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April's record heat extends an alarming climate trend

Our planet has just recorded its hottest April ever, marking an unprecedented sequence where each of the past 11 months has set a new heat record, according to the European Union’s climate change monitoring institute, Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S). 

The report, released on Wednesday, highlights that since June 2023, each month has been the hottest of its kind in recorded history.

Shift in the climate system

In their latest monthly bulletin, C3S reported that with the inclusion of this April, the global average temperature over the past 12 months has been the highest ever recorded, at 1.61 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average from 1850-1900.

Recent extreme temperatures, such as prolonged periods of record-breaking sea surface temperatures, have prompted scientists to explore the possibility that human actions might have pushed the climate system to a critical tipping point

“I think many scientists have asked the question whether there could be a shift in the climate system,” said Julien Nicolas, a Senior Climate Scientist at C3S.

Recent El Niño phenomenon 

The principal driver of climate change is the emission of greenhouse gasses from fossil fuels, but the recent natural El Niño phenomenon, which causes warming of surface waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean, has also contributed to the temperature increases.

“El Niño peaked at the beginning of the year and the sea surface temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific are now going back towards neutral conditions,” said Copernicus Director Carlo Buontempo. 

“However, whilst temperature variations associated with natural cycles like El Niño come and go, the extra energy trapped into the ocean and the atmosphere by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases will keep pushing the global temperature towards new records.”

Broader implications of the record heat in April

The impact of climate change was starkly evident in April’s weather extremes, including a heatwave in the Sahel region, which is linked to thousands of deaths. 

Hayley Fowler, a climate scientist at Newcastle University, pointed out the urgency of the situation regarding global warming limits set by international agreements. “At what point do we declare we’ve lost the battle to keep temperatures below 1.5? My personal opinion is we’ve already lost that battle, and we really need to think very seriously about keeping below 2C and reducing our emissions as fast as we can,” she said.

The target to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius was set at the 2015 U.N. climate summit, a threshold that scientists argue would prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change, such as extreme heat, severe flooding, and irreversible damage to ecosystems. 

Although technically the 1.5C target has not been breached – as it refers to a long-term global temperature average – some experts believe it is no longer feasible to achieve this goal and are calling for more aggressive CO2 emissions reductions to minimize exceeding the target.

Record ocean heat

According to a recent analysis from the BBC, the world’s oceans have set new heat records every single day over the past year.

“The fact that all this heat is going into the ocean, and in fact, it’s warming in some respects even more rapidly than we thought it would, is a cause for great concern,” said Professor Mike Meredith from the British Antarctic Survey.

“These are real signs of the environment moving into areas where we really don’t want it to be and if it carries on in that direction the consequences will be severe.”

Fourth global coral bleaching event 

The latest coral bleaching event, confirmed as the fourth global event of its kind, is currently underway and has been significantly impacting coral reefs around the world. This ongoing event has been observed since early 2023 and has affected over 54% of the world’s coral reefs, with conditions worsening, making it potentially the largest bleaching event ever recorded.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been monitoring the bleaching event through its Coral Reef Watch program, which has recorded extensive heat stress across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Ocean basins. 

Coral bleaching has been particularly severe in areas like the Great Barrier Reef, which has experienced simultaneous high levels of bleaching across its entire area for the first time ever. 

This widespread bleaching has profound implications not only for marine biodiversity but also for the economies and food security of communities that rely on these ecosystems. The global economic value of coral reefs is immense, estimated at $2.7 trillion annually, supporting industries such as tourism and fishing.

More details about C3S’ report on record April heat can be found here.


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