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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

2017 was one of the hottest years on record

By Phil Plait

In an announcement that will shock exactly no one, climate scientists have reported that 2017 was one of the hottest years globally on record — either in second or third place, depending on how you measure it.

Shocking, no; but alarming, very much so.

NASA reports that 2017 was the second hottest year on record, only slightly behind 2016, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) puts 2017 as third, behind 2016 and 2015. The difference between the two has to do with how the temperatures are recorded; in the Arctic measuring stations are sparser than average around the planet, so the methodology used to include those measurements can change the outcome … but only very slightly, and it should be noted that the Arctic is warming faster than any other region on Earth (Berkeley Earth, an independent group, agrees with NASA's ranking of the year).

So don't take any false hope that the world is cooling now compared to last year (and certainly don't believe any climate science deniers using this report to make that case).

In fact, it's even worse. 2017 was the hottest year on record by far that does not include an El Niño event. An El Niño is a pattern of warming in the tropical Pacific Ocean that can influence global temperatures; 2015 and 2016 were even warmer than usual due to an El Niño that started in late 2015 (though even without it they were still unusually warm years).

So even without the El Niño, 2017 was among the hottest years ever recorded. And, in fact, it surpasses previous years that did have an El Niño ramping them up (like 1998, which at the time was the hottest year on record). The reason why 2017 can be so hot without the El Niño is simply because the planet is getting hotter.

A plot of global temperature anomalies (compared to the average of 1951-1980) and their uncertainties for different years. The peak of each curve is the most likely temperature

For the record, NASA finds the average global temperature for 2017 was 0.9° C higher than the average from 1951–1980, and NOAA gets 0.84° C higher than the 20th century average. Again, there are different ways to measure this and to report it, but in the end the overall results are the same.

Global warming is real.

I have to admit, it feels a little funny writing that when it is literally snowing outside my window. But don't be fooled: Weather is not climate. Weather changes day to day, but climate is what happens decade to decade. Climate affects weather, though: The jet stream usually keeps frigid Arctic air bottled up at high latitudes. But meanders in the jet stream can bring that air down, creating brutal cold snaps North. This happens because the jet stream is weakening, and that's happening due to … global warming. The strength of the jet stream depends in large part on the difference in temperature between low and high latitudes. The Arctic is warming up faster than anywhere else, so that that difference in temperature is now lower.

As scientists have been saying for years, global warming induces climate change, and that means we get more extreme weather. Record droughts, floods, fires, heat waves, and yes, even cold waves. But we also see far, far more high temperature records broken than cold as the planet warms. All of this is what's expected by the science.

And all of this is routinely ignored or openly rejected by science deniers. When NASA and NOAA made the announcement a few days ago one of my first thoughts was how the Trump administration would react. Interestingly, science and environmental political reporter Emily Atkins wrote a piece for New Republic making the case that Trump and his reality-denying cronies tend to get more up in arms and attack science when it comes to regulatory agencies and groups like the EPA and the Department of the Interior. Her point is well taken, and supports the idea that payback runs the actual gears of this particular political machinery more than ideology.

Which I find ironic. American industry has thrived when it has been innovative. We are facing a climatological crisis, but it is also an opportunity. Fossil fuels are driving the lion's share of warming, so the obvious need is to move away from them. And in general that's what’s being done; solar power is booming right now, and other green techs are doing well too.

I just saw that Norway intends for all short-haul domestic airplane flights to be electric by 2040, a very heartening sign, and politicians there hope to have all cars running off green energy by 2025. That's not too far from now! I'll note that Norway produces most of its power using hydroelectric, so the source of the energy is clean to start with. Sometimes when I talk about electric vehicles, someone complains that the energy still comes from carbon since in the U.S. a lot of power is generated by coal-burning plants. In Norway this isn't the case, and in the U.S. we’re also seeing more people turning to solar for their homes. I'm one of them; I'll have solar panels installed on my house in March (it was supposed to be earlier, but Tesla got backlogged making their PowerWall batteries so they could send a lot of them to Puerto Rico, a development I can hardly argue against or feel upset about).

There's a lot to be concerned about right now when it comes to all this. We still have a House Science Committee that goes way out of its way to pathologically deny science (the good news: Lamar Smith, the committee chair and longtime Joseph McCarthy impersonator, has announced he won't run for reelection this year). Our output of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is still accelerating. And of course as long as Trump is in power there will be more attacks on science.

But I'm still hopeful. The Women's March just this past weekend shows that a lot of people know this current government is bad for America, and wants them out (for different reasons, perhaps, but the results are still desirable). The forecasts for the midterm elections in November look good for this, too, and even better it looks like a lot of scientists are running for office as well (including Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist running to oust science denier Stephen King in California’s 25th District).

Things are bad right now. But they don't have to be. If you're an American, register. And in November, vote. There is no exaggerating this: The literal fate of humanity depends on it.