We may have signed a global climate agreement at COP21 in Paris but global levels of atmospheric emissions keep climbing along with temperature records.
The NOAA reports that we have passed 405 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere this year. According to NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the global average temperature was 1.13 degrees C, or slightly more than 2 degrees F, warmer in January 2016 than the long-term average (1951-1980) for this month. This beats the previous record for the warmest recorded January that was set in 2007.
While the so called super El Niño played a role the temperatures are also being driven upward by growing levels of CO2. Month after month the overall trend continues and this cannot be explained by El Niño.
While we must always make the distinction between climate and weather, January 2016 contributes to an ongoing decades long warming trend. One of the more troubling aspects of January’s weather is the particularly warm temperatures in the north (above 60 degrees latitude). This includes the Canadian Arctic, Greenland and Siberia. This is part of what is called the Arctic Oscillation or differences in air pressure over the Arctic and lower latitudes. The phenomenon allows Arctic air to flow south while warmer air is pumped north. The Arctic is warming two or three times faster than the rest of the globe.
As reported by Discover, the president of the Sami Parliament of Norway said:
“Indigenous peoples are running out of time and are having fewer opportunities to adapt to changes.”
There are many impacts associated with a warming Arctic that extend beyond the catastrophic impacts being felt by the regions indigenous populations. This includes changes in global weather patterns due to the disruption of the the jet stream which will also cause more extreme weather events like the polar vortex. Melting sea ice can also disrupt ocean circulation and currents. Greenhouse gases have caused the earth to warm and Arctic ice to retreat, this in turn is the cause of what is known as the albeido effect where more of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the earth and less is reflected back into space. Simply put, less ice means more warming.
Sea ice coverage has declined by 40 percent since the late 70s and as of 2007 that trend appears to be accelerating. According to a report titled “Arctic Matters: The Global Connection to Changes in the Arctic” by the National Research Council of the National Academies, Arctic sea ice extent is the lowest it has been in over three decades. The expectation is that we will soon see ice free summers in the Arctic. This means that in the coming decades the Arctic will be navigable by ship traffic.
Melting arctic ice will also increase erosion and the rate at which methane seeps from the permafrost. Together the impacts of Arctic warming are directly related to everything from accelerated warming to the resultant food scarcity.
Warming temperatures are directly related to increasing levels of atmospheric carbon and other greenhouse gases. We have never seen such a rapid buildup of greenhouse gases than the one augured by the industrial revolution and our wanton burning of fossil fuels.
During the Pliocene 2.6 – 5.3 million years ago, there was between 350 and 400 ppm of atmospheric CO2. At that time global average temperatures were 2-3 degrees Celsius hotter than 1880s levels and sea levels were about 80 feet higher than current levels.
The Mauna Loa Observatory has recently reported that CO2 levels have hit a new record global high of 405.66 ppm. Last year we saw the fastest growth of CO2 ever recorded. We can expect that by the time atmospheric carbon levels reach their annual maximum in May we will see levels of around 407 ppm. We have not seen these levels of atmospheric carbon since the Middle Miocene climate epoch, 15 to 17 million years ago. During this period temperatures were between 3 to 5 degrees Celsius hotter than they were in 1880 and sea levels were about 120 to 190 feet higher.
The trend is troubling as we may be on the cusp of tipping points. From the release of methane stored in the Arctic permafrost to the failure of traditional carbon sinks there are a host of concerns associated with these levels of emissions. For example it is known that the oceans which have long been a sink for carbon can no longer absorb as much CO2 as they used to.
The inter-relatedness of all these climate phenomenon (global average temperature, the Arctic, sea ice and global emissions) weave a troubling tale of a climate that is rapidly spiraling out of control.
Arctic Sea Ice is Disappearing
Arctic Warming Feedback Loops: Algae Blooms and Thawing Permafrost
2015 was the Hottest Year on Record and 2016 will be Hotter
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October 2015 Breaks More Heat Records and Corroborates Accelerated Warming
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September Heat Records Offer More Evidence for Accelerated Warming
2015 – The Hottest Summer in the Hottest Year on Record
Global Temperature Data Underscores the Urgency of Climate Action
El Niño and Global Warming are Locked in a Feedback Loop
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Record Breaking Heat Suggests Accelerated Warming