Image courtesy NOAA
This visualization from NOAA shows much warmer than average or record warm temperatures across much of the globe in 2015, the warmest year on record.
The data are in, and 2015 was officially the warmest year globally ever recorded. We’ve been keeping temperature records since 1880. The last time the record was broken? 2014.
What’s interesting is just how much warmer 2015 was. The observed annual average surface temperature was more than 1.8° F (1° C) above the 19th century average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). That’s already half the warming countries have agreed to as the international limit.
And 2015 was about a quarter of a degree Fahrenheit warmer than 2014. That might seem small, but it’s actually huge when compared to the year-to-year differences observed in the record.
A strong El Niño, when the surface ocean in the Eastern Pacific basin warms, contributed to the record warmth of 2015. But even compared to other El Niño years, 2015 set records. The agencies reporting the data attribute this to the long-term warming trend due to the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
As with all climate and weather data, the 2015 data shows some variability. Not all locations set high temperature records, and parts of the North Atlantic Ocean actually set a cold temperature record.
In the contiguous United States, 2015 was the second warmest year on record, with 2012 still holding the top spot. It was the 19th consecutive year that the annual average U.S. temperature was more than the 20th century average.
As the dataset grows, we can grow more and more confident in the long-term warming trend. Scientists expect 2016 will be a record-breaker as well. And new science is telling us that it’s not just the atmosphere heating up – the ocean is absorbing heat as well, at a faster rate and at greater ocean depths than we had previously thought.
This points to a future with more frequent and stronger climate change impacts, including heavy precipitation events (downpours and snowstorms), heat waves, and rising sea levels, unless strong action is taken to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that cause temperatures to increase. National governments have agreed to take action, but all actors – states, cities, businesses, and individuals – can play a part. As a new year begins, we will see if the world can set records for action, and not just temperature.
It is well known that climate change will alter the occurrence of extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts, and severe storms. But weather is unpredictable and naturally variable, so how can we be sure climate change is happening today?
Climate change attribution
Scientists have recently developed tools for so-called event attribution, to say (through the use of statistics) whether a particular extreme weather event is caused by climate change. The fourth annual report on event attribution was just published in the journal Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS). Researchers around the globe used different methods to assess 28 events that occurred in 2014. They found that some of these events probably would not have happened without climate change.
Any individual weather event is a part of a chaotic and complex system (yes, those are the technical terms). Because of this, it is theoretically impossible to predict weather over any meaningful timescale. So scientists turn to probabilities.
When your local weather forecaster tells you there’s a 30 percent chance of rain, that number doesn’t come out of a hat. The percentage comes from many weather models run over and over again. A 30 percent chance of rain tomorrow means that for every 100 model simulations of the weather tomorrow, 30 had rain.
In an important breakthrough, parties to the Montreal Protocol meeting in Dubai have agreed to a path forward aimed at phasing down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a class of highly potent greenhouse gases. This progress adds to the momentum leading up to the UN climate talks starting later this month in Paris.
HFCs, chemicals widely used in refrigeration, air conditioning, and foam blowing, were developed in response to limits on ozone-depleting substances under the Montreal Protocol.
The United States and 40 other countries had put forth a range of proposals this year for phasing down HFCs. While these efforts fell short of producing a consensus amendment, extensive discussions throughout the week resulted in a path toward delivering an HFC phasedown amendment at a special, additional meeting of the parties to be held in 2016.
|Hurricane Patricia (Photo: NASA Earth Observatory)|
These are just a few of the consistent predictions from models investigating our future in a world with climate change. Or, it’s a list of some of the impacts of the periodic weather pattern called El Niño.
So which one has been driving some of this year’s extreme weather events?
A record year for Pacific tropical cyclones
The National Hurricane Center reports that eight major hurricanes (Category 3 or higher) have developed in the eastern North Pacific Ocean so far this season. This is consistent with the characteristics of El Niño that have been shaping up over the course of the year.
During an El Niño year, the surface ocean in the Eastern Pacific basin warms (it’s usually very cold) and the trade winds in the area weaken. These two meteorological developments favor the formation of tropical cyclones, the general term that includes hurricanes and related systems. Hurricane Patricia achieved record strength in a record short period of time this month, becoming the strongest Pacific hurricane to make landfall. Meanwhile, climate change will probably not change the number of hurricanes overall, but warmer ocean surface temperatures and higher sea levels are expected to intensify their impacts.
Driver: El Niño
The fastest growing family of greenhouse gases – extremely potent hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) -- aren’t going to be growing as fast in the future.
