2016 On Track To Be Hottest Year On Record — Details On Atmospheric CO2 Levels, Falling Sea Ice Extent In Antarctica, Coral Bleaching, & Extreme Weather

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2016 is very likely to be the hottest year on record when it’s over, according to a new assessment from the World Meteorological Organization. As it stands, preliminary data are showing that global temperatures in 2016 are roughly 1.2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels — not far below the supposed “safe” limit of 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels.


You’ll probably recall that 2015 is currently the hottest year on record, and that most of the other record-breaking years had been in very recent times as well. In fact, 16 out of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred since the turn of the century. The only year included in the top 17 that didn’t occur after the turn of the century was 1998. So, the trend seems to be continuing, at the very least; and accelerating notably, at the worst.

As far as comparisons against the 1961–1990 baseline reference period that’s often used by researchers, global temperatures for the January to September 2016 time period are up around 0.88° Celsius (1.58°F) from the average of that time period, 14° Celsius.

In other words, if you grew up in the early 1960s, then global average temperatures have climbed nearly 1° Celsius since your childhood.


Related to these record-breaking high temperatures, global atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane levels have been rising, and this rise has seemingly been accelerating nearly every year. Levels at Mauna Loa hit a new high of 407.7 ppm (parts per million) in May — which is pretty amazing when you remember that the “safe” level is considered by some to be 350 ppm.

Here’s an overview of the changes and notable events that we’ve seen so far in 2016:

Sea-Surface Temperatures, Coral Bleaching, & Global Sea Level Rise

Sea-surface temperatures have been “above normal” in 2016 over most oceanic regions — with a notable exception being the area around the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica.

The high sea-surface temperatures seen so far in 2016 have contributed to enormous cases of coral bleaching — including coral mortality of up to 50% in certain parts of the Great Barrier Reef, which even prompted us to post an “obituary” for the Great Barrier Reef. With significant coral bleaching events, the whole ecosystems that are based around them tend to collapse rapidly, impacting not only the organisms living in these environments but also the people dependent upon them for food (to some degree or other).

Something not noted in the World Meteorological Organization’s assessment is that viral levels in seawater, and in the coral reefs of the world, have been increasing exponentially over the last few decades. Research to date has implicated runoff containing domesticated animal waste, untreated wastewater releases, and agricultural fertilizers in this viral boom. Viral levels in seawater are related to coral bleaching events, research has indicated — presumably through the action of weakening the corals and making them more susceptible to environmental stressors than would otherwise be the case.

As far as sea level rise, things have really kicked up a notch these last few years — with the latest El Niño (November 2014 through February 2016) resulting in a global sea level rise of around 15 millimeters. This compares to a “post 1993” sea level rise trend of 3 to 3.5 millimeters per year.


Arctic Sea Ice Levels, Falling Antarctic Sea Ice Extent, & Substantial Melting In Greenland

While Arctic sea ice levels continue to show a sharp downward trend, the more interesting event this year was probably that Antarctic sea ice extent fell notably to “near normal” levels by the start of the year, and that the seasonal maximum in Antarctica was reached nearly a month earlier than usual (well below normal levels for the time of year as of the end of October).

As far as Arctic sea ice extent, the seasonal minimum was reached in September, at 4.14 million square kilometers — meaning that this year is tied with 2007 for the second-lowest Arctic sea ice extent on record. 2012 is the year that saw sea ice levels in the Arctic reach their lowest recorded extent.

Notably, the Arctic’s autumn freeze has been considerably slower than is “normal” — with the sea ice extent recorded at the end of October being the lowest on record for the time of year.

And with regard to Greenland, summer ice sheet melting was “substantially above the 1990–2013 average, with especially strong melting in July, but was less than in the record melting year of 2012.”

2017 should be very interesting with regard to sea ice and ice sheets.

Global Temperatures

As noted at the start of the article, global temperatures for the January to September 2016 time period were around 1.2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels and 0.88° Celsius (1.58° Fahrenheit) above the average for the 1961–1990 reference period.

The earlier parts of the year, when the El Niño influence was still waning, was particularly warm — with a monthly temperature anomaly of +1.12° Celsius (+2.02° Fahrenheit) in February.

“Temperatures were above the 1961–90 average over the vast majority of land areas. In parts of Arctic Russia around the Ob River estuary and Novaya Zemlya, they were 6° Celsius to 7° Celsius above average. Many other Arctic and sub-Arctic regions in Russia, Alaska and northwest Canada were at least 3° Celsius above average. More than 90% of Northern Hemisphere land areas outside the tropics were at least 1° Celsius above average. Temperatures were less extreme in the Southern Hemisphere, but many areas were still 1° Celsius or more above average, including northern South America, northern and eastern Australia, and much of southern Africa.”

The only region that has experienced below-average temperatures in 2016 is the region encompassing northern and central Argentina, parts of Paraguay, and lowland Bolivia.

