Human-induced climate change has pushed the Earth to the brink of a major shift as scientists predict rapidly rising global temperatures within the next two years.
A study, titled Big Changes Underway in the Climate System? (pdf) and published by the British Meteorological Office, notes that heightened greenhouse gas emissions will exacerbate the naturally-occurring phenomenon known as El Niño to push global temperatures to record highs.
This temporary warming of surface waters in the Pacific, known as El Niño, drives dramatic shifts in rainfall, temperature, and wind patterns worldwide, and can last for months or even years.
In the short term, this means that the Southern Hemisphere can expect record heatwaves during its 2015-2016 summer season, coupled with the extreme weather events, such as typhoons, typically associated with an El Niño.
"It looks very likely that globally 2014, 2015 and 2016 will all be amongst the very warmest years ever recorded," said scientist Rowan Sutton, who peer-reviewed the study.
"This is not a fluke," Sutton, who works for the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, continued. "We are seeing the effects of energy steadily accumulating in the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere, caused by greenhouse gas emissions."
In the most recent El Niño update released last Thursday, the National Weather Service also noted the planet is currently experiencing the upswing of one of the strongest El Niño events, and quite possibly the strongest, of the past 65 years of recordkeeping.
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More broadly, researchers say that the Earth may be seeing the end of a global slowdown in surface temperature increases—known by some as the global warming "pause"—and can expect to enter a period of higher temperature increases, returning to the heightened rate seen before the downtrend began.
"It is now likely that decadal warming rates will reach late 20th century levels in the next couple of years," said the study's lead researcher, professor Adam Scaife, of the Met Office Hadley Centre.
The study comes as international delegates are preparing for the COP21 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Paris from November 30 to December 11, during which they are expected to cement climate policies with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.
Scaife notes that the combination of both natural and man-made factors has brought us to a "turning point" in the Earth's climate trajectory.
"We believe we are at an important point in the time series of the Earth's climate and we'll look back on this period as an important turning point," he said. "That's why we're emphasizing it because we're seeing so many big changes at once."
Scaife notes that El Niños and atmospheric oscillations in the Atlantic are "natural." However, he adds, "they are now occurring on top of the influence coming from man's activity, so when they occur, when an El Niño comes and raises the global temperature, that is the icing on the cake, that is the extra bit that creates a record."