According to recent estimates, the past few days have been the hottest in our planet’s modern history, raising alarms that the Earth could be entering a multiyear period of unprecedented warmth. The record heat has even shocked climate scientists, who warn that the warming trend will only get worse.
Heatwaves have emerged all over the globe, shattering temperature records from North America to Antarctica – with our planet experiencing its warmest June ever recorded.
This astonishing surge in record heat is likely driven by two compounding factors: the continued high-level emissions of greenhouse gases caused by burning oil, coal, and gas, and the return of El Niño, a cyclical weather pattern that re-emerged last month.
The ongoing El Niño event is expected to drive massive spikes in heat and moisture in the years to come, and trigger extreme storms and floods in some areas and massive droughts and fires in others.
In the previous weeks, weather extremes have affected a variety of regions, including China, where Beijing surpassed 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) for the first time in history, as well as Texas and Mexico, where officials are currently struggling to keep the electricity grid functional due to intensive use of air conditioning devices.
In addition, smoke from the massive Canadian wildfires triggered by abnormal spring heat and unusually dry weather conditions continues to choke parts of the US.
Even in usually cooler regions, such as the Antarctic, sea ice levels have recently plummeted to record laws, while in the North Atlantic, surface temperatures in May were already 1.6 degrees Celsius (2.9 Fahrenheit) higher than typical for that time of year, breaking previous records by unusually large margins.
Finally, on the 4th of July, global average temperatures climbed to 17 degrees Celsius (62.6 Fahrenheit), making it the hottest day the Earth has experienced at least since 1940, when the official record began.
These sharp increases in temperature are unsettling even for scientists who have been tracking climate change for years.
“It’s so far out of line of what’s been observed that it’s hard to wrap your head around. It doesn’t seem real,” said Brian McNoldy, a senior research scientist at the University of Miami. And while these weather patterns may change in the weeks ahead, “even then we’d probably be going from insanely record-breaking temperatures down to just extremely record-breaking.”
“We have never seen anything like this before,” added Carlo Buontempo, director of Europe’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. In his opinion, all the charts and graphs on Earth’s climate currently emerging in the scientific community are literally showing that “we are in uncharted territory.”
Globally, the Earth has already warmed about two degrees Fahrenheit since the industrial revolution and, if humans fail to halt greenhouse emissions and stop deforestation, it will continue to grow hotter in the years and decades to come.
However, this anthropogenic warming is already compounded by other factors such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, which causes year-to-year fluctuations by shifting heat in and out of deeper ocean layers. While global ocean temperatures are usually cooler during La Niña years, they tend to be significantly hotter during El Niño years.
“A big reason we’re seeing so many records shattered is that we’re transitioning out of an unusually long three-year La Niña, which suppressed temperatures, and into a strong El Niño,” said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at Berkeley Earth.
Unfortunately, the current El Niño has just started and many experts do not expect it to peak until December or January, meaning that global temperatures will witness another massive surge next year.
Other factors that are possibly contributing to the record heat include a subtropical high pressure system known as the Azores High, which has weakened the winds blowing over the North Atlantic ocean and limited the amount of dust blowing from Sahara that usually helps cool the ocean, as well as recent efforts to curb sulfur pollution from ships, which may have inadvertently contributed to warming, since sulfur dioxide tends to reflect sunlight and thus cool the planet to a certain degree.
“There does seem to be this unusual convergence of warming factors right now. But this is all happening in a world where we’ve been increasing greenhouse gases for the past 150 years, and that really loads the dice and makes it much more likely that we’re going to get pushed into record-breaking territory,” concluded Gabriel Vecchi, a climate scientist at Princeton University.