Monday, June 25, 2018

Warming Temperatures are an Urgent Warning

We are seeing more intense, frequent, wider, and longer heat waves as well as five times more heat records than we did when the climate was stable. The global average temperature has been surpassing the 20th century average for more than 42 straight years. Last year was no exception with record breaking temperatures exceeding 129°F (54°C) which according to some analysts is the highest accurately recorded temperatures ever documented. Last year was the hottest year on record after 2016 and 2015. The trend is clear, all of the hottest years on record have occurred in recent years. The five warmest years have all come since 2010, the 10 warmest years have occurred since 1998 and the 20 warmest years on record have occurred since 1995.

In the face of overwhelming evidence deniers continue to look for ways they can refute the scientific consensus on global warming. We continue to debate the veracity of this issue despite the fact that it has been settled by decades of science. It is unconscionable that mainstream journalists continue to publish alternative interpretations of the data. A good example is a recent Wall Street Journal article that casts aspersions on James Hansen's predictions.

Individual data points notwithstanding, the fact remains that global temperature averages continue to increase and this is consistent with almost all the scientific predictions. The most recent observations are further corroboration of what we have known for years. In 2014 the AR5 (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC Fifth Assessment Report) noted that, "most global land areas analyzed have experienced significant warming of both maximum and minimum temperature extremes since about 1950" and concluded that it is "likely that human influence has more than doubled the probability of occurrence of heat waves in some locations." The dangers of heat waves were also cited in the EPA's endangerment finding.

The Spring and Summer of 2017 were extremely hot in the US, Europe, Asia and South America. Last year the US Southwest, (California, Nevada, and Arizona) smashed daily high temperature records set the year before. In 2017 we saw a number of high temperature records set in countries all around the world including Iran, Pakistan, Oman, Norway, and Austria. This is a trend that appears to be continuing this year with record setting heat waves in the US, Canada, UK, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Qatar and Australia.

North America

The southwest US had its warmest year ever in 2017 and a number of high temperature records were set. On June 20th 2017, Death Valley, recorded a temperature of 126.5°F (52.5°C), making it the highest temperature measured in the Western Hemisphere so early in the year. In the early summer of 2017 temperatures approached record levels in the US southwest and California with temperatures around 120.2°F (49°C) in places. In Phoenix Arizona the heat caused the cancellation of some flights. The warm weather is not just restricted to the summer. In the heart of winter of 2017 Oklahoma hit 100°F (37.7°C). Early in July 2017, a spate of high temperature records were set California and northern Nevada. This includes the communities of Stockton, Modesto, South Lake Tahoe, Reno and Downtown Los Angeles.

Canada is often associated with cold weather but even here we are seeing profound warming. On July 6th 2017 dozens of temperature records were broken in the Canadian province of British Columbia including the area around Cache Creek, Castlegar, Clearwater, Clinton, Gibsons, Hope Slide area, Kamloops, Kelowna, Mackenzie, Merritt, Nakusp, Nelson, Osoyoos, Penticton, Prince George, Puntzi Mountain, Squamish area, Vernon, Williams Lake and Warfield. On July 8th 2017 a number of records were set in Saskachewan including in the communities of Assiniboia, Coronach, Rockglen and Val Marie.

In 2018 the trend continued in Canada. Windsor, Ontario broke heat records in Februrary and in May records were broken in Alberta. Both Edmonton and Calgary had a record breaking heat wave. During the same period in May heat records were broken in B.C. and New Bruswick.

In 2018 the US experienced record warmth in February and the lower 48 states had the warmest May on record. At the end of May going into June south-central portions of the United States registered near record setting heat. It is expected that the period between May and July will be the warmest on record in the continental US.. It is hot but it will get much hotter if we continue with business as usual. By 2100 the average high summer temperature in the US is expected to warm by almost 20 degrees Fahrenheit (10°C).

According to the University of Winnipeg’s Prairie Climate Centre's new interactive tool called Climate Atlas communities across Canada will experience substantially more heat waves. Toronto will face 100 searing-hot days a year in the decades ahead. 

Europe

A protracted heat wave saturated Mediterranean nations (from Portugal to western Balkans) in the spring and summer of 2017. In Portugal temperatures exceeding 104°f (40 °C) caused forest fires that killed at least 60 people. Neighboring Spain recorded its warmest spring since 1965 and a number of Spanish cities broke records in June including Granda, Madrid, Salamanca and Zamora. French cities also broke records in June include Cuers, Toulon, Montpellier and Marseille. Last August much of Europe sweltered under a heat wave called "Lucifer". The UK also registered above average temperatures in 2017 and May 2018 was the warmest on record. The Spring of 2018 was exceptionally hot in Europe and the outlook for summer suggests the worst is yet to come.

