The previously available evidence for that statement is staggering and on Thursday the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. announced that July was the hottest month the planet has ever experienced since records began and that both land and ocean temperatures are on pace to make 2015 the hottest year ever recorded.

According to NOAA's latest figures, the July average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.46°F (0.81°C) above the 20th century average. As July consistently marks the warmest month of the year, NOAA said this most recent one now registers as having the all-time highest monthly temperature since records began in 1880, with an average global thermometer reading of  61.86°F (16.61°C).

NOAA's temperature analysis follows on the heels of similar findings by both NASA and the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) published earlier this week which also said July was a record-breaker in terms of heat.

"The world is warming. It is continuing to warm. That is being shown time and time again in our data," said Jake Crouch, physical scientist at NOAA's National Centres for Environmental Information.

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"Now that we are fairly certain that 2015 will be the warmest year on record," Crouch continued, "It is time to start looking at what are the impacts of that? What does that mean for people on the ground?"

At least for those who experienced perilous heat waves in places like Pakistan, India, Iran, and Egypt in recent weeks and months, they know those direct impacts of record temperatures can be deadly. Meanwhile, climate scientists have spent much of the year—with a special eye on upcoming UN climate talks in Paris—warning that the collective impacts of increased temperatures, both on land and in the oceans, are resulting in severe consequences for human civilization and the natural world.

More troubling than any one month, experts note, is the consistent and driving trend that has seen temperatures on a steady march upward since the beginning of the century. As Andrea Thompson at Climate Central reports:

After 2014 was declared the warmest year on record, a Climate Central analysis showed that 13 of the 15 warmest years in the books have occurred since 2000 and that the odds of that happening randomly without the boost of global warming was 1 in 27 million.

Even during recent years when a La Niña (the cold water counterpart to El Niño) has been in place, the year turned out warmer than El Niño years of earlier decades.

Global carbon dioxide levels have risen from a preindustrial level of about 280 parts per million to nearly 400 ppm today. In recent years, CO2 levels — the primary greenhouse gas — have spent longer and longer above the 400 ppm benchmark. They stayed above this point for about six months this year, twice the three months of last year. It is expected that within a few years, they will be permanently above 400 ppm.

The continued rise of CO2 levels will raise the planet’s temperature by another 3°F to 9°F by the end of this century depending on when and if greenhouse gas emissions are curbed, scientists have calculated.

That means that some, future years are likely to continue to set records, even if there will still be year to year variations.

And according to Eric Holthaus, who writes about climate change for Slate, the mounting evidence and rising temperatures are painting an increasingly scary picture of the future:

All this warmth on land is being driven by record-setting heat across large sections of the world’s oceans. The NOAA report notes that the warmest 10 months of ocean temperatures on record have occurred in the last 16 months. This is mostly due to a near-record strength El Niño, but the current state of the global oceans has little historical precedent. Since it takes several months for the oceanic warmth of an El Niño to fully reach the atmosphere, 2016 will likely be warmer—perhaps much warmer—than 2015. And that poses grave implications for the world’s ecosystems as well as humans.

We’ve recently entered a new point in the Earth’s climate history. According to reconstructions using tree rings, corals, and ice cores, global temperatures are currently approaching—if not already past—the maximum temperatures commonly observed over the past 11,000 years (i.e., the time period in which humans developed agriculture), and flirting with levels not seen in more than 100,000 years.

But this is the scary part: The current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any point since humans first evolved millions of years ago. Since carbon dioxide emissions lead to warming, the fact that emissions are increasing means there’s much more warming yet to come. What’s more, carbon dioxide levels are increasing really quickly. The rate of change is faster than at any point in Earth’s entire 4.5 billion year history, likely 10 times faster than during Earth’s worst mass extinction—the “Great Dying”—in which more than 90 percent of ocean species perished. Our planet has simply never undergone the kind of stress we’re currently putting on it. That stunning rate of change is one reason why surprising studies like the recent worse-than-the-worst-case-scenario study on sea level rise don’t seem so far fetched.

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