While the political debate on climate change continues, the science remains firm: The new global “State of the Climate” report published by the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reveals 2016 was yet another record-breaker for the climate.
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Not only was it the warmest year documented since records began, but the frequency of extreme weather events around the world also increased.
DW spoke to the report’s co-editor Deke Arndt, head of the climate monitoring branch at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
DW: How would you describe the state of the climate?
Deke Arndt: This is an annual report, so it’s like getting the results of your annual physical exam. It was a very warm year, but more importantly in other parts of the climate system we saw change either at record levels in 2016, or reaffirming long-term trends that we’ve seen in recent years.
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We saw sea ice down near historic lows, we saw a warmer ocean – and especially in the upper layer of the ocean, heat content was at a record high – we saw extreme rains and extreme drought. We saw a lot of drought this year – not only over land but in the salty parts of the ocean, which are salty because there’s little precipitation. They were even saltier this year.
These all reinforce the point that we’re seeing changes throughout the world. Global temperature is an interesting number, but it’s this stuff that’s going on underneath that’s important to people’s lives.
And were there any surprise findings?
No, not big surprises. We’ve known that the world is changing overall. I’m astonished every year at the amount of ice that we lose from the glaciers around the world. Around an 18-meter (60-foot) thick slab of ice has essentially been erased from the top of the average glacier over the last 35 years. That blows me away. But in general, no, the signs we see are consistent with a warming planet and that is an unfortunate reality.
Which areas were most affected in 2016?
In terms of drought, it was happening around the world but particularly in the Southern Hemisphere. We saw significant issues in parts of South America, Australasia and Africa. It was a big drought year. Regionally, that was probably the big takeaway.
The Arctic, of course, continues to race ahead of the rest of the planet in terms of change. The changes that we’re seeing both in sea ice, in ocean temperatures, in the shrubification of the tundra, again, it’s been much faster than the rest of the planet.
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What sort of patterns emerged in the United States last year?
In the US, it was the second-warmest year on record. [The average temperature in the continental US] came in at 12.7 degrees Celsius (54.9 Fahrenheit). That’s 1.2 degrees above the 30-year normal – and we’re seeing an overall increase with US temperatures.
It was also a fairly wet year. We saw drought again in the southeastern US, but we saw a lot of drought recovery in the West. We’d really been dealing with drought in the western part of the US for several years, and we saw some relief in 2016.
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We are a small part of the planet, but we were quite warm compared to our own history, and we contributed to what was ultimately the warmest year on the global record.
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Each year, new scientific reports are published which basically say the same thing: climate change is happening and that it’s extremely likely humans are to blame. Added to this are stern warnings from scientists that the world has very little time left to decarbonize if global warming is to stay below the 2-degree Celsius threshold. Why do you think we keep having the same conversation? What’s holding us back from just accepting the science and getting on with the job?
Change is big, and it’s scary, and a lot of times people don’t jump into large changes without a great deal of impetus. But the purpose of this report has never really been to urge action; if there wasn’t a political environment surrounding climate change in various countries of the world, we’d still be doing this. It’s our job. This almanac is really for the history of science … and the purpose of the report is to help provide a central set of facts for the folks having these discussions.
Does it get frustrating to have to report the same things over and over again? What is the level of concern for you when you’re working in this field?
Some days are frustrating. There’s a concern that the world is changing too fast, and that some of us aren’t going to be able to keep up. That’s sad on a human level. I do worry quite a bit. There’s evidence every year that we are seeing profound global changes. It’s hard for a lot of people to get their heads around that. In some ways, it feels like a bad medical diagnosis, year after year after year, and you wish that it would sink in.
Based on past trends and observations, what can we expect for 2017? Do you think it will be another record-breaking year?
I don’t know if it will be a record-breaking year. Long-term climate change is like riding up the escalator, and [warming and cooling] events like El Niño and La Niña are like jumping up and down while you’re on the escalator.
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2016 was the warmest year on record because there was a fairly strong El Niño effect – it was a large jump, but there were also 50, 60 years of warming [that helped] reach that new high. El Niño has waned since the middle of 2016, so I don’t think 2017 will break records.
It will undoubtedly be one of the five warmest years on record, and it will be much warmer than anything we’ve seen since the late 20th century. That’s a no-brainer. Every year is now predestined to be a contender for the warmest year on record. That’s the consequence of long-term climate change.
Looking beyond 2017, what are the biggest areas of concern?
Water – that would be my assessment. Where do we go get water? How do we get water? How clean and fresh and available is that water? What is the timing of that water – do we depend on glacial melt? Around the world, the universal thread through all the issues we face all come back to water. Do we have too much? Do we have enough? Is it salty or fresh? And that’s going to be what we manage over time. When the political situation clears up – and it will – our sons and daughters will be working with each other to do the best job they can to manage water.
This interview was conducted by Charlotta Lomas, and was shortened and edited for clarity.