Today’s White House announcement of voluntary industry commitments to reduce hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), along with new regulations put in place over the past year, have created game-changing shifts toward more environmentally friendly alternatives.
Developed as substitutes for ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the late 1980s, HFCs have become widely used worldwide in refrigerators, air conditioners, foam products, and aerosols. While they don’t contribute to ozone depletion, HFCs can trap 1,000 times or more heat in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide. This means they have a high global warming potential (GWP).
The amount of these compounds produced around the world has been growing at a rate of more than 10 percent per year. Unless controlled, emissions of HFCs could nearly triple in the U.S. by 2030. Strong international action to reduce HFCs could reduce temperature increases by 0.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, a critical contribution to global efforts to limit climate change.
The 16 voluntary industry commitments that make up today’s announcement highlight the innovation and leadership U.S. industry is showing in meeting the challenges of addressing climate change. These actions build on 22 commitments made by industry at a White House event just a year ago.
Weathering the Next Storm:
September 22, 2015
By Katy Maher and Janet Peace
Infographic with key takeaways
Increased extreme weather and climate-related impacts are imposing significant costs on society and on companies. While businesses are increasingly taking steps to assess risks and prepare for future climate changes, many companies face internal and external challenges that hinder efforts to move toward greater climate resilience. Building and expanding on an earlier review completed in 2013, C2ES examined how large companies are preparing for climate risk, who they are partnering with, and what is keeping them for doing more.
Download the infographic as a PDF
Increased extreme weather and climate-related impacts are imposing significant costs on communities and companies alike. While some businesses are taking steps to assess and address climate risks, many face internal and external challenges to building climate resilience.
In a new report, Weathering the Next Storm: A Closer Look at Business Resilience, released at Climate Week NYC, C2ES examined how major global companies are preparing for climate risks, and what is keeping them from doing more.
C2ES reviewed public disclosures of S&P Global 100 companies, conducted in-depth interviews, and held workshops with business leaders, government officials, academics and other stakeholders. Key findings include:
Major companies recognize and report climate risks.
We found 91 of the world’s largest 100 companies see extreme weather and other climate impacts as business risks. Business leaders see climate risks firsthand – in damaged facilities, interrupted power and water supplies, disrupted supply and distribution chains, and impacts on their employees’ lives.
Most (84 companies) discussed climate risk concerns in CDP questionnaires. Fewer companies did so in their sustainability reports (47) or financial filings (40).
More companies are assessing their vulnerabilities.
The vast majority of companies rely on existing risk management or business continuity planning to address climate risks.
Many see climate change as a “threat magnifier” that exacerbates risks they already know and understand. This lens puts climate change into a familiar business context, but companies could overlook or underestimate the threats they face.
Weathering the Next Storm:
September 22, 2015
By Katy Maher and Janet Peace
Infographic with key takeaways
As we saw once again in 2014—the warmest year globally on record—increases in extreme weather and other climate-related impacts are imposing significant costs on society. Even as governments, companies and communities strengthen efforts to reduce emissions contributing to climate change, they are awakening to the urgent need to address growing climate impacts. Across the United States, governments at all levels are taking steps to strengthen climate resilience. Simultaneously, a growing number of companies are recognizing extreme weather and climate change as present or future business risks. For many companies, these rising risks extend well beyond the “fence line” to critical supply chains and infrastructure, and can be effectively managed only in partnership with the public sector.
The wildfires ravaging the Western United States are among the most damaging on record, and the season isn’t over yet. For those who have been following the region’s changing climate patterns, however, the damage is hardly surprising, and this could be only the beginning.
So far this year, 41,000 fires have burned 7.5 million acres of forests and grasslands across the United States. Only nine years have seen more acres burned in total than have already burned this year. The record is 9.8 million acres in 2006.
In Alaska, the 2015 wildfire season will likely go down as the second-biggest on record. More than 5.1 million acres – or 8,000 square miles – have burned so far this year. The most damaging – 6.6 million acres – occurred in 2004. Although this was an extreme fire season, the state was fortunate that the weather eventually cooperated. By mid-July, the fires had already charred 4.5 million acres, or 88 percent of the total.
The fires that plagued central Alaska during the late spring and early summer months are now mostly under control, as the dry summer heat gives way to cooler and wetter weather. The persistent ridge of high pressure has broken down as waves of moisture now stream in from the surrounding waters – the annual sign that autumn is quickly approaching.
As the fires die out in Alaska, the attention now turns to the lower 48. What was a sporadic, yet manageable, start to the fire season has now turned into conflagration of tragic proportions.