Reliable, official numbers now in for February 2016 show that it smashed the previous record for the month

By Tom Yulsman | March 12, 2016 7:49 pm

What is the significance of reaching this new milestone? And now that El Ni単o is waning, what might the future bring?


Pattern of temperature anomalies across the globe in February 2016. The month was the warmest on record. (Source: NASA GISS)

| Please see important correction at end |

Earlier this month, aspate of headlines proclaimed that February 2016 was the warmest such month on record for the globe. At that time,I wrote that we should wait until official, reliable analyses were in before drawing any final conclusions.

SEE ALSO:February may have been the warmest on record, but we don’t know for sure despite reports to the contrary

The first of those reliable analyses has just been released, and it shows that this past monthdid indeed set a new record forwarmest February in arecord extendingback to 1880.

According to the analysis by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, this past month was 1.35 degrees C (2.43 F) warmer than the month’s long-term average (measured between1951and1980).

February’s spike was not just a one-off. January also set a record. In fact, we’ve now experienced a string of five record-setting months in a row.

But the increase temperature anomalyspike seen lastmonth was particularly steep.As Gavin Schmidt, head of NASA GISS, put it on Twitter today: “Normally I don’t comment on individual months (too much weather, not enough climate), but last month was special.”

According to Gerald Meehl, a research scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the oddsof monthly records being set are raisedright now, thanks to “the juxtaposition of a large El Ni単o and ongoing human-caused warming.”

A spike ofEl Ni単o warmth has, in fact, occurredatop the long-term global warming trend-line. But as the string of recent monthly records suggests, that trend line also seems to beangling sharply upward now, after what many climate scientists regard as a multi-year period of slower warming.

But Meehlalso cautions that we should not expect each successive month necessarily to be warmer than the preceding one. That’s in part because El Ni単o’s fade as this one appears to be doing. And they often transition into La Ni単a, the opposite of an El Ni単o, resulting in cooling.

Moreover, climate can be quite labile, with natural variation causing lots of ups and downs.

What’s going on and what should we make of it?

Inanticipation of the release of NASA’sclimate analysis for February (a second one from NOAA will follow soon), I’ve been in touch with six scientists to get their perspectives on a number of issues, including these:

  • What take-home messages should we draw from these monthly and annual analyses of global climate?
  • Since climate is a phenomena measured in decades, should we be focusing so much on monthly records?
  • Given just how warm things have been, what arethe relative influences of El Ni単o, other natural variations, and human-caused climate change?
  • With El Ni単o now on the wane, and it’s opposite La Ni単a possibly on the way, what might the next couple of years bring?

Deke Arndt,Chiefof theMonitoring Branch of theNational Centers for Environmental Information at NOAA, emailed me today to makea philosophical point about these issues:

There’s nothing magical about a calendar year. It’s entirely a human construct, and an accident of history, that a year begins on January 1. We (myself included) really, really overdo the cook-off comparisons of one year versus another. It’s an easy, convenient, and not particularly harmful way to organize our thinking about climate change.

But the fact is, we’ve been setting a new “warmest 12 month stretch in recorded history” record almost every month for the past year. That’s the story, scientifically. We choose a January 1 starting line because that’s when we reset the annual accounting of our lives. But it’s not that important, scientifically.

This graphic helps us see the pattern of change through an ironically beautiful pattern of colors:


Global temperatures visualized month-by-month since 1901. Each square iscolored to indicate how it varied from the long-term average for that month. The extraordinary warmth of February 2016 required the addition of a new color to the palette. (Source: Makiko Sato, Columbia University)

We’re clearly in the midst of a particularly warm stretch of months, thanks in large measure to human-caused climate change. But there are other important influences to consider as well,since they will also help determine what we’ll experience in the months, years and decades ahead.

