Climate

This Is How The World’s Climate Changed Last Year

CREDIT: NOAA

The state of the world’s climate is complex enough that it takes 413 scientists from 58 countries half a year to completely summarize a year’s worth of data.

And 2014 was a doozy.

According to the American Meteorological Society and NOAA’s “State of the Climate in 2014” report, several markers measuring the earth’s climatic trends set historical records. This is the 25th year that scientists have provided this report, and it was full of hundreds of pages of detailed atmospheric and oceanic summaries of what’s happening to our air, land, and water.

“The year 2014 was forecast to be a warm year, and it was by all accounts a very warm year, in fact record warm according to four independent observational datasets,” the report said. The reason: “the radiative forcing by long-lived greenhouse gases continued to increase, owing to rising levels of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other radiatively active trace gases.”

The world’s experts know that climate change is happening, and why, and provide reports like these every year spelling out the impacts in excruciating detail.

“The variety of indicators shows us how our climate is changing, not just in temperature but from the depths of the oceans to the outer atmosphere,” said Thomas R. Karl, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.

For those without the time to peruse nearly 300 pages of scientific summaries, here are seven records that fell in 2014.

Heat

Average temperature in 2014 compared to the 1981-2010 average. Adapted from Plate 2.1c in State of the Climate in 2014.

Average temperature in 2014 compared to the 1981-2010 average. Adapted from Plate 2.1c in State of the Climate in 2014.

CREDIT: NOAA/BAMS

Though the world knew this back in January thanks to NOAA data, the report confirmed, and elaborated upon, the certainty around the record broken by 2014 as the hottest year on record.

With the glaring exception of the eastern North American continent, many countries — more than 20 — broke high temperature records last year. Much of Europe and Mexico had their hottest years, while Australia, Argentina, Uruguay, and much of Africa came close.

“Australia’s annual mean temperature anomaly, with respect to 1961–90, was +0.91°C, making 2014 the third warmest year for the country since national temperature records began in 1910,” the report said. The year before, 2013, was the hottest year on record.

With emissions continuing and El Nino coming on strong, it should not be a surprise that 2015 looks to easily break 2014’s global average surface temperature record.

Sea Levels

To convey the surreality of their findings, G.C. Johnson and A.R. Parsons, the authors of the Global Oceans section of the report used a tactic uncommon in climatology. Haikus. Haikus for sea level rise and rising temperatures.

Not quite El Niño,
North Oceans’ fluxes, warmth shift,
dance with weird weather.

Seas warm, ice caps melt,
waters rise, sour, rains shift salt,
unceasing, worldwide.

Measuring average global sea level is fantastically complex stuff. Winds can move large volumes of water around, temperature shifts can make the ocean shrink in some places and not others, while the daily tides, currents, and other variables conspire together to sabotage an accurate reading. So experts use a variety of different measurements and data streams to get something accurate and useful. And it told them that 2014 broke another sea level record.

slr

CREDIT: BASM

“Owing to both ocean warming and land ice melt contributions, global mean sea level in 2014 was also record high and 67 mm greater than the 1993 annual mean, when satellite altimetry measurements began,” the report said.

Sea levels do not rise when icebergs or ice sheets floating in them melt — the water has already been displaced. Melting land ice does make sea levels rise, and this is the cause of sea level rise that most people know. However, the heat being pumped into the oceans from the greenhouse effect not only increases the temperature, it also causes the water to expand, which makes sea levels rise.

Hot Days, Warm Nights

daysnights

CREDIT: NOAA/BAMS

“The year 2014 experienced a relatively large number of warm days,” the report said. The worldwide anomaly was the midwestern United States, which had a steady flow of Arctic cold keeping things chilly. Similarly, the world saw more warm nights and fewer cool nights outside of the Midwest.

Most of Europe had excessively large numbers of hot days and nights — daily maxima and minima. Several countries set records for warmest annual values.

