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No Surprise Here: 2015 Was the Warmest Year Yet

The new State of the Climate report is out, and things aren’t looking too good.

By Madeleine Thomas


(Photo: Torsten Blackwood — Pool/Getty Images)

Last year officially surpassed 2014 as the warmest year ever noted on record.

Rising oceans, accumulating atmospheric greenhouse gasses, and escalating temperatures on both sea and land all reached new record highs in 2015 — surpassing landmarks set a year prior. El Niño — the strongest in more than 50 years — and the ongoing forces of anthropogenic climate change are to blame for the new milestones, according to a new “State of the Climate” report by the American Meteorological Society and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information.

“This ‘annual physical’ of Earth’s climate system showed us that 2015’s climate was shaped both by long-term change and an El Niño event,” Thomas Karl, director of the NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, said in a statement on Tuesday. “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.”

A few takeaways from the annual report, which is based on the findings of 450 scientists from 62 countries:

  • Greenhouse gasses — carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide — were higher in 2015 than they’ve ever been before. Last year, annual average atmospheric C02 levels passed 400 ppm for the first time in more than three million years. In order to maintain average global temperature increase below the crucial two degrees Celsius threshold necessary to keep the catastrophic consequences of climate change at bay, greenhouse gasses must remain below 450 ppm by 2100, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Global emissions, according to the report, are inching ever closer to that ominous threshold.
  • Every populated continent on Earth experienced record or above-average heat at some point last year. Every continent also experienced extreme drought. An unusually powerful El Niño exacerbated drought conditions in parts of South America and Africa, leaving tens of millions of people in need of global food aid.
  • Last year also marked the 36th straight year of alpine glacial melt. By July 4th, just more than half of the Greenland ice sheet — the world’s second largest body of ice, covering about 80 percent of the country — was in some stage of melt, according to the report. Elsewhere, in areas like Alaska’s North Slope, permafrost temperatures have been increasing by 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit each decade since 2000. As Francie Diepreported recently for Pacific Standard, melting permafrost could serve as an agent for spreading infectious diseases across the Arctic, from anthrax to bacteria found in sewage-laden drinking water. As the subsurface layer of frozen soil thaws, aboveground ponds, like those used by Inuit villages to store waste, could spread their contents into pristine rivers and lakes that supply crucial drinking water.
  • Sea levels are rising about 3.3 mm on average each year because of melting ice. In particular, rising waters in the western Pacific and Indian Oceans continue to threaten the very existence of low-laying island nations perched barely above sea-level, and the millions of people who live along the densely packed coastlines of Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.

Just 22 out of the required 55 countries needed to ratify the Paris Agreement — the landmark treaty designed to quash global greenhouse gasses — have adopted the necessary framework so far. And the emissions of the countries that have indeed signed on account for a mere 1.08 percent of international greenhouse gas emissions overall. As COP22, the next global climate summit, approaches this November in Morocco, 2015’s landmark temperatures will undoubtedly continue to influence how quickly other international powers could follow suit.

The historic partnership announced last month between the United States, Mexico, and Canada — which requires North America to generate half of its electricity with clean power by 2025 — is yet another example of the monumental (and perhaps still largely untapped) potential when countries join forces to stonewall climate change. Without global cooperation, the next “State of the Climate” report could highlight yet another somber record-breaking year.