Reporter's Notebook

Climate Record Tracker
Show Description +

For the vast majority of scientists, global warming is no longer a debate—it’s real, it’s human-caused, and it’s getting worse. Every week seems to bring a new and ominous climate record. This is Robinson Meyer’s running list of some of the most noteworthy examples. (To stay more informed on climate change—and read the occasional good news—subscribe to his newsletter, Not Doomed Yet.)

Show None Newer Notes
A boy jumps into the Ottawa River in Quebec on August 10, 2016. Chris Wattie / Reuters

The record: August 2016 was the hottest month measured since contemporary records began in 1880, according to a NASA analysis. It was not only the hottest August ever, but also it ties July 2016 as the hottest month ever—an extraordinary occurrence.

In other words, you just lived through the hottest month in meteorological history and likely in human history. And then you did it again.

The August record was last broken in: 2014.

Why it’s so scary: There are three big reasons.

First, it’s the 11th straight month to break the previous monthly heat record, according to NASA. In other words, in 2015, the hottest October ever took place, and it was followed by the hottest November ever, and then by the hottest December ever—and this sequence continued right up to the present.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) keeps separate records, and its streak of record-breaking months stretches even further back in time: Every month since May 2015 has been the hottest version of that month ever, according to the agency. (NOAA and NASA’s models vary in how they estimate weather where there are few sensors, such as the Arctic Ocean and the Southern Ocean.)

Second, August’s record essentially ensures that 2016 will be the warmest year on record. 2016 could wind up being as much as 1 degree Celsius hotter than the pre-industrial temperature average. This is a stark accomplishment when you consider that the nations of the world committed last year to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average. We are two-thirds of the way there already.

This animation of every previous year’s temperature record highlights just how anomalous 2016 is:


Third, it’s scary for reasons unrelated to this particular record. When I talked to Gavin Schmidt, the director of the main NASA climate model, he downplayed any one particular record. “Whether one year is 0.1 degree warmer than any other—it doesn’t mean too much,” he told me. “The main issue is the longterm trend shows the planet is 1 degree Celsius, almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit, warmer than it was during the 19th century. That has a very large impact on polar ice, on agriculture, on coastal erosion, on water safety. It’s a century-long trend at this point.”

He went on: “That this is the hottest July ever, followed by the hottest August ever, is interesting but it’s not significant. If it had happened differently or not at all, the longterm warming trend would be the same. We like anniversaries and records, but what the world is doing while we talk is changing. And that’s the big takeaway.”

Finally? What might be scariest of all is that only one of the two main candidates for U.S. president has a detailed set of policies to address climate change and these longterm trends. Donald Trump isn’t sure climate change exists—and his party refuses to fund climate-change adaptation even when the Navy begs them to.

In better news: The world’s first large-scale tidal energy project has opened in Scotland. It uses the sloshing of water, tugged and pushed by the moon’s gravity, to turn a massive turbine.

This week’s non-climate-related sign of the apocalypse: The Chicago Cubs are first place in the National League.

A man tries to cool off in Tigris, Iraq, on July 20, amid the country’s worst heat wave in recorded history. Reuters

The record: July 2016 was the hottest month ever recorded, according to NASA. Not just the most anomalously warm month, or the hottest July ever recorded—the hottest month as measured by the thermometer since 1880, when modern climate records began. Last month, the average temperature across Earth’s land and oceans was 0.84 degrees Celsius (1.51 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the average.

This record was last broken: Last year. Before that, you have to go back to July 1998, the wake of the last major El Niño. July is generally the hottest month of the year, so in a warm year, it tends to be the hottest ever measured. And 2016 has been an unusually warm year: July 2016 is likely to be the 15th consecutive month that has broken its own previous temperature record in NOAA’s data. That is: Every month since May 2015 has been the hottest version of itself ever recorded.

Why it’s so scary: Because 2016 already looks really, really hot. The first seven months of the year—January to July—constitute the hottest January to July ever recorded, beating a record last set in 2010. Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA, said there was a “99 percent chance” that 2016 would break an annual heat record.

At some point later this year, these records will likely taper off. Heat records so far in 2016 have been juiced by El Niño, an unusually warm pattern in the Pacific Ocean that itself might have been addled by climate change. But even so: 2016 simply has no precedent in the record books.

In better news: The island fox, one of only six types of fox that live in North America (and an especially adorable one), was removed from the endangered species list last week.

Tachi, a Santa Catalina Island fox pup who is too tame for release, rests on the shoulder of captive breeding specialist Matt Christianson on November 25, 2003, on Santa Catalina Island, California. The Catalina Island Conservancy released 10 captive-bred pups from one breeding season into the wild in an effort to reestablish the subspecies. (Kevork Djansezian / AP)

You can read my new story about the recovery of the island fox over at the Technology channel.

This week’s non-climate-related sign of the apocalypse:  Humpback and killer whales might be engaged in a global oceanic struggle.

Swimming in the Pacific on June 20 during a three-day heatwave in southern California. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

The record: June 2016 was the June with the highest average temperature ever recorded, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The surface of the planet was .9 degrees Celsius warmer than the 20th-century temperature average.

This record was last broken: In June of last year. And in June of the year before that. It’s a pretty familiar record, actually, since each of the last 14 months was the hottest version of that month ever recorded—the longest streak of its kind since global temperature records began in 1880.

Why it’s scary: We already knew that 2016 was going to the hottest year ever recorded, a status assured by the winter’s scorching and unprecedented heat. Get this: Not only was March 2016 the hottest March ever recorded, but it broke that record by the greatest margin ever recorded, exceeding the margin set by … February 2016. Scientists hoped that these high temperatures were stoked by the “Godzilla” El Niño current in the Pacific Ocean. But El Niño calmed down this spring—and the global temperature records are still getting smashed (though not by the same margins as the winter records).

Meanwhile, July’s temperatures are looking pretty dire. NOAA announced the June record while North America huddled under an enormous “heat dome” and as a heat wave rolled across the United Kingdom and western Europe.

In better news: Solar farms in California beat their own power-generation record last Tuesday when they created enough energy to power 2 million homes.

This week’s non-climate-related sign of the apocalypse: A wild boar appeared in the the Baltic Sea and leapt from the foamy spray to attack Polish vacationers, a video appeared to show.