So here we are again with yet another annual global temperature record. That’s right, 2016 will go down as the warmest year globally since record-keeping began, with preliminary reports indicating that 2016 was 1.3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times.
If it feels like you’ve heard this song before it’s because you have. The last three years have all smashed the previous year’s record for highest globally averaged temperature, a clear signal that the Earth continues its unprecedented rate of warming.
For sure, the 2016 record was helped along somewhat by one of the strongest El Niño events on record, but we also know that over many years, such cycles have very little to do with the overall global warming trend from rising greenhouse gas emissions. The trajectory is clear.
But there’s more to the story. As temperatures rise, we’re also learning more about how these rising temperatures affect our weather – and extreme weather events, in particular.
With the help of new and evolving climate research, we’re detecting a stronger link between warming and changing weather patterns.
Rapid response: Climate analysis in real time
Until recently, all studies on climate attribution were typically published a year or more after a big storm or heat wave, long after news headlines and public attention had waned.
But the science of climate attribution – an emerging and rapidly advancing branch of climate science that separates out the greenhouse gas cause from naturally occurring causes to quantify the human impact – is becoming nimble.
The World Weather Attribution project, an international effort “to sharpen and accelerate the scientific community’s ability to analyze and communicate the possible influence of climate change on extreme-weather events,” now conducts initial analyses in near real time.
In 2016, this project covered the March coral bleaching in the Pacific Ocean, the May European rain storms, the August Louisiana floods, the extreme Arctic warming during November and December, and the December cold air outbreak over the United States – all significant weather events.
In four of the five events, scientists found links to human-caused climate change, with the December cold air outbreak being the only event without a discernible human fingerprint.
The next step for climate science: to project how future weather events will change under different scenarios spelled out by the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
Extreme weather in a 1.5° or 2° degree world
Scientists are engaged in a new international research effort trying to predict differences in weather extremes under both a 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees Celsius warmer world, the targets discussed during the Paris climate talks.
Although climate change impacts on weather extremes are already underway, as 2016 has shown, it is critical to understand potential socioeconomic consequences under these two policy scenarios.
We’ve already experienced more than 1 degree Celsius of global warming and its impacts. The big question now is to what extent the next degree will be worse than the first.
As we continue to break heat records, quicker climate analyses and better predictions will be critical as we adjust to our rapidly changing climate – and science is on the case.