Asia

Asia was also affected by heat waves in 2017. In 2017 temperature records were broken across Asia including the Middle East. On May 17 in Mesaira, United Arab Emirates, temperatures surpassed 122°F (50°C). One month later on June 15, Iran and Iraq recorded temperatures in excess of 122°F (50°C). Not only are the highs higher but the lows are getting higher as well. On June 17, Khasab, Oman set another world record for the highest nighttime minimum at 111°F (44.2°C). Oman tied all-time heat records in 2017. A 126°F (52°C) reading in Awhaz, Iran, on June 29, the highest temperature ever in that country and the highest-ever June reading in Asia. On July 21, Mitribah Kuwait recorded temperatures of 129.3°F (54°C) on the same day Basra, Iraq saw temperatures soar to 129°F (53.9°C).

In 2017 Eastern China had its warmest year on record. The town of Turbat in southwestern Pakistan reported a temperature of 129.3°F (54°C) on May 28 is the highest temperature ever recorded in May. The Hanoi region of Vietnam, smashed the previous high temperature record with a reading of 108°F (42°C) on June 4th.

The warm weather persists in 2018 with a number of record breaking high temperatures in Asia. For example on April 30th 2018, temperatures in Nawabshah, Pakistan reached 122°F (50°C). Pakistan's searing April temperatures set a new global record. On March 29, the temperature in Nawabshah, Iraq hit 113.9°F (45.5°C). On March 30, Pakistan registered its hottest weather ever so early in the season. On the same day, Abu Samrah, Qatar broke records with temperatures of 104°F (40°C). Other monthly records may have fallen in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and the United Arab Emirates. On June 26th 2018 the city of Quriyat in Oman is alleged to have recorded the highest "low" temperature in known history with a reading of  108.7°F (42.6°C).

Australia

Australia has suffered through heat waves in 2016 extending into 2017. During the Southern Hemisphere's summer of 2017, record heat swept through Australia, which set more than 40 high-temperature records. Eastern Australia had its warmest year ever in 2017. In February Temperatures spiked to over 107°F (41.6°C) in Sydney and up to 117°F (47°C) farther inland. Several towns west of Sydney had record-setting streaks of temperatures above 104°F (40°C). The White Cliffs weather station in the Southeast, recorded the warmest-ever nighttime low temperature in Australia, at 94.3°F (34.6°C). Some spots in Queensland, in the Northeast, broke the 104°F (40°C) Celsius mark for the first time ever. In Canberra, the number of heat wave days has doubled in the past 60 years and records show that extreme heat has killed more Australians than any other type of natural disaster in the last 100 years. In 2018 Australia registered its warmest and driest April ever and on April 9, Sydney broke heat records.

South America

Parts of South America have also warmed to record levels during the Southern Hemisphere's summer of 2017. In Chile, where 12 different weather stations set all-time temperature records above 110°F (43°C) in late January. The sweltering heat contributed to the worst wildfires in Chile's history. These fires ravaged more than 300,000 acres.

Conclusion

Although individual temperature readings cannot be taken as evidence of global warming when we string them all together over the course of decades a convincing body of evidence emerges. The situation is growing ever more urgent as predictions for the future indicate the situation will get far worse.

"By 2040, we will see about 12 times more monthly heat records than in a stable climate, not just five times, as in recent years," said Stefan Rahmstorf, a climate scientist with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. "In that sense, four out of five monthly heat records are most likely man-made.... And these new heat records will also be hotter than past records, since, with every new record, the bar for topping that one again is raised."

As pointed out in a Vanity Fair article extreme heat already makes some places uninhabitable for at least parts of the year. Computer models predict that increasing levels of heat will make larger portions of the earth uninhabitable for longer periods of time. As is often the case with climate impacts, poorer communities will suffer disproportionately.

High temperatures contribute to a wide range of serious and even life threatening problems including extreme weather, and wildfires. In 1995 a three day heat wave in Chicago killed more than 700 people, a 2003 European heat wave killed more 30,000 people across the continent. A study released in June 2017 indicates that 30 percent of the world's population is currently at risk from deadly heat waves. If we fail to act that number will climb to 74 percent of the people on Earth.

The implications extend beyond human lives and include serious risks to our infrastructure that represents both a threat and an opportunity for our economies. Increasing heat is impacting everything from air travel to construction. Extreme heat exacerbates social tensions and foments conflict. We can expect to see more mass migration and new classes of migrants including groups of individuals known as climate refugees. Melting sea ice will cause more sea level rise and this on its own could displace billions of people around the world. Heat is also causing extensive crop failures and it is killing vast numbers of coral reefs. Entire eco-systems are being degraded or destroyed and if we continue with business as usual the situation is destined to get far worse.

We are faced with an existential choice. We must act now if we are to have a chance of keeping temperatures from warming more than the upper safe limit of between 1.5°C and 2.0°C above preindustrial norms. Our window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Two independent studies indicate that we are facing perilous odds. The first study suggests that we have a 13 percent chance of keeping temperatures below 1.5°C. The second study suggests that the chances of staying within 2.0°C is very small and the chances of staying within 1.5°C are almost zero.

The planet is warming because of GHGs largely from the burning of fossil fuels so to address the problem we need to wean ourselves off of dirty sources of energy. We understand the problem and we know what we have to do to address it. The only mystery is why we have failed to act in the face of such overwhelming evidence.

This story was last updated on June 30, 2018

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