To get a better handle on these issues, I posed some questions in an email to NCAR’sJerry Meehl. Hestudies El Ni単oand La Ni単a, human and natural influences on climate, and possible future changes in weather and climate extremes in a warmer world. Here’s what Meehl said in an email message:

. . . ‘global warming’ is not a relentless march towards warmer temperature with every month and season and year and decade being warmer than the preceding month and season and decade. That is because there is a lot of internally generated, naturally occurring variability in the climate system. This natural variability is superimposed on the response to human-caused warming.

Keep that in mindif you find yourself reading stories saying things like “global warming has gone into overdrive” (as this story did). Yes, the average temperature of the globe is climbing more steeply now than it has in recent years. And a spike of El Ni単o warmth has been superimposed on that.

But sooner or later, we’ll come off the extreme highs we’re seeing, and we could even experiencea temporary period of slower warming lasting years. This won’t repeal the long-term upward rise in global temperature not by a long shot. But when temperatures do cool off for a bit, peoplemight be left wondering whatever happened to global warming going into overdrive and crossing terrifying thresholds.


Data: NASA GISS. Interactive Plotting Tool: Wood For Trees

The graph above shows how temperatures have varied from the long-term averagefrom 1970 to the present. I’ve marked the two strongest El Ni単os during the period: in 1997/1998, and our current episode.

I’ve also indicated the period when warming of the Earth appears to have slowed despite all the greenhouse gases we humans emitted into the atmosphere.

In addition to these variations, you’ll also note lots of smaller ups and downs. But the long-term upward trend is clear.

Wiggles and squiggles

To understand these wiggles and squiggles better,along with the underlying trend, I spoke with John C. Fyfe, Senior Research Scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada. Fyfe uses model simulations and observations to studyclimate variability and climate change.

The variation takes place across several scales, he said. First, there is the multi-decadal scale, which stretches across two or more decades. Thats the scale on which humans are causing long-term warming of the planet.

Thereis also a timescale between multi-decadal and annual. Jerry Meehl,who co-authored a paper on the global warming slow-down with Fyfe and other researchers, described it this way:

. . . it’s possible to have 15-year periods when the rate of global surface temperature increase slows compared to a previous 15-year period. Conversely, there can be a 15-year period when there is a more rapid rate of global surface temperature increase compared to a previous 15 year period.

El Ni単o and La Ni単a are phenomena that take place over the third timescale the annual one. They typically last two years, give or take.

Inthe graph above, note how the size of the warming spike in the 1997/1998 El Ni単o is roughly the same size as the spike right now. This isn’t surprising, since both El Ni単o episodes are probably in a tie for the strongest on record.

El Ni単o events do cause an increase in the global mean temperature, usually within about a three-to seven- month lag,” says Anthony Barnston, a climate and ENSO forecaster with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University.

Follow the heat

The current El Ni単o peaked in November three months ago. So we are just now experiencing the strongest effects on global average temperature.

Thewarming occurs because a huge amount of heat energy pours out of the tropical Pacific ocean and into the atmosphereduring an El Ni単o. Most of it is not the result of human activities, according to Barnston.

But why the lag? As NOAA’s Deke Arndt puts it, “The reason the ‘back end’ of El Ni単os are often warmer is that the cumulative effect piles up during the course of the event.”

So right now, we’re experiencing the pile-up of El Ni単o heat energy.

But have a look at the graph again. Even though the El Ni単o spike in 1997/1998 is about as bigin magnitude as what we’re experiencing now, global temperatures todayare way higher. That’s because in all the years since 1998, long-term, human-induced warming has raised the baseline on which this year’s El Ni単o spike is built.

Bending the curve

There are also more than just El Ni単o spikes represented in that graph. There are also downwardLa Ni単a spikes as well. (Not all of the downward fluctuations are La Ni単a’s though.) Put enough of them together, and you’llbend the long-term trend down a bit, causing a slowing in globalwarming.

