While 2016’s sea ice coverage is clearly an outlier year compared to historic data, this record low level may become “the new normal.” 2016 is also making history in other areas of climate science in which the records being set are not an outlier, but rather the trend. Just this week, the the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released a statement saying that 2016 will very likely be the hottest year since record keeping began.
Sadly, this is entirely consistent with the steady warming of the 21st century. Before 2016 was the hottest year on record, 2015 was the hottest year on record, and before 2015 was the hottest year on record, 2014 was the hottest year on record. While not every passing year tops the list, each of the 16 passing years since 2001 has qualified as one of the 17 warmest years on record.
What this warmth meant in terms of impact in 2016 was outlined by the WMO:
- Numerous extreme weather events caused catastrophic impacts to people around the world, including Hurricane Matthew and Typhoon Lionrock; major floods in the Yangtze basin, Sri Lanka, and the Niger River basin; extreme heat waves in Southern and Northern Africa and the Middle East; the Alberta wildfire; and Southern African drought. Together these extreme weather events killed at least 1,000 people, destroyed or severely crippled thousands of people’s homes and livelihoods, caused tens of billions of dollars worth of damage, and are expected to contribute to millions of people’s famine and displacement. A separate WMO report released last week showed that of 79 studies about extreme weather events published by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society between 2011 and 2014, more than half found that human-induced climate change contributed to the extreme event in question.
- Ocean temperatures were warmer than normal over most areas, causing widespread coral bleaching, and coral mortality of up to 50% in the Great Barrier Reef.
- Global sea levels rose very strongly during the 2015-16 El Niño, rising about 15 millimeters between November 2014 and February 2016, well above the post-1993 trend of 3 to 3.5 mm per year, with the early 2016 values reaching new record highs. Since February, sea levels have remained fairly stable as the influence.
- Annual average global carbon dioxide concentrations in 2015 reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in the history of human civilization.
- Arctic sea ice extent was well below normal throughout the year. After several years of well-above-normal values, Antarctic sea ice extent fell to near normal by the start of 2016.
This is data, not conjecture. These are the vital signs of earth. President-Elect Trump and his administration must learn that his inaction on climate change will have severe consequences on us inhabitants of this planet.