In the annals of climate history, 2023 has etched its name as the hottest year on record, with dire warnings from scientists that 2024 may surpass even these unprecedented temperatures. The Copernicus Climate Change Service of the European Union officially confirmed today that 2023 registered the highest global average air surface temperature since records began in 1850. The revelation comes as no surprise to the scientific community, as climate experts had long anticipated this grim milestone due to a combination of human-induced climate change and an intensified El Niño weather pattern.
The data released by Copernicus reveals that the global average air surface temperature in 2023 reached 14.98°C, surpassing the previous record set in 2016 by a substantial 0.17°C. This alarming increase further underscores the severity of the climate crisis. Notably, the year was on average 1.48°C warmer than pre-industrial levels, marking a drastic departure from the climate conditions that shaped human civilization.
Carlo Buontempo, the director of Copernicus, described these findings as a "dramatic testimony of how far we now are from the climate in which our civilization developed." The implications of this record-breaking heat extend beyond the scientific realm, as it indicates that the world is steadily approaching the 1.5°C warming threshold established under the Paris Agreement. Beyond this point, the ability to adapt to climate impacts becomes increasingly challenging.
Met Office scientists express concerns that 2024 might surpass the scorching temperatures witnessed in 2023, potentially amplifying the extreme weather events experienced last year. Copernicus predicts that the 12-month period ending in January or February of this year is likely to exceed the 1.5°C threshold above pre-industrial levels.
The repercussions of the heightened temperatures in 2023 were already evident, exacerbating wildfires in eastern Canada, triggering drought in the Horn of Africa, and contributing to intense rain and heatwaves in the UK. Professor Piers Forster, interim chair of the UK's Climate Change Committee (CCC), emphasized that the UK faces increased risks of flooding from greater storm intensity. He also highlighted the global implications, including impacts on food supplies, migration, conflict, energy security, and trade.
While acknowledging the severity of the situation, Professor Forster urged action to prevent these impacts from becoming the new normal. He emphasized the urgency of reducing emissions, suggesting that cutting down on coal and limiting methane from fossil fuels and farming could halve the rate of global warming.
The reasons behind the record-breaking heat of 2023 are attributed to the rapid accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from activities such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation. Additionally, a transition to a warming weather pattern known as El Niño played a role, releasing heat from the ocean, particularly in the central-east equatorial Pacific.
Met Office scientists, including Professor Richard Betts and Dr. Nick Dunstone, anticipate the impact of the strong El Niño persisting into 2024, potentially leading to another record-breaking year. Dunstone highlighted the possibility of temporarily exceeding the critical 1.5°C threshold for the first time.
The effects of the scorching temperatures were not confined to the air, as oceans and polar regions experienced record-breaking warmth. Antarctic sea ice reached record lows for eight of the 12 months, and global average sea surface temperatures set records from April through the end of the year.
Amidst the grim data, climate scientists emphasize the importance of swift action to curb further warming. Dr. Friederike Otto from Imperial College London stressed that every tenth of a degree matters and urged efforts to stay below the 1.5°C target. Professor John Marsham of Leeds University underscored the urgent need to reduce fossil fuel use and achieve net-zero emissions to preserve a livable climate.
Ed Hawkins, a professor of climate science at the University of Reading, sees the extreme weather events of 2023 as a stark warning. He calls for a transition away from fossil fuels and achieving net-zero emissions, highlighting the availability of technologies to address the root causes of climate change. Hawkins emphasizes that the consequences of inaction today will be felt for generations, making it imperative to act swiftly and decisively.
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