Fyfe believes thatmay have been a major contributor to the slower rate of warming noted in the graph above. (But keep in mind that there is a good deal of scientific debate over the slowdown.)

He alsosays it’s quite possible that we’re now coming out of it.In fact, we could be at the outset of a new trend.The future, Fyfe said, may bring fewer La Ni単asand more El Ni単os. “That may be where were heading with this recent superEl Ni単o.”Butit’s too soon to tell.

Amidst all these variations on different timescales, Fyfe emphasizes that“one thing is almost fixed: the long term, human-caused warming.It is unequivocal, and it will carry on into the future. All these wiggles are simply superimposed on it.”

Whither El Ni単o?

El Ni単o is expected to transition to neutral conditions by late spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Moreover, there’s a 50/50 chance that a La Ni単a could take hold in the fall.

At NOAA’s ENSO blog, Emily Becker notedthis recently:

La Ni単a conditions have followed six of the ten moderate and strong El Ni単os since 1950, including two of the three previous strongest El Ni単os. However, this small number of cases means that its hard to make a very confident forecast based only on the previous events.

If a strong La Ni単a does ensue, “It would make it likely that 2017 will average cooler than 2015,” said Columbia University’s Anthony Barnston.

But what aboutthe rest of this year? Have El Ni単o plusstrong human-caused warming combined to make it a “shoo-in” for warmest year on record, as one blogger put it recently?

That claim “is an unwarranted extreme statement,” says Kevin Trenberth, a colleague of Meehl’s at NCAR. That’s because there are major uncertainties this far out. Moreover,with El Ni単o on the wane,heat is starting to betaken up by the oceans. Thissuggests 2016 could well turn out to be cooler than last year, Trenberth argues.

Deke Arndt of NOAA has a different perspective:

If my wife asked me if I thought 2016 was going to be the warmest year, I’d say ‘yes’ pretty confidently. However, as a public servant and as a scientist, we’re a pretty conservative lot, and I don’t think we’d say that until we were 100 percent sure. For reference, we started expressing confidence in 2015’s first place status in late summer.

Two things are for sure. The firstis that we will soon find out!

The secondis this, from Jerry Meehl:

Human-caused warming due to increasing greenhouse gasescan best be seen over the long term so that the internal variations average out, leaving the more steady increase of global temperatures over those longer time scales.

Keep that in mind when a cool spell inevitably kicks in, and you then hear people questioning long-term global warming.

| Correction:An earlier version of this story said February was the warmest month of all months on record. That was incorrect. It was the warmest February in records that go back to 1880.|

  • Mike Richardson

    Certain folks have been questioning long-term global warming for some time, regardless of the detailed and abundant evidence of the phenomenon. But it is good to make sure that the evidence is strong, and verified by multiple sources before drawing some conclusions regarding the monthly temperature trends, as shown here. Clearly El Nino and La Nina can influence these trends, and would be expected to produce cycles of exacerbated warming and some cooling within the broader trend of warming. Understanding the context of these cycles, however, is what makes any claims of a “halt” in global warming, a global cooldown, or even a “mini Ice Age,” far less credible than their adherents believe.

  • OWilson

    Glad to see the hype is “cooling”.

    “”But when temperatures do cool off for a bit, people might be left wondering whatever happened to global warming going into overdrive and crossing terrifying thresholds””

    My point exactly these last couple years.

    Reality always trumps “terrifying thresholds”

    Looks like my work is done here :)

    Thank you!

    • itfitzme

      ” A tipping point may be passed without any immediately obvious consequences, nor any acceleration of the warming process. “

      • OWilson

        I get it.

        Sorta like the National Debt, that runs out of control, and is left to our children’s children!

        • abulinix

          Yeah exactly!!! The government debt we overwhelmingly owe to ourselves–with our children both future debtors and future creditors– denominated in a currency we control (and which is far smaller than private debt owed by nongovernment actors who cannot print money) is JUST LIKE sending our one and only planet’s heat balance over the precipice, toward ecological and civilizational catastrophe. Because United States government currency is just like the Earth.

