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It's not just you — it really is hot in here...
Winter is coming to a warm, wet close in the Northern Hemisphere, knocking down records on the way. Though fading, the Pacific warming phenomenon El Niño helped drive the average temperatures in the continental United States to a new winter record. December-through-February readings were 4.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2.5 degrees Celsius) over the 20th century average, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported this week.
The season started off with a green Christmas across the East, while tornadoes raked Texas, the Gulf Coast, and the Southeast in December, February, and again in March. Even Alaska had its second-warmest winter on record. And while snow cover across the Northern Hemisphere was above normal in January, it was running far below normal in February, said Thomas Mote, a geographer and climatologist at the University of Georgia.
Mote said the unusual heat comes from the combination of a long-term trend — the gradual warming of the planet — and the Pacific Ocean warming phenomenon El Niño, which drove global temperatures to a second consecutive annual record in 2015. The current El Niño is fading, but the bigger warming trend shows no sign of stopping, Mote said.
"We have more periods with above-normal temperatures than we're seeing with below-normal temperatures. That's part of what we expect to see with a greenhouse-enhanced climate," he said. "But certainly the magnitude of the changes and the pattern of the changes we've seen this year are very indicative of a strong El Niño event."
While the continental United States represents less than 2 percent of Earth's surface area, the weirdly warm winter "is a regional expression of much larger-scale global warmth that continues to break all-time records," Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann said.
Western and Central Europe and parts of Russia saw temperatures above normal in January and February. Britain's national weather agency, the Met Office, reported this year has been the warmest on record for England and Wales, and both the second-warmest and second-wettest for the United Kingdom as a whole.
Temperatures across the southern UK ran more than 2 C above average — roughly where the United Nations hopes to stop climate change by 2100. And it was the second-warmest winter reading in the nearly 360-year-old Central England record, the world's longest-running temperature index.
On Norway's island territory of Svalbard, the world's northernmost permanent settlement, the average temperature for the past 30 days was less than 5 degrees below freezing — 11.5 C (21 F) above normal. And Arctic sea ice set record monthly lows for January and February in satellite observations dating back to 1979, according to the Colorado-based National Snow and Ice Data Center.
With such a low winter icepack, scientists will be watching what happens when the Arctic icecap shrinks heading into the summer, Mann said.
"We are already well ahead of the model projections when it comes to the loss of Arctic sea ice," he said. "Models indicate that we shouldn't see an ice-free Arctic for many decades, but observations seem to be pointing to this happening sooner."
While scientists hesitate to pin any one event on climate change, the pattern over the past few decades has been for winters to get warmer and warmer, said Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University.
"We're still going to have cold weather, cold temperatures, snow and ice," Hayhoe said. "But what we're used to is changing. So nowadays, when we get a winter that was the typical winter when we were little, we say 'Oh my goodness, what an unusual winter.' Well, that used to be the normal winter.
"Winters like this winter that are so far above average are reminders that things really are changing and we are seeing things that are different than they used to be before," she said. And abnormally warm winters like this one are "a reminder that we can still do something — but we don't have a lot of time."
Nearly all the world's countries agreed in December to cut emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other gases in an effort to limit climate change to 2 C over pre-industrial times by 2100. That's the point at which scientists warn climate change will have catastrophic effects.
The world was halfway to that mark in 2015, and that warming is already bringing more extreme storms and droughts, Hayhoe said. But even this warm winter "isn't really giving us the full picture," she said.
"A 2-degree world is radically different than the world we live in today, and a 2-degree winter is radically different than the winter we're seeing today. But the winter we've seen this past year will be much more frequent, and we'll see much more that are even warmer than this."
March 10, 2016 | 10:07 am
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