September 21, 2023

Global heat in ‘unexplored territory’ as scientists warn could make 2023 hottest year on record

The world is racing through climate records as scientists sound the alarm: Chances are rising that 2023 could be the warmest year on record, and the climate crisis could change our weather in ways they don’t yet understand.

And they don’t hold back – “extraordinary”, “terrifying” and “unexplored territory” are just some of the ways they have described the recent spike in global temperatures.

This week, the planet’s average daily temperature rose to all-time highs in modern records held by two climate agencies in the US and Europe.

While the data is based on records dating back only to the mid-20th century, they are “almost certainly” the warmest the planet has seen over a much longer period of time — “probably at least 100,000 years old,” according to Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center.

And they were far from the only climate superlatives scientists have reported this year.

According to a report by the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, the world experienced its warmest June on record last month by “substantial margin”.

Ocean heat is off the charts, with surface temperatures last month hitting record June levels. Parts of the North Atlantic have experienced an “unprecedented” marine heat wave, with temperatures up to 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than normal.

And in Antarctica, where temperatures are well above average for this time of year, sea ice has fallen to record low levels, which scientists link to the warm waters of the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

The world is entering “uncharted territory,” Copernicus director Carlo Buontempo told CNN. “We’ve never seen anything like it in our lives.”

This is what global warming looks like

While scientists say the data is alarming, most aren’t surprised — though frustrated, their warnings have been largely ignored for decades.

“This is exactly what we’ve been expecting for a long time,” Francis told CNN.

What the world is experiencing is the effects of global warming combined with the climate phenomenon El Niño – the arrival of which was officially confirmed by the World Meteorological Organization on Wednesday.

It works like this: As the world burns fossil fuels and pumps out global warming pollution, global temperatures are steadily rising. This leads to more intense heat waves and numerous other effects, such as more extreme weather, melting glaciers and rising sea levels.

On top of these long-term warming trends come natural climate fluctuations, the most important of which are La Niña, which has a cooling effect, and El Niño, which has a warming effect.

“So we have a naturally warm world plus the increasingly warming signal from climate change,” said Friederike Otto, senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment in the UK.

Andres Matamoros sits in the shade trying to keep his cool as he sells fresh fruit and cold coconuts on Wednesday, June 28, 2023 in Houston.  -David J. Phillip/AP

Andres Matamoros sits in the shade trying to keep his cool as he sells fresh fruit and cold coconuts on Wednesday, June 28, 2023 in Houston. -David J. Phillip/AP

While the record temperatures may have been expected, the extent to which some have broken has taken some scientists by surprise.

That this June was half a degree warmer than a typical June “is just extraordinary” for a global temperature record, Buontempo said. Most of the time, these records – which are averages of temperatures around the world over the entire month – are broken by a tenth or even a hundredth of a degree.

Still others have been caught off guard by the nature of extreme weather events.

“We expected to see more and more heat waves, floods and droughts around the world. But it’s the intensity of some of those events that is a bit surprising,” said Peter Stott, a climate attribution science officer at the UK’s Met Office.

There is “an increasing concern that climate change is not as linear as we may have thought,” he told CNN. Scientists are trying to figure out whether weather patterns themselves can change, making heat waves much more intense than climate models predict.

On the way to the warmest year on record

While scientists can’t yet make a definitive verdict, some say this year is at least on track to be the warmest year on record.

The stars are aligned to drop the record. Historically, global heat records often tip over in El Niño years, and the current record holder, 2016, coincided with a strong El Niño.

In May, a Berkeley Earth analysis estimated the probability of 2023 being the hottest on record at 54%. As last month turned out to be the hottest June on record, that percentage will rise, said Robert Rohde, a chief scientist at Berkeley Earth.

How much remains uncertain, he told CNN, “but it looks like 2023 will be a record year.”

Records are how the world is watching the climate crisis. Still, some scientists warn that the attention paid to these large numbers may overshadow the real dangers they amplify: heat waves, floods and droughts are becoming much more frequent, severe and long-lasting as the planet warms.

“It’s pretty frustrating,” Otto said. The world hangs on to blockbuster records, but “these heat records are not exciting numbers,” she told CNN. “They mean that people and ecosystems will go extinct, that people will lose their livelihoods, that farmland will become unusable.”

Pedestrians along a road during high temperatures in Patna, Bihar, India, on Thurs
day, June 22, 2023 - Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Pedestrians along a road during high temperatures in Patna, Bihar, India, on Thursday, June 22, 2023 – Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The human impact of extreme weather this year has already been huge.

In late June, Texas and the South were plunged into a triple-digit heat wave with extreme humidity that made temperatures feel even hotter and make it harder for bodies to cool themselves. The heat spread to Mexico, where extreme temperatures between March and the end of June killed at least 112 people.

China has been battling sweltering temperatures for weeks. Beijing, which is facing one of the most brutal heat waves on record, saw temperatures soar above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) this week.

In India, parts of the north are suffering from persistent heat, while nearly half a million people in the country’s northeast have been hit by severe flooding that has triggered devastating landslides that have claimed lives.

“All these kinds of extreme events are definitely consistent with what we expect to see happening more often as we continue to warm the Earth,” Francis said.

And as El Niño gets stronger, we’re likely to see more extreme weather, she added, not only in summer but also in winter, when El Niños have the greatest influence on weather in the Northern Hemisphere.

“I’d say buckle up.”

A truck with fog cannons sprays water to cool down citizens on Zhonghua Street in Handan, north China's Hebei province, July 6, 2023. - CFOTO/Future Publishing/Getty Images

A fog cannon truck sprays water to cool civilians on Zhonghua Street in Handan, north China’s Hebei province, July 6, 2023. – CFOTO/Future Publishing/Getty Images

Unheard of warnings

For climate scientists, this is the “I told you so” moment they never wanted.

“This shouldn’t have happened,” Stott said.

For decades, scientists have warned of what would happen to global temperatures if the world failed to kick the habit of using fossil fuels and curb pollution from global warming. But they went unnoticed, he said.

It’s terrifying to see climate change happening ahead of us, he added, because “this is only going to get worse and worse, and more and more extreme. So what we’re seeing now is just a taste of what could happen if efforts to reducing emissions will not be successful.”

The only silver lining may be that the data is ringing alarm bells and persuading people to pressure political leaders to act, Otto said. “I hope maybe more people realize that this is really happening, and that it’s really dangerous.”

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