          • OWilson

            Ah. so THAT’s what they are teaching your kids!

            It explains why your people are looting, rioting and burning, not to mention shutting down free political speech :)

            I get it!

            (Now I think I’ll go lend myself some money to go on a well earned vacation) :)

    • itfitzme

      Thermal inertia is a property of matter by which it resists changes in temperature. Insulative materials are an example. We want a house that has high thermal inertia, that resists changes to temperature as the outside temperature varies from day to night.

      For the planet, there is a limit to the rate at which energy can be absorbed. Even if the consumption of fossil fuels were to stop today, the Earth, primarily the oceans, would continue to accumulate heat. CO2 has a very long lifetime in the atmosphere and would remain at it’s current level for a century And over that century, global warming will continue.

      Crossing the threshold of a tipping point doesn’t mean that affect will been seen today. The cause has happened and cannot be avoided. It is like the Titanic trying to avoid the iceberg. By the time the iceberg has been spotted, even reversing the engines and turning the wheel hard-a-port will not stop the inevitable. That is the tipping point, that line that once crossed, results in unavoidable consequences.


    • abulinix

      This is an excellent time to declare victory and disappear, OWilson. You’ve clearly won the day and shown the alarmists the mistake of their ways. Besides reality is on your side, each month and each year bringing more good news, confirming that Al Gore’s conspiracy is finally, finally, falling apart. Congrats. So long.

      • OWilson

        Thank you, I’m used to it :)

        Global Cooling, Acid Rain, The Population Bomb, Holes in the Ozone, China Syndrome, Y2K2, Chernoble, Killer Bees, AIDS, Coral Reefs dying, Killer Smog, Silent Spring, Traffic Gridlock, Alien Abductions, Fossil fuels depleted by 1982, 200 million enviro refugees by 2010, Arctic gone by 2015, Himalayan glaciers gone by 2035, James Hansen’s Tipping Point by 2008, Al Gores, Tipping Point by 2016, Global Warming, Climate Change, we survived it all in just the last 25 years or so :)

        Global Warming is now politically JV.

        Today it’s “The Greatest Extinction Event In The History Of The World” we have to deal with :)

        Up next, Global Cooling, Ozone Hole reprise?

        (It’s an unpopular job, but somebody has to do it) :)

        • Mike Richardson

          For the record, acid rain was problematic until environmental laws were passed limiting emissions from power plants and factories that exacerbated it. The birth defects and brittle eggs afflicting birds, as Rachel Carson wrote about in “Silent Spring,” were addressed by bans on the widespread use of DDT. The growing ozone hole was likewise addressed by nations agreeing to phase out the CFCs most responsible for the damage. In each of these cases, the problem was identified by scientists, and properly addressed in a prompt manner to prevent the worst case scenarios. Fortunately, there wasn’t the organized resistance to scientific knowledge or sensible policies to address the problems in these cases, as we see with regards to climate change. So those are probably not examples you’d want to use to prove your point, as they actually serve as examples of quite the opposite approach than the one you advocate.

          • OWilson

            Climate change is normal. 2 degrees of warming over a century is not necessarily a threat, and may indeed be of benefit to mankind in the long run.

            We certainly need the “problem” defined by ALL of society, rather than a few Marxist hacks, and their fellow travelers, before we implement their radical “solutions”.

            Here’s your fellow travelers in action :)

            Investors Business Daily, February 16, 2016

            Zimbabwe tyrant Robert Mugabe is asking the United Nations for $1.5 billion a year to feed his people, who he says are hungry due to global warming. The looting begins.

            About a year ago, we said that the global warming scare is not about stewardship of the environment. It is instead an effort to pull down capitalism and redistribute wealth from rich nations that earned it to poorer nations whose governments impoverish their own people. Mugabe fully understands the plan and is making his demands accordingly.

