You Just Survived the Hottest Month Ever, Again

A boy jumps into the Ottawa River in Quebec on August 10, 2016. (Chris Wattie / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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.