The Warmest Year on Record, Again

The Warmest Year on Record, Again

Earth was warmer in 2016 than any other year since records started being collected in 1880. Global average surface temperature in 2016 was 1.69°F (0.94°C) above the 20th century average. This is the third year in a row that our planet has set a new record for unusual heat.

Average global temperature for each year from 1880-2016 shown as the amount of change in temperature as compared with the 20th century average temperature (center horizontal line). Years that were cooler than average are shown with blue bars. Years that were warmer than average are shown with orange bars. The bar on the far right indicates the 2016 temperature, which was 1.69F above the 20th century average.  
Credit: L.S. Gardiner/UCAR (graphic), NOAA (data)

How do we know?

The annual average temperature for the planet is calculated each January for the previous year. The calculation takes into account temperature measurements from thousands of locations around the world over the land and ocean where temperature is measured each day. You can explore the summarized temperature data at NOAA Climate Data Online.

Some places were warmer than others.

The average temperature was 1.69°F (0.94°C) warmer over the entire planet, but the warmth was not equally distributed. The map below, from NASA, shows how temperature varied around the world during the first half of 2016. The Arctic was much warmer than usual, and warmth extended into Canada, Alaska, Eastern Europe, and central Asia.

Map showing the amount that surface temperatures between January and June of 2016 differed from the average. 

What’s the culprit?

In 2016, there were two reasons for record warm temperatures. El Niño’s warm Pacific ocean water, which warms the atmosphere, can explain about 20% of the record heat. The rest, about 80% of the heat, is due to increasing greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere. 2016 was the first year in which the average amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was more than 400 parts per million (ppm).

Average annual carbon dioxide levels, 1980-2016. The bar on the far right indicates the 2016 average, 402.9 parts per million (ppm). 
Credit: L.S. Gardiner/UCAR (graphic), NOAA ESRL (data)

There's some good news, too.

The amount of energy produced from renewable sources that don’t release any greenhouse gases also increased in 2016. Renewable energy sources include solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric energy. For example, the amount of energy coming from wind turbines grew worldwide from 433 gigawatts (GW) in 2015 to about 487 gigawatts in 2016 as new wind turbines were installed in China, the United States, Germany, India, and other countries where the demand for energy is high. This is still only a small amount of the energy we use, but it’s growing, which keeps greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and will help stop climate change.

Wind turbines in Xinjiang, China
Credit: Chris Lim, Creative Commons

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