            The Zimbabwe Herald, the state-run newspaper, reports that a fifth of the countrys population is facing hunger and insists that if global warming isnt causing the hunger now, then it will be soon. But hunger in Zimbabwe is nothing new, though it is man-caused. Its the work of Mugabe, though, not Westerners driving SUVs, air conditioning their large homes and running a wealth-producing capitalist economy.

            Before the Marxist Mugabe ruined Zimbabwe, it was a net food exporter, considered the breadbasket of Africa. Wheat, corn and sugar cane were routinely shipped across the continent and beyond.

            Mugabe has been president since 1980, but his reign of terror began in 2000, when he started plundering private farmland in his land reform program.

            Consequently, the annual corn harvest withered from more than 1.5 million tons in 2000 to 600,000 tons in 2010. Wheat production also fell sharply, from 309,000 tons in 2000 to 27,000 tons in 2003 to roughly 18,000 tons in 2010. The 2015 harvests were hardly better for either crop.

            Meanwhile, next door in Botswana, a nation with a similar climate and natural resources, food production has increased by 29% since 2004 while declining 9% during the same time in Zimbabwe.

            Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Climate Summit in Paris, welcomed His Excellency President Mugabe to the Paris conference.

            This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time, to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution.


            The line forms on the right folks!

            Hurry, hurry, hurry!

          • Mike Richardson

            LOL… wow, “fellow travelers,” “Marxists,” and guilt by association with Robert Mugabe. I really expected better, Wilson, but you’ve apparently tapped out. I provided examples that refuted your point, so you go off on a tangent trying to link anyone addressing an environmental issue as what, the next African dictator? Or a UN conspiracy to raise your taxes? How about we just stick to talking about the actual science in favor of human influence on the climate, or the need to address industrial pollution. Except, you really don’t do so well with that, whereas hyperbolic partisan political rhetoric is really more your forte. Oh well, I suppose I can at least compliment you for your knack with that. Good job! :)

          • OWilson

            Assuming that a little warming is a “problem”, I was discussing the proposed “:solutions” from the U.N.

            Sounds like you don’t like them either :)

            Hopefully, like Al Gore, Hansen, Gleick and Pachauri, they have been refuted and discredited too.

            Finally! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Actually, Wilson, the brown-shirt wannabes have been flocking to the other side of the political aisle, to the billionaire quoting Mussolini and urging on violent mobs. But you’ve already made it clear you don’t have a problem with a few broken eggs, as long as the violence comes from the right kind of people, directed against those you believe deserve it. It’s a shame when folks value property over life or the right to free speech, but at least you don’t hide from it.

          • OWilson

            You’re rambling :)


          • Mike Richardson

            Now, now, Wilson, was I the one who expressed the wish you’d get attacked by angry looters? Nope, quite the other way around. But I can understand if you’d like to deny some of your more embarrassing outbursts from the past. Bye, now.

          • OWilson

            These people are real!

            They want to end your Western civilization!

            They are telling you and showing you every day what they want to do with your culture, and your country.

            And you tell me I’m the problem? And the school bus that uses gasoline?

            Who’s side are you really on?

            Explain to your children!

          • Mike Richardson

            Nope, I’m pretty sure you’re not done, Wilson. And as you’ve just demonstrated, you’re the one low on rational thought, always eager to buy into and sell fear. It’s what right-wing propagandists are best at, and you do at least have a talent for that. There, even managed a compliment for you.

    • nosmokewithout

      You certainly enjoy speculating wildly, and ignoring the key latitudes affected by warming, namely the Arctic.

      Between 1998 and 2016, 70N to 90N has seen a 1 deg C warming trends throughout the ‘slow warming’ period, through which there has been a lessening of solar forcing. There is no indication that the la Nina phase has done anything to stop rising Arctic temperatures, neither has the fact that the PDO has been largely negative throughout the same period.