Atmospheric Greenhouse Gas Concentrations (CO2 Levels)

Global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have continued to increase, at an ever growing rate, in 2016.

“Annual average global carbon dioxide concentrations in 2015 reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time. Initial observations indicate new records in 2016. At Cape Grim (Australia), CO2 levels in August averaged 401.42 ppm, compared with 398.13 ppm in August 2015. At Mauna Loa (Hawaii), mean weekly concentrations of CO2 as of 23 October were 402.07 ppm, compared with 398.50 ppm at the same time in 2015, whilst the May 2016 value of 407.7 ppm was the highest monthly value on record.”

Extreme Weather, Floods, Heatwaves, Droughts, & Wildfires

Extreme weather events — extreme drought, wildfires, and flood events — all seem to be increasing and growing in intensity.

In 2016, October’s Hurricane Matthew was a major event, with 546 confirmed kills in Haiti. In addition to mortality events, Hurricane Matthew caused widespread destruction elsewhere in Cuba, the Bahamas, and the east coast of the US. Major flooding occurred in South Carolina and elsewhere.

On the other side of the world, Typhoon Lionrock caused extreme flooding as well and “heavy casualties” in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And Cyclone Winston was apparently the strongest storm on record in Fiji.

Altogether, there were 78 tropical cyclones/hurricanes in 2016 as of the end of October — close to the long-term average.

As far as flooding, the Yangtze basin in China had its worst summer floods since 1999, which killed at least 310 people and caused $14 billion in damages. Major flooding also occurred in Sri Lanka in May, which killed at least 200 people and displaced several hundreds of thousands in the region. There was also heavy flooding in the Sahel, with the Niger River basin in Mali reaching its highest river levels in around 50 years.

Major heatwaves abounded in 2016, with things kicking off early in the year with “an extreme heatwave in southern Africa, exacerbated by the ongoing drought. Many stations set all-time records, including 42.7°C at Pretoria and 38.9°C at Johannesburg on 7 January. Thailand saw a national record of 44.6°C on 28 April. Phalodi saw a new record for India of 51.0°C on 19 May. Record or near-record temperatures occurred in parts of the Middle East and north Africa on a number of occasions in summer. Mitribah (Kuwait) recorded 54.0°C on July 21 which, subject to ratification through standard WMO procedures, will be the highest temperature on record for Asia. The following day, 53.9°C was recorded at Basra (Iraq) and 53.0°C at Delhoran (Iran).”

As far as wildfires, Canada experienced its worst wildfire (as far as damages) in its history (the country, not the land itself) — which occurred in May near Fort McMurray in Alberta. Altogether, this wildfire destroyed an area of around 590,000 hectares, led to the complete evacuation of the city, destroyed 2,400 buildings, and caused around $3 billion in insured losses + several billion dollars in uninsured losses.

As far as major droughts, “Southern Africa experienced a second consecutive bad rainy season in 2015–16. Most of the region normally receives little rain between May and October, and the World Food Programme estimates that 17 million people will require assistance during the ‘lean season’ ahead of the next harvest in early 2017.”

Mass Migration, Food Security, Social Effects, & Climate Displacement

Which brings us to the subject of the changing climate’s effect on humans. With extreme drought, or floods, or storms, people are often displaced in great quantities. Large-scale displacement predictably leads to problems for the regions that have to absorb the displaced peoples.

The relatively slow rise of global sea levels will have a similar effect — displacing vast numbers of people — as will the accelerating desertification of some regions. (Note: the potential is there for rapid sea level pulses, as have occurred in the past, Greenland is worth keeping an eye on for that reason.)

As temperatures continue rising, so will mass migration levels and the associated social and geopolitical problems. The likelihood of pandemics also rise as a result. (See: “Climate Change Global Effects — Large Wars, Migrations, Disease Outbreaks, Desertification, and Agricultural Failure.”)

While relevant data for 2016 is not yet available, 2015 gives us some numbers to look at.

“According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2015 there were 19.2 million new displacements associated with weather, water, climate and geophysical hazards in 113 countries, more than twice as many as for conflict and violence. Of these, weather-related hazards triggered 14.7 million displacements. South and East Asia dominated in terms of the highest absolute figures, but no region of the world was unaffected.”

With regard to 2016, though, what we do know is that, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 60 million people around the world were affected in 2016 (with regard to food security and agricultural productivity) by extreme weather and climate-related events inflamed by the recent strong El Niño.

World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas commented on the new assessment:

“Another year. Another record. The high temperatures we saw in 2015 are set to be beaten in 2016. The extra heat from the powerful El Niño event has disappeared. The heat from global warming will continue.

“Because of climate change, the occurrence and impact of extreme events has risen. ‘Once in a generation’ heatwaves and flooding are becoming more regular. Sea level rise has increased exposure to storm surges associated with tropical cyclones.”

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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