According to data released by NASA and NOAA last week, January was the 6th and 9th warmest January’s (respectively) globally on record. Here are the data for NASA’s analysis; here are NOAA data and report. The two agencies have slightly different analysis techniques, which in this case resulted in not only different temperature anomaly values but somewhat different rankings as well. The two techniques provide a check on one another and confidence for us.
January’s global average temperatures were 0.61°C (1.098°F) above normal (1951-1980), according to NASA, as the following graphic shows. The warmest regions on Earth coincide with the locations where climate models have been projecting the most warmth will occur: high latitudes (especially within the Arctic Circle). The past three months have a +0.58°C temperature anomaly. And the latest 12-month period (Feb 2012 – Jan 2013) had a +0.58°C temperature anomaly. The time series graph in the lower-right quadrant shows NASA’s 12-month running mean temperature index. The recent downturn (2010-2012) is largely due to the latest La Niña event (see below for more) that ended early last summer. Since then, ENSO conditions returned to a neutral state (neither La Niña nor El Niñ0). Therefore, as previous anomalously cool months fall off the back of the running mean, and barring another La Niña, the 12-month temperature trace should track upward again in 2013.
Figure 1. Global mean surface temperature anomaly maps and 12-month running mean time series through January 2013 from NASA.
According to NOAA, January’s global average temperatures were 0.54°C (0.97°F) above the 20th century mean of 14.0°C (57.2°F). NOAA’s global temperature anomaly map for January (duplicated below) shows where conditions were warmer than average during the month.
Figure 2. Global temperature anomaly map for January 2013 from NOAA.
The two different analyses’ importance is also shown by the preceding two figures. Despite differences in specific global temperature anomalies, both analyses picked up on the same temperature patterns and their relative strength.
The very warm conditions found over Greenland and Alaska are a concern. These areas were warmer than average during more months in recent history than not. Additionally, Australia was much warmer than usual. Indeed, Australia’s January average temperature was the highest on record: +2.28°C (4.10°F!) above the 1961–1990 average, besting the previous record set in 1932 by 0.11°C (0.20°F). In contrast to 2012, Siberian temperatures were cooler than normal. This is likely a temporary, seasonal effect. Long-term temperatures over northern Siberia continue to rise at among the fastest rate for any region on Earth.
These observations are also worrisome for the following reason: the globe came out of a moderate La Niña event in the first half of the year. During the second half of the year, we remained in a ENSO-neutral state (neither El Niño nor La Niña):
The last La Niña event hit its highest (most negative) magnitude more than once between November 2011 and February 2012. Since then, tropical Pacific sea-surface temperatures peaked at +0.8 (y-axis) in September 2012. You can see the effect on global temperatures that the last La Niña had via this NASA time series. Both the sea surface temperature and land surface temperature time series decreased from 2010 (when the globe reached record warmth) to 2012. So a natural, low-frequency climate oscillation affected the globe’s temperatures during the past couple of years. Underlying that oscillation is the background warming caused by humans. And yet temperatures were still in the top-10 warmest for a calendar year (2012) and individual months, including January 2013, in recorded history.
Skeptics have pointed out that warming has “stopped” or “slowed considerably” in recent years, which they hope will introduce confusion to the public on this topic. What is likely going on is quite different: since an energy imbalance exists (less outgoing energy than incoming energy) and the surface temperature rise has seemingly stalled, the excess energy is going somewhere. That somewhere is likely the oceans, and specifically the deep ocean. Before we all cheer about this (since few people want surface temperatures to continue to rise quickly), consider the implications. If you add heat to a material, it expands. The ocean is no different; sea-levels are rising because of heat added to it in the past. The heat that has entered in recent years won’t manifest as sea-level rise for some time, but it will happen. Moreover, when the heated ocean comes back up to the surface, that heat will then be released to the atmosphere, which will raise surface temperatures as well as additional water vapor. Thus, the immediate warming rate might have slowed down, but we have locked in future warming (higher future warming rate).
In a previous post on global temperatures, I pointed a few things out and asked some questions. The Conference of Parties summit produced no meaningful climate action (November 2012). Countries agreed to have something on paper by 2015 and enacted by 2020. If everything goes as planned (a huge assumption given the lack of historical progress), significant carbon reductions wouldn’t occur until later in the 2020s – too late to ensure <2°C warming by 2100. If, as is much more likely, everything doesn’t go as planned, reductions wouldn’t occur until later than the 2020s. Additional meetings are scheduled for this year, but I maintain my expectation that nothing meaningful will come from them. The international process is ill-equipped to handle all the legitimate interest groups in one fell swoop.
Instead, actions that start locally and grow with time are more likely to address emissions and eventual warming and other climate change effects. People started small-scale activities in cities around the world in recent years. There are also regional and international carbon markets. While most markets were poorly designed, lessons learned from the first generation can be used to make future generation markets more effective. As these small-scale efforts grow and their effects combine, larger bodies will need to address differences between them so that they work for larger populations and markets.
Paying for recovery from seemingly localized severe weather and climate events is and always will be more expensive than paying to increase resilience from those events. As drought continues to impact US agriculture, as Arctic ice continues to melt to new record lows, as storms come ashore and impacts communities that are not prepared for today’s high-risk events (due mostly to poor zoning and destruction of natural protections), economic costs will accumulate in this and in future decades. It is up to us how many costs we subject ourselves to. As President Obama begins his second term with climate change “a priority”, he tosses aside the most effective tool available and most recommended by economists: a carbon tax. Every other policy tool will be less effective than a Pigouvian tax at minimizing the actions that cause future economic harm. It is up to the citizens of this country, and others, to take the lead on this topic. We have to demand common sense actions that will actually make a difference. But be forewarned: even if we take action today, we will still see more warmest La Niña years, more warmest El Niño years, more drought, higher sea levels, increased ocean acidification, more plant stress, and more ecosystem stress. The biggest difference between efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to scrub sulfur and CFC emissions and future efforts to reduce CO2 emissions is this: the first two yielded an almost immediate result while it will take decades before CO2 emission reductions produce tangible results humans can see.