Unprecedented temperature levels mean more heatwaves, flooding, wildfires and hurricanes as experts say global warming is here and affecting us now.
Author: Damian Carrington @dpcarrington
Date Published: 2016-June-17, Friday 11:23 EDT. | Last modified: 2016-June-17, Friday 17:00 EDT.
May was the 13th month in a row to break temperature records according to figures published this week that are the latest in 2016’s string of incredible climate records which scientists have described as a bombshell and an emergency.
The series of smashed global records, particularly the extraordinary heat in February and March, has provoked a stunned reaction from climate scientists, who are warning that climate change has reached unprecedented levels and is no longer only a threat for the future.
Alongside the soaring temperatures, other records have tumbled around the world, from vanishing Arctic sea ice to a searing drought in India and the vast bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. The UK has experienced record flooding that has devastated communities across the country and scientists predict that the flash floods seen by parts of the country in recent days will increase in future.
“What is happening right now is we are catapulting ourselves out of the Holocene, which is the geological epoch that human civilisation has been able to develop in, because of the relatively stable climate,” says Rahmstorf. “It allowed us to invent agriculture, rather than living as nomads. It allowed a big population growth, it allowed the foundation of cities, all of which required a stable climate.”
But the spikes in global surface temperatures in recent months have been anything but stable. They did not just break the records, they obliterated them. “The numbers are completely unprecedented,” says Adam Scaife, at the Met Office in the UK. “They really stick out like a sore thumb.”
The scorching temperatures mean 2016 is all but certain to be the hottest year ever recorded, beating the previous hottest year in 2015, which itself beat 2014. This run of three record years is also unprecedented and, without climate change, would be a one in a million chance. Scaife says: “Including this year so far, 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have been since 2000 – it’s a shocking statistic.”
Another shattered record is the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is on course to rise by a record amount this year, leaving the symbolic landmark of 400 parts per million to history. “We know from Antarctic ice cores that go back almost a million years that CO2 was never even remotely as high as this,” says Rahmstorf, and the rate at which humanity is emitting CO2 is the fastest for 66m years.
Scientists agree about a fifth of the temperature rise seen in recent months is due to El Niño. However Scaife says: “I suspect some of the months would have still been records, even without the El Niño”…
El Niño is now waning into to its opposite phase, called La Niña. But that does not allay the scientists’ climate concerns: “The La Niña will not be as cool as the El Niño was warm. We are very, very sure of that,” says Scaife…
…“There is something more going on than the usual global warming trend and El Niño, because in the past El Niño has led to single years breaking records, but it has not caused several years in a row to break records,” says Rahmstorf.
“There is some unexplained part to this and it is concerning, because we don’t understand it and it is hotter than expected,” he says. “I hope the data coming in the next six months or so will bring us some important clues.”
“The impacts we’re beginning to see are just the start and we know we are going to be facing a worsening situation for at least the next couple of decades even if we do cut emissions,” Ward says.
“What’s worrying [about the record-breaking 2016] is that we are in unprecedented territory and we don’t really know what the consequences will be,” he says. “There are likely to be plenty of surprises, some of which will be nasty.”