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Could 2014 Become the Warmest Year on Record?

Even though the year is only halfway over, a series of warm months — including the warmest May on record, announced Monday — paired with a brewing El Niño, have set one question circulating: Could 2014 take over the title of the warmest year on record?

How tempartures around the globe departed from average in May 2014, with warmer-than-normal areas in red and colder-than-normal in blue.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: NOAA

It’s possible, experts say, but the No. 1 ranking is far from guaranteed, as the effects of an El Niño  — an event that can raise global temperatures — on temperature may not fully emerge until the winter.

“I agree that 2014 could well be the warmest on record, and/or 2015, depending on how things play out,” said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

For 351 months in a row, or more than 29 years, global temperatures have been warmer than average. May 2014 was the 351st month in that uninterrupted series. The record-setting May came in with an average temperature 1.33°F above the 20th century average for the month (58.6°F), according to figures released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Data from the Japanese Meteorological Agency and preliminary data from NASA (which doesn’t include records from China) also ranked May in the top spot. The ranking follows on the heels of an April that was ranked the warmest on record by NOAA and second warmest by NASA (the two agencies process their data slightly differently, but their rankings typically vary only by tenths of a degree) and a March that both agencies ranked as the fourth warmest on record.

21st Century Warmth

The ranks of the warmest years humans have recorded have been filling up with recent entries, driven by the unrelenting heating of the planet caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. Each of the past three decades have been warmer than any other decade since 1850, according to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, and 13 of the 14 warmest years on record have occurred in the 21st century.

The warmest year on record was 2010 (NASA has it tied with 2005). While a La Niña event — the cold counterpart of El Niño, which tends to depress global temperatures — kept 2011 and 2012 out of the upper echelons of warm years, they were still warmer than the 20th century average. After the La Niña dissipated, temperatures rebounded in 2013, which was ranked as the fourth warmest (tied with 2003) by NOAA and seventh warmest (in a three-way tie) by NASA.

El Niño and La Niña events can help swing global average temperatures upward or downward with respect to their long-term average for a year or two. Typically, El Niño years are warmer than La Niña years. NOTE: This graphic uses data from NOAA, NASA GISS, and the U.K. Met Office.

While 2013 was a middle-of-the-road year for the U.S. in terms of temperature, Australia saw its hottest year on record by a sizable margin, as heat waves baked the country during summer. Most other parts of the globe also saw warmer-than-normal temperatures, which boosted the global average.

The temperature trends in 2014 have followed a similar pattern: The U.S. has run a slightly below-average temperature for the year so far, thanks in large part to the persistence of cold, Arctic air dipping down over the eastern portion of the country, while the western states baked. Meanwhile, Australia was once again plagued by summer heat waves and had its third warmest autumn (spring in the Northern Hemisphere) on record. The 12 months ending in April 2014 were the warmest such period on record, expected to be eclipsed by the period ending in May.

Europe and much of Asia have also seen a very warm start to the year, with, for example, Norway recording its warmest spring in more than 100 years and South Korea its second warmest.

Where El Niño Comes In

The climate phenomenon that could give the year an extra boost, El Niño, is being closely watched. Though neither NOAA nor Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology have officially declared one to be in place yet, it is expected to fully emerge later this summer or in the fall.

The globe hasn’t experienced a major El Niño event since the one from 1997-1998 that wreaked havoc on the world’s weather and sent global temperatures soaring (1998 is the only non-21st century year in the top 10 records).

The higher ocean surface temperatures that characterize an El Niño tend to add heat to the atmosphere, which loads the dice for a warmer-than-average year beyond what global warming contributes. It’s sister La Niña tends to cool temperatures, but even recent La Niña years have been well above the 20th century average. In fact, another climate cycle, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which can stay in one phase for several decades, has been in a state that favors La Niña-like conditions since the last major El Niño. But still the early 21st century dominates the temperature records.

Climate scientist Michael Mann, of Penn State University, likens El Niño and La Niña to waves on a rising tide. Even though the waves can cause year-to-year blips, the overall rise in temperatures continues unabated.

How tempartures around the globe departed from average from January through May 2014, with warmer-than-normal areas in red and colder-than-normal in blue.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: NOAA

“In the bigger scheme of things it is the long-term trends that are most important, and those are the same regardless of whether you select La Niña or El Niño years (the latter always being a little warmer than the former),” said climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.

The exact effect the emerging El Niño has will depend on when it fully ramps up. The biggest impacts on global temperature tend to happen in the Northern Hemisphere winter, so 2015 could be more affected than 2014, Trenberth said.

“If 2014 does make it then I don't think it will be by much,” he told Climate Central in an email.

Even if 2014 doesn’t take the top spot, it could still fall somewhere in the top 10 globally.

“At the beginning of the year, I would have predicted a top 5 year,” Schmidt said in an email. “With the relatively warm start and El Niño brewing that looks safe, but ENSO mostly has a delayed effect (so next year will likely be most affected), and we are still running behind 2005 and 2010 (the current top rank years). So I'm not sure I'd be happy saying anything stronger.”

The bottom line all three scientists emphasized was that the year-to-year variations matter less than the background trend, something made clear by the record-warm years that have happened in the past couple decades without a major El Niño to push them along.

“As global warming proceeds unabated, it will continue to take less and less of an ‘assist’ by a large El Niño or other natural event to give us new levels of record warmth,” Mann said. “That is a sobering thought.”

