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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

February 2016: Hotter Than Ever

By Phil Plait

Writing about monthly temperature records is like playing global warming Mad Libs.

“Another record high global temperature was set for [Month][Year], according to [every measurement available], blowing away the last record from [recent month].”

And here we are again. February 2016 was the hottest February on the planet on record, a staggering 1.35° C hotter than the average. The previous hottest Februaries were 1998 (0.88° above average) and 2015 (0.87°). That’s a huge jump.

Those numbers are from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, one of the premier centers for keeping tabs on our ever-warming globe. They are from temperature measurements over land and ocean going back to 1880. They represent temperature anomalies, that is, deviations from an average. In this case, the average is taken over the range of 1951–1980. That makes comparing temperatures easier, and shows that February 2016 was the hottest recorded February for 136 years.

There’s so much to say here it’s hard to know where to begin. For example:

Scrolling through the anomalies, it’s impossible not to be struck by how they are overwhelmingly negative for the first half of the record, then increasingly positive over the second half. In other words, the temperature trend over time is obviously and overwhelmingly getting hotter.

There’s a huge jump in monthly temperatures starting last year, stomping previous records. October 2015 was the hottest October on record. November 2015 was the hottest November on record. December, January, and now February, all records, and by a wide margin.

Last month, January 2016, had the biggest monthly anomaly ever recorded at the time, at 1.14° C. February destroys that record by a full 0.2°C.

These temperature anomalies are compared with the average from decades ago. But if you compare them with temperatures at the start of the range, we’re now approaching 2° C hotter than the pre-industrial level.

These numbers average over the whole planet. But when you map the temperatures by region, you see the Arctic has been suffering an incredible heat wave, with monthly average temperatures as much as 16° C above average. Sixteen! These heat waves go back for months, such that many places in the extreme north basically didn’t have a winter compared with what they normally experience.

Ah, that word. Normal. It’s hard to say what that means any more. A lot of people trying to downplay all this are saying it’s all due to El Niño, but we know that’s not the case; it accounts for only a fraction of a degree of warming. And the Arctic has been warming at roughly twice the rate of lower latitudes for many years. Also, even if you just look at temperatures during El Niño years, those are getting hotter all by themselves! If this were just due to El Niño, those should be flat.

Gavin Schmidt, the NASA GISS director, tweeted a graph showing the temperatures:

That includes January and February 2016. Obviously, we’re seeing those huge jumps in temperature now. But also, ignore small-scale variations and look at the trend. Up, up, up: The anomalies were around 0.4° two decades ago. They’re twice that or more now, even before the spikes at the end.

So much for the “pause.” As we’ve seen again and again and again. Not that this will stop those who deny the climate science.

Come to think of it, that Mad Lib I started with? It should really be,

“Another record high global temperature was set for [Month][Year], according to [every measurement available], blowing away the last record from [recent month]. Yet [Republican politician] still denies [scientific result.]”

Remember, folks, this is your GOP front-runner:

That’s not just denial, that’s ridiculous (the tweet is from 2012, and Trump has since claimed he was joking, but the facts don't bear that claim fruit). And even if he loses the election, there’s always Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who will most likely still be in Congress and still doing whatever they can to almost literally throw gasoline on an ever-increasing fire.

Human-caused global warming has been going on for more than a century, and we’re dealing with the consequences now. And when it comes to planning for the future, Nov. 8, 2016, looms large.

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