2015 Was the Hottest Year on…zzzz

Heat records are no longer newsworthy. Uh-oh.

January 20, 2016

Photo: fPat Murray/FlickrThis polar bear just heard the news

Last year was the hottest year on record, according to data released today by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA. Two quick thoughts on the announcement:

Heat records are getting scary boring...

There’s a reason this article is so short: Heat records aren’t particularly newsy anymore. On the Buzzfeed “surprise factor” scale, hottest years are on par with “Gallon of Milk Spoils Before Expiration Date” and “Stock Broker Fails to Clean Up After Dog.”

In June 1988, NASA climatologist James Hansen told Congress that the warmest five years on record, at that time, had all come in the 1980s. Six months later, the University of East Anglia reported that 1988 had rebroken the recently broken global heat record.

Wow. The hottest earth has ever been during the era of human measurement, you say? And it keeps getting hotter? Now that’s news