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It’s A Record Breaking Year – But What Does That Mean?


April was the seventh in a stream of months breaking temperature records around the globe – but that isn’t the only record due to climate change that has been surpassed lately.  The news is full of them, to the point that scientists and the media are beginning to sound like a broken record themselves!  But what else is being affected by our greenhouse gas emissions, and is there anything we can do?

A little bit of background

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the greenhouse gas that contributes most to man-made climate change.  Since the start of the industrial revolution we have burned vast amounts of coal, oil and gas for energy and dumped CO2 as a waste product into the atmosphere.  Since 1958 the Mauna Loa Observatory, situated in Hawaii, has been measuring atmospheric CO2 levels. Those levels have been oscillating higher each year since records began – as can be seen in the famous Keeling curve.

Keeling CurveThe famous Keeling Curve, showing the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels since monitoring began © Scripps Oceanography

Where we’re at now

In May the monitoring station on Tasmania’s Cape Grim measured an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time – so now stations in both Northern and Southern Hemispheres have noted ‘never seen before’ CO2 levels.  The increase is showing no sign of relenting any time soon due to the persistent burning of fossil fuels.  Higher atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases trap more heat at the Earth’s surface which leads to higher surface temperatures – so-called global warming.

Cape Grim air pollution stationTasmania’s Cape Grim air pollution station, which recently measured atmospheric carbon dioxide to have reached 400ppm. © CSIRO

At the UN climate change summit in Paris in December countries came to a historic agreement to limit global warming to well below 2°C and pursue efforts to limit the rise to 1.5°C. Average warming of 1.5°C is still projected to result in some large and disruptive climate impacts however these are substantially lower than those that would be seen at 2°C in terms of extreme weather events, water availability, agricultural yields, sea-level rise and risk of coral reef loss.

Temperature spiralling out of control

2015 was the hottest year on record and 2016 is already set to break that.  After all the positivity and energy of the Paris summit temperature records have been smashed each month since, further highlighting the fact that we need more action now.  At 36.7°C the UK saw its hottest July day ever last year and just this May a heatwave in India saw temperatures soar to a record 51°C and result in many deaths.  These temperature records are due to the ever thickening blanket of greenhouse gases boosted by strong El Niño conditions.  Ed Hawkins, a climate scientist from Reading University, has come up with a brilliant way of visualising the spiralling Earth’s temperature 1850-2016.

Spiralising temperatures gifA gif designed by climate scientist Ed Hawkins, visualising the way earths temperatures are spiraling out of control © The Climate lab Book

How are the record temperatures damaging the planet?

Higher surface temperature drives many other records.  For example the downward trend in Arctic sea-ice extent is a result of more heat which leads to less chance of ice forming and earlier melting.  Each September Artic sea-ice reaches a minimum extent and every March it peaks – 2016 is the lowest maximum in the satellite record, replacing last year’s record low, which could have catastrophic effects on Arctic species.

Arctic sea ice map © NOAAArctic sea ice map © NOAA

Another example reported in the news recently is that global warming combined with El Niño has caused the longest recorded global coral bleaching and die-off.  93% of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was affected by bleaching, with warmer waters effectively cooking the colour out of otherwise stunning corals, which after extended exposure can lead to death of the reef.  Globally sea levels are rising, with NASA measuring increases of 3.4mm per year.  This will continue to have large implications for people and wildlife in the decades and centuries to come as the lag in the earth’s system means that sea levels will continue to rise long after we stop burning fossil fuels.

Many records are being broken at the moment – including in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, global temperatures, Arctic sea-ice level, sea-level rise and coral bleaching.  These amongst others are why human-induced climate change is one of the biggest threats to the natural world; this is true in its own right but also because climate change can amplify existing threats.

Are we on the right track to making change?

There are also more encouraging recent records.  Last year in the UK electricity generated by renewable sources such as wind and solar overtook electricity generated by coal (PDF) for the first time.  Coal is the most polluting fossil fuel and for a few hours last month UK coal-fired electricity generation dropped to zero for the first time in over a century.  Globally, energy-related CO2 emissions have remained flat for the last two years – early days as this needs to drop fast – but certainly a promising sign.

Wind turbine at sunset near Camelford, Cornwall, UKWind turbine at sunset near Camelford, Cornwall, UK. © Global Warming Images/ WWF

To fight the worst impacts of climate change we must urgently and drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions by for example improving energy efficiency, switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources and by changing our patterns of consumption.

The Paris summit saw a hopeful agreement between governments.  If we’re to stay under a warming of 1.5°C, we need to see more action including our own government committing to an ambitious carbon plan for the future and further pledging to reduce emissions.

How can you make a difference?

If you’re wondering how you personally could make a difference, take a look at some of the actions you can take to help us create a more positive future for humans and species alike.  You can also measure the impact of your lifestyle choices with our carbon footprint calculator

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