Global warming’s record-breaking trend continues

Detailed update by hundreds of scientists on climate indicators in 2014 reveals highest recorded rises in temperatures, sea levels and greenhouse gases.

Forget talk of a slowdown in global warming. Scientists say the climate is heading smartly in the opposite direction, with 2014 proving to be a record-breaking year.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), one of the most respected sources of climate science, says that last year “the most essential indicators of Earth’s changing climate continued to reflect trends of a warming planet”. Some − including rising land and ocean temperatures, sea levels and greenhouse gases − reached record highs.

The authoritative report by the NOAA’s Centre for Weather and Climate at the National Centres for Environmental Information (NCEI), published by the American Meterological Society, draws on contributions from 413 scientists in 58 countries to provide a detailed update on global climate indicators.

“The variety of indicators shows us how our climate is changing, not just in temperature but from the depths of the oceans to the outer atmosphere,” says Thomas R. Karl, director of the NCEI.

Rising concentrations

The authors report that concentrations of greenhouse gases continued to climb during the year. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations rose by 1.9 parts per million (ppm), reaching a global average of 397.2 ppm for the year. This compares with a global average of 354ppm in 1990 when the first edition of this report was published. And levels of methane and nitrous oxide also went up.

Four independent global datasets showed that 2014 was the warmest year on record, with the warmth widespread across land areas.

Europe experienced its warmest year; Africa had above-average temperatures across most of the continent throughout 2014; Australia recorded its third warmest year; and Mexico had its warmest. Eastern North America was the only major region to experience below-average annual temperatures.

Global average sea level rose to a record high, and the globally averaged sea surface temperature was also the highest recorded. The warmth was particularly notable in the North Pacific Ocean, where temperatures are in part probably driven by a transition of the Pacific decadal oscillation – a recurring pattern of ocean-atmosphere climate variability centred in the region.

Earlier snow melt

The Arctic continued to warm, and sea ice extent remained low. Arctic snow melt occurred 20–30 days earlier than the 1998–2010 average. On the North Slope of Alaska, record high temperatures at a 20-metre depth were measured at four of five permafrost observatories. The eight lowest minimum sea ice extents during this period have occurred in the last eight years.

But temperature patterns across the Antarctic showed strong seasonal and regional patterns of warmer-than-normal and cooler-than-normal conditions, resulting in near-average conditions for the year for the continent as a whole. Last year was the third consecutive year of record maximum sea ice extent in the Antarctic.

The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a periodic warming of the water in the central and eastern Pacific that disrupts weather over thousands of miles, was in a neutral state during 2014, although it was on the cool side of neutral at the beginning of the year and approached warm El Niño conditions by the end of the year. This pattern played a major role in several regional climate outcomes.

There were 91 tropical cyclones in 2014, well above the 1981-2010 average of 82 storms. But the North Atlantic season, as in 2013, was quieter than most years of the last two decades with respect to the number of storms.

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