In a significant development, it has been officially announced that the year 2023 has broken records as the warmest year ever recorded.
This unprecedented occurrence can be attributed to the undeniable impact of human-caused climate change, which has been further amplified by the occurrence of the natural El Niño weather phenomenon.
According to the EU’s climate service, last year experienced a temperature increase of 1.48C compared to the pre-industrial average.
There has been a consistent trend of global air temperature highs for the time of year, as observed in the analysis by BBC.
Sea surface temperatures have reached record-breaking levels.
Last week, the Met Office shared that the UK had its second warmest year on record in 2023.
These global records are pushing the world closer to surpassing important international climate goals.
“I was truly amazed by the remarkable nature of , not only because it set a new record, but also due to the significant margin by which it surpassed previous records,” comments Andrew Dessler, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University.
The margin of some of these records – as shown on the chart below – is truly remarkable, according to Prof Dessler. It is worth noting that these records represent global averages.
An extraordinary surge of warmth
It’s widely acknowledged that the global temperature has significantly increased over the past century due to the continuous release of high levels of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, by human activities.
However, a year ago, no prominent scientific organisation anticipated that 2023 would become the warmest year ever recorded, due to the intricate nature of the Earth’s climate system.
Throughout the initial months of the year, there were only a limited number of days that set new air temperature records.
However, the world proceeded to achieve an extraordinary, nearly uninterrupted series of daily records in the latter half of 2023.
Take a glance at the calendar chart below, where each block represents a day in 2023. Significant milestones were achieved on the days highlighted in the deepest hue. Starting in June, we’re witnessing an impressive surge in daily numbers.
Over 200 days have witnessed a fresh daily global temperature record for this time of year, as per an analysis by BBC of Copernicus Climate Change Service data.
This recent temperature increase is primarily attributed to the rapid transition to El Niño conditions, which has occurred in addition to the long-term warming caused by human activities.
El Niño is a natural occurrence in which warmer surface waters in the East Pacific Ocean release extra heat into the atmosphere.
Repercussions felt globally
The widespread impact of the 2023 warmth is worth noting.
According to the map below, the majority of the world experienced higher temperatures compared to the period between 1991 and 2020. This time frame was already approximately 0.9C warmer than the pre-industrial era before significant fossil fuel consumption began in the late 1800s.
The unprecedented global warmth has exacerbated numerous extreme weather events across various regions of the world in 2023. These events include scorching heatwaves and devastating wildfires in Canada and the US, as well as prolonged drought followed by destructive flooding in certain areas of east Africa.
Several events took place on larger scales than what has been observed recently, or at unexpected times of the year.
“These numbers hold significant meaning,” remarks Prof Petteri Taalas, who served as the Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organisation from 2016 to 2023.
“The devastating impact of severe weather is wreaking havoc on communities and individuals every single day.”
The air temperature is just one aspect of the Earth’s dynamic climate. In addition, in 2023:
- The levels of sea-ice in the Antarctic and Arctic have reached unprecedented lows, leaving scientists astounded.
- Glaciers in western North America and the European Alps underwent a significant melt season, contributing to the rise in sea levels.
- Record-breaking temperatures were observed on the world’s sea surface, with multiple marine heatwaves occurring, including one in the North Atlantic.
- Interestingly, according to BBC analysis of Copernicus data, the world’s ocean surface has been experiencing an uninterrupted series of record-breaking days since 4 May. The chart below clearly shows that numerous days have witnessed significant record-breaking.
A word of caution for 2024 and beyond
According to Dr. Hausfather, there is a possibility that 2024 could be warmer than 2023. This is due to some of the record ocean surface heat escaping into the atmosphere. However, the unpredictable nature of the current El Niño makes it difficult to make a definitive prediction.
According to the UK Met Office, there is a possibility that 2024 could exceed the significant 1.5C warming threshold throughout the entire calendar year, which would be a first.
Almost 200 countries reached an agreement in Paris in 2015 to make efforts to restrict warming to this level, in order to mitigate the most severe consequences of global warming.
It pertains to long-term averages spanning 20 or 30 years, therefore a breach lasting one year in 2024 would not indicate a violation of the Paris agreement.
However, it is alarming to see the trend, as each successive year brings us closer to surpassing the 1.5C threshold in the long run.
Human activities are responsible for the ongoing global warming trend, despite the influence of natural factors like El Niño that can temporarily impact temperatures. The temperatures observed in 2023 cannot be solely attributed to natural causes.
Take a look at the chart below. In the past, 1998 and 2016 stood out as exceptional years, thanks to the significant warming caused by strong El Niño events. However, the 2023 records stand out prominently, highlighted in the deepest shades of red.
“2023 was an exceptional year, with climate records tumbling like dominoes,” Dr Samantha Burgess, Deputy Director of the Copernicus climatic Change Service, concluded.
This fresh warning comes just after the COP28 climate meeting, at which countries agreed for the first time on the importance of addressing the primary source of rising temperatures – fossil fuels.
While the deal’s language was weaker than many had hoped, with no commitment for governments to act, it is hoped that it will assist to build on recent encouraging developments in sectors like as renewable energy and electric vehicles.
Researchers believe that even if the 1.5C target is missed, this can still make a significant difference in limiting the effects of climate change.
“Even if we end up at 1.6C instead, it will be so much better than giving up and ending up close to 3C, which is where current policies would bring us,” says Dr Friederike Otto, a senior lecturer in climate science at Imperial College London.