It’s a moment scientists have warned about for months: Earth has just ended its warmest year since people began keeping records, and scientists say it may have been the warmest in 125,000 years.
Even though the December data isn’t yet official, the results were already “locked in” by mid-December, Gavin Schmidt, a scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, told USA TODAY.
Given the six consecutive months of extremely warm temperatures, it was virtually impossible for December to be cold enough to alter the final results.
“We are already beyond the point that any normal process would be able to keep 2023 from being the hottest year,” Robert Rohde of Berkeley Earth, said in mid-December.
Official reports from organizations such as the Copernicus Climate Change Service in Europe, and U.S. agencies such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are set to make their “warmest year on record” announcements over the next couple of weeks.
What’s especially concerning, experts say, is that “the rate of warming over the past century has no precedent as far back as we are able to look, not only hundreds or thousands, but many millions of years,” according to University of Pennsylvania meteorologist Michael Mann’s book “Our Fragile Moment.”
“We are engaged in an unprecedented experiment with our planet,” Mann told USA TODAY. “There is still time to prevent devastating climate consequences, but the window of opportunity is shrinking.”
2023 set to be the hottest year on record
Each year since 2014 stands among the top 10 warmest years since people began keeping track, based on increases in global average temperatures above the previous century, according to NASA and NOAA. The year 2016, which included the influence of a strong El Niño, was the warmest year on record. Then 2020 matched it.
Once a series of marine heat waves and another developing El Niño began influencing Earth’s temperatures in 2023, it became increasingly clear to the world’s scientists that the year was likely to see the biggest increases in average temperatures compared to last century.
By November, NOAA reported the January-November global surface temperature was 2.07 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1901-2000 average of 57.2 degrees, blowing past the 2016 average for the same period by more than a tenth of a degree.
The only question remaining is how much warmer 2023 will wind up being when the world’s agencies complete their final analyses over the next two weeks.
Experts on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and at institutions around the world have warned the long-term global average temperature increase should be kept below 1.5 – 2.0 degrees Celsius to avoid catastrophic consequences, such as higher sea levels and an even greater number of intense heat waves that claim lives, devastate crops, kill wildlife and drive warmer temperatures.