      What happens in the Arctic has repercussions for climate at lower latitudes. There is no evidence from the past 18 years that Arctic warming will stop.

      I’d suggest you really avoid specifics of global warming. All the comments you have posed here are speculative and only time will reveal what will happen. There will be no cause for celebration even if the average temperatures do regress to mean after the extremes of the last year.

      As ever, things are not as simple as you like them to be!

      • OWilson

        As usual, you are delusional.

        Nothing in my post is “wildly speculative”.

        Read it again :)

        • nosmokewithout

          Use of the word ‘Hype’ is speculative and inappropriate to most coverage of the issue of global warming.

          Some ‘hype’ surrounds spurious data, Delingpole, Limbaugh and Bastasch spring to mind as unenlightened practitioners of the art taking minor aspects of the science and spinning them wildly.

          Your selective echoing the phrase “people might be left wondering….”, without considering the caveat precursing that phrase.

          Your speculative dismissal of the idea of a tipping point without suitable evidence.

          Speculatively insinuating “reality always trumps “terrifying thresholds” without any evidence.

          I’d say you are all about vapid dismissal of a very real threat to our planet. I certainly believe your mind set is sadly inflexible and susceptible to a damaging confirmation bias when evidence is set against you.

          There is a real threat primarily to the Arctic which will pay the tragic price for the continued wealth and prosperity of a minority of humans on this planet, and you for one seek any justification you can to dismiss the message from science that things are going badly wrong for the natural world.

          The article points out the artificial construct of the year and time. In the same bucket is money, nations, political parties and multinational companies, all of which are not real, and are artificial constructs of humanity around which we cooperate. What is real is our planet, and in elevating the unreal above the real you have lost your perspective on what it means to live life as part of the natural world, home for all of us (rich and poor).

          You have no real concept of how we should interact with our planet in a sustainable way so that our children also have a future in which they can enjoy the legacy that we inherited. It is a sad state we find ourselves in currently.

          There is nothing delusional about reality.

          • OWilson

            You lost me on the “we should interact with our planet in a sustainable way so that our children also have a future in which they can enjoy the legacy that we inherited”

            Stealing their money, piling up unsustainable debts is criminal, and has only one inevitable, and very “realistic” outcome.

            Read some history for god sake!

  • AndyG55

    Its going to be fun watching that alarmista panic as the temperature drops steeply over the next few months as the El Nino subsides. :-)
    Yes this will be a tipping point.. from warming to cooling.

  • nosmokewithout

    “The warming occurs because a huge amount of heat energy pours out of the tropical Pacific ocean and into the atmosphere during an El Ni単o. Most of it is not the result of human activities, according to Barnston.!

    I suppose the question that occurs to myself is this. How will warming the oceans contribute to the severity of El Nino events?

    • Tom Yulsman

      The most important point of the story: Temperatures in February were far higher than during any other February on record because the El Ni単o spike occurred atop a baseline that is much higher now because of human-caused global warming. As for my caution against arm-waving, I guess I’m just old fashioned.

      • nosmokewithout

        I’ve followed this debate since the late 90’s. Early in the debate, the more extreme predictions made good headlines. I avoided Al Gore’s ‘An inconvenient truth’,and stuck to data sets that report the physical state of the climate. But, once the expectation of massive warming was implanted into our collective psyche, it was inevitable that if the predicted outcomes weren’t manifest, that would come back and haunt those who made those predictions.

        It is unfortunate that some people have associated all the science with a few extreme early predictions and a section of society is ignoring anything science is saying about the current state of climate science.

        Your role is critical in establishing a more realistic understanding of what science is saying about the state of the climate.

        The situation has been further complicated by the polarisation of political factions in the US. This seems to by having an impact on politics, certainly in the UK and possibly in Europe. The science is judged not on it’s merits, but on the tribal allegiances of large sections of the public.

        Humans are peculiar critters.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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