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By Herbert Craig (Alamogordo, NM)
on June 24th, 2014

The report on 2014 temperatures seems conclusive, but I still have some questions and/or issues. For example, one of the charts shows temperature differences since 1950.  None of those are greater than 1 degree.  That is meaningless data without some indication of the margin of error.  Is there an assumption that any errors will not be biased either high or low, and so will cancel out?  What is that based on?
What data is included?  WMO stations from all countries?  Data from radio and TV stations?  Satellite data, sea temperatures, ship and/or buoy?  How can you compare instruments, procedures, and number of reporting stations from 150 years ago?  Is there some computer quality control program that works on that and other problems?  Without it, I don’t see how you can claim the last three decades have been the warmest since 1850.
Two of the charts list a base period from 1981 to 2010.  Does that mean the average is based on data from those 29 years?  If so, how can you say the temperatures have been warmer than average every month for over 29 years?  What am I missing?  How often is the base changed?  How often is the average updated to include new data?  That is going to change statements like “warmest since 1850” or “warmer every month for the last 351 months”.
What are the causes of the warmer temperatures?  How much is caused by changes in atmospheric chemistry?  How much by changes in solar radiation received or other causes?  What caused the temperature changes before the industrial revolution?
And, what can we do about it?  What do the experts and Climate Central want the world to do?  What side effects might that cause?  Especially if we resort to drastic action.  We only have to look to medicine to find examples of drastic side effects.  Some not even recognized for a generation or more.  As one small example, New Mexico did such a good job of water conservation that our rates went up.  There is still considerable debate over the latest methods used to extract natural gas.  Removing salt from sea water is expensive, and I’m not sure we understand what impact that will have.
For the record, I am not an environmental scientist.  I do have more interest in the details of science than most.  My degree was in math, and I spent 40 years as a meteorologist.  Most of it providing operational forecasts for the United States Air Force.

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By Ruurd Lof (Germany)
on June 27th, 2014

To Herbert Craig:
If you are really interested in science, please stop asking retoric (and suggestive) questions and look up the answers. You can find them everywhere on the internet and in the scientific literature. Hundreds of serious scientist all over the world do the hard work all day round and you show them only disrespect this way.

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By Tom Hutchin (detroit, mi)
on July 1st, 2014

His comments seem reasonable to me.  I don’t think the answers are at all clear.  For instance, the various temperature datasets and reconstructions and their accuracy.  Site placement of temperature stations and “adjustments” being just one huge issue.  Another…what impact for instance will EPAs new carbon dioxide emissions rules have on actual global temperatures 50-100 years from now.  Hint:  the impact will likely be immeasurable.

Lots more questions that have not been adequately addressed by the “experts” or by persistent Googling.  LOL.

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By Luap Leiht
on July 1st, 2014

Actually, Ruurd, I believe you are the one being disrespectful.  I think that Herbert asked some very interesting questions and would think a good discussion would involve more than “you’re being disrespectful and look it up yourself.”

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By Glen
on July 22nd, 2014

Tom, Luap,

I agree with Ruurd. The information Herbert seeks is available on the internet (seek reliable sources and not WUWT) and the questions he asks are suggestive of fraud and conspiracy which is the way of the fossil fuel lobby whether obfuscation is Herbert’s intention or not.

Does Herbert really expect to get a reliable answer on a blog? If he really is genuine, he would not ask such questions in this space, but rather seek info from reliable sources such as NASA, Hadley Research Unit, WMO and peer-reviewed literature.  Googling will simply find a mixture of answers, some from conspiracy theorists with no attempt at substantiation.

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By Tom Vaughn (Glassport, PA 15045)
on July 1st, 2014

What is almost universally missing from these articles on global climate is perspective. The fact is that our instrumental temperature record is less than 175 years long, whereas the current interstitial period between recurring ice ages has lasted about 11,000 years.  During that entire period, ice core records and other paleo-climate reconstructions show that the globe has been as warm or warmer than at present, even though CO2 levels were lower.  This article is focused on minutiae rather than the big picture.  The planet has done quite well when the climate was warmer, and not so well when it was colder.  Since these interstitials seem to start and stop rather abruptly, over a period of decades sometimes, and typically last for 10,000 to 15,000 years, it is not beyond the pale to suggest that we may be nearer to another ice age than to “thermageddon.”

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By glen
on July 22nd, 2014

I don’t think you’ll find many scientists agree with you on much of what you’ve said.  But of course, you know best!

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By Roland Reagan (BUTTE, MT 59701)
on July 2nd, 2014

Ruurd, what you don’t understand is scientists are selling themselves for grant money and career advancement. This whole global warming, climate change, climate disruption will set science back when it is proved wrong. If you just look at the hype of doom and gloom that should give you and idea it is all a lie. More CO2 means plants grow faster and research has shown that plants are more drought resistant. Why aren’t we hearing that? It doesn’t fit with the doom and gloom narrative.

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By Jack Walters (Dallas, Texas 75225)
on July 3rd, 2014

Today is July 3,2014, the first summer in decades where Dallas, Texas has not experienced a 100 degree temperature day as of this late in the Summer.  Normally, by now we are in a countdown of the number of consecutive 100 degree days.  Further, the Spring was very cool.  And the Winter .....well, let us just say that no one has experienced a Winter that cold before who is alive today.  It may be warming where you are, but it is cooling at the Poles and where people I know live, that is in the USA.

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