Is 2014 really the hottest year ever?

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  • Sunday, 14 Dec 2014

In late September, an estimated 35,000 walruses were stranded ashore at Point Lay, Alaska, after apparently being unable to find sea ice to rest on. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states that these unusual mass gatherings may be occuring due to climate change. -NOAA /EPA

Record average temperatures highlight the urgent need to agree to a global deal on carbon emissions.

The world is on course for the hottest year ever in 2014, heightening the sense of urgency around climate change negotiations. Preliminary estimates from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) found global average land and sea surface temperatures for the first 10 months of 2014 had soared higher than ever recorded. The findings – broadly in line with those of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other scientific agencies – indicate that by year-end, 2014 will break all previous high temperature records.

The steady escalation of greenhouse gas emissions, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, has seen a succession of record-breaking years for temperature since the dawning of the 21st century, and 2014 promises to be no exception, the WMO said.

“Fourteen of the 15 warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century,” said the WMO secretary-general Michel Jarraud.

“What we saw in 2014 is consistent with what we expect from a changing climate. Record-breaking heat combined with torrential rainfall and floods destroyed livelihoods and ruined lives. What is particularly unusual and alarming this year are the high temperatures of vast areas of the ocean surface, including in the northern hemisphere,” he added.

Christiana Figueres, the UN’s top climate official, said the findings drove home the urgency of reaching a deal on emission cut-backs. Negotiations have been grinding on for more than 20 years.

“Our climate is changing and every year, the risks of extreme weather and its impact on humanity rise,” she said.

In late September, an estimated 35,000 walruses were stranded ashore at Point Lay, Alaska, after apparently being unable to find sea ice to rest on. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states that these unusual mass gatherings may be occuring due to climate change. -NOAA /EPA

Mercury rising

The WMO report found the global average air temperature over the land and sea surface from January to October was about 0.57°C above the average of 14°C for the 1961–1990 reference period, and 0.09°C above the average for the past 10 years 2004–2013.

However, the most striking evidence of warming was probably in the oceans.

Most of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gas emissions ends up in the oceans. The WMO said global sea surface temperatures were 0.45°C higher than the average over the last 50 years

If December continues on the same course, then 2014 will edge out 2010, 2005 and 1998 as the hottest years ever known – but only by a few hundredths of a degree. Different data sets also show slightly different rankings, the WMO said.

In any event, the trend line is clear. The world is getting warmer, especially the oceans. Those higher temperatures were already exacting a toll, in terms of heavy rainfall and flooding in some countries, and extreme drought in others, the WMO said.

The WMO found western North America, Europe, eastern Eurasia, much of Africa, large areas of South America and southern and western Australia were especially warm. South Africa, Australia, and Argentina started the year with blistering heat waves.

However, the United States and Canada ushered in 2014 with the chill Arctic winds of the polar vortex. Central Russia also recorded cooler than average conditions for the year.

Europe also experienced extreme weather, with Britain buffetted by storms. In Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, more than two million people were caught up in severe flooding. Parts of Turkey saw five times the normal amount of rain, and France experienced its wettest summer since 1959.

South Asia also experienced heavy rains, with severe flooding in northern Bangladesh, northern Pakistan and India, affecting millions of people in August and September.

For other parts of the world, however, 2014 brought drought. Rainfall in parts of the Yellow River basin in China were less than half of the summer average. A large swathe of the western United States continued under drought. New South Wales and south-east Queensland in Australia also went without rain.

The world’s big three emitters – the United States, China and the European Union – have pledged new targets for cutting their use of fossil fuels. But scientists say even those targets are not enough to limit warming to 2°C, and other big carbon polluters such as India, Russia, and Australia have yet to come on board.

Costly affair

Meanwhile, a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) said adapting to a warmer world will cost hundreds of billions of dollars and up to three times as much as previous estimates, even if global climate talks manage to keep temperature rises below dangerous levels. Its Adaptation Gap Report shows a significant funding gap after 2020 unless more funds from rich countries are pumped in to helping developing nations adapt to the droughts, flooding and heat waves that are expected to accompany climate change.

“The report provides a powerful reminder that the potential cost of inaction carries a real price tag. Debating the economics of our response to climate change must become more honest,” said Unep executive director Achim Steiner at the recent climate talks in Lima, Peru.

“We owe it to ourselves and also to the next generation, as it is they who will have to foot the bill.”

Without further action on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the report warns, the cost of adaptation will soar even further as wider and more expensive action is needed to protect communities from the extreme weather brought about by climate change.

Rich countries have pledged US$9.7bil to the Green Climate Fund but the figure is well short of the minimum target of US$100bil each year by 2020. — Guardian News & Media

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