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World’s Climate Hit Extremes, Shattered Multiple Records in 2015

From rising temperatures and ocean levels to record greenhouse gas levels, 2015 was a rough year for planet Earth

Rising drought. Surging seas. Spiking temperatures. 2015 was just another year in a long pattern of Earth's changing climate. (Hery Zo Rakotondramana (Flickr/Creative Commons))
smithsonian.com

It’s here. It’s severe. Get used to it. That’s the message of an epic new report on the state of the climate worldwide. Just released by the American Meteorological Society, the report assesses the world’s climate based on measurements from 2015. And the picture it paints is not a pretty one—2015 broke multiple climate records and points to a future filled with even more climate change milestones.

At first blush, the report might look like a jumble of numbers: Not only does it contain 300 pages worth of statistics, figures and footnotes on the climate health of all seven continents, but it took 456 authors in 62 countries around the world to assemble. Tucked inside is sobering news: Not only was 2015 the warmest year on record, but it also had the highest amount of greenhouse gases ever recorded, the highest land and sea surface temperatures and the highest sea level.

Among the report’s highlights (or lowlights, depending on your perspective) are a number of key indicators. Greenhouse gas concentrations, including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, rose to their highest recorded levels in 2015, with carbon dioxide passing a critical 400 parts per million threshold at the iconic Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. The global surface temperature matched the hottest ever, passing 19th-century averages by over 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, and in October Vredendal, South Africa set a new world temperature record (119.12 degrees) for that month.

Things were hot in the ocean, too, thanks to a toasty El Niño event. And those increasingly warm waters are on the rise—the world’s sea level has increased at an average of 0.15 inch per year every year since scientists started making the measurement in 1993. Add tropical cyclones, melting ice, increasing droughts and other events to the mix, and the report reads like a recipe for disaster.

Not that scientists are that surprised—both ongoing trends and their predictive models make the news expected. But that doesn’t mean it’s not alarming, or that humans can’t do anything to stop climate change. Though annual events like El Niño did affect the measurements, Thomas R. Karl, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information, says in a statement that it’s important to think long-term, too.

“2015’s climate was shaped both by long-term change and an El Niño event,” Karl explained. “When we think about being climate resilient, both of these time scales are important to consider. Last year's El Niño was a clear reminder of how short-term events can amplify the relative influence and impacts stemming from longer-term global warming trends.”

Humans can’t stop weather trends like warming El Niños from causing temperature surges, but they can do things like reduce greenhouse gas emissions and implement global agreements to help prevent things from getting worse. But brace yourself for similar reports in the future: According to the World Meteorological Organization, 2016 is already on track to be the hottest year on record. There is a path to halting climate change, but until humans get there it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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