“These continuous warm anomalies contributed to 2014 seeing the largest frequency of warm days and nights on record: on a continental average over a quarter of days (and nights) had temperatures in the warmest 10% of the climatological (1961–90) temperature distribution,” the report said.

The winter minimum in most of Alaska was also the warmest on record, which helped it break its regional heat record.

Storms In Hot Water

“Across the major tropical cyclone basins, 91 named storms were observed during 2014, above the 1981–2010 global average of 82,” the report said. “The Eastern/Central Pacific and South Indian Ocean basins experienced significantly above-normal activity in 2014; all other basins were either at or below normal.”

By many accounts, however, 2014 was a weak year for tropical cyclones, especially compared to the large number of strong storms in 2013. But the strong cyclones of 2014 were often extremely powerful.

Of the 91 named storms, seven became Category 5 systems: Marie and Genevieve, Cyclone Gillian, and then Super Typhoons Halong, Vongfong, Nuri, and Hagupit.

“The rate of typhoons that reached super typhoon status in 2014 was 67%, exceeding the previous record rate of 58% in 1970,” the report noted. Usually, only 23 percent of normal typhoons can hit super typhoon intensity each year.

Yearly mean Optimal Interpolation of Sea Surface Temperature anomaly.

Yearly mean Optimal Interpolation of Sea Surface Temperature anomaly.

CREDIT: BAMS

One factor at play is extremely high ocean surface temperatures.

“But it was the oceans that drove the record global surface temperature in 2014,” the report said. “Although 2014 was largely ENSO-neutral [EL Niño Southern Oscillation], the globally averaged sea surface temperature (SST) was the highest on record.”

Disappearing Glaciers

“In higher latitudes and at higher elevations, increased warming continued to be visible in the decline of glacier mass balance, increasing permafrost temperatures, and a deeper thawing layer in seasonally frozen soil,” the report said. This was particularly dramatic in Greenland. Warm temperatures melt ice faster than snowfall can replenish it, and darker melt pools on the top of the glaciers absorb more energy from the sun than frozen white ice.

This has been going on for decades, and the rate has been accelerating:

glacierloss

The World Glacier Monitoring Service received preliminary data from Argentina, Austria, Chile, China, France, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. It indicated that for the 31st consecutive year, the world saw no “positive annual balances,” of the water stored by glaciers. Specifically, the earth saw the loss of 0.853 meters of water equivalent — “the equivalent depth of water resulting from snow or ice melt.”

Since 1980, that cumulative mass balance loss hit 16.8 meters in 2014.

Pollution

The report said carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide all hit record concentrations in the atmosphere last year, as they have for essentially each year beforehand.

“Carbon dioxide increased by 1.9 ppm [parts per million] to reach a globally averaged value of 397.2 ppm for 2014,” the abstract began. “Altogether, 5 major and 15 minor greenhouse gases contributed 2.94 W/m² of direct radiative forcing, which is 36% greater than their contributions just a quarter century ago.”

ghgemissionschart

CREDIT: BAMS

Some climate watchers are familiar with the Keeling Curve, which has plotted the carbon dioxide concentration readings taken from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii since 1958. In 2013, the tracker passed above 400 ppm for the first time in recorded history, and each year since, more days have been spent above that symbolic number.

Using other measurements to supplement the data, the report estimated that the 2014 global average was 397.2 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, a 1.9 ppm bump from 2013. This year, the number will continue its inexorable climb, unless global emissions slow significantly.

One graph unknown to most is the methane concentration graph, let alone the nitrous oxide graph. Those, according to the report, show a similar upward sweep. The CFC graph at the bottom alone displays a slow decline in atmospheric concentrations because the world came together more than 25 years ago to address the hole in the ozone layer CFCs were creating, and agreed on the Montreal Protocol. This limited CFCs’ use in aerosols and other products. They were largely replaced, however, by HFCs, which are also extremely potent greenhouse gases.

The CFC graph shows what a successful emissions reduction regime might look like for the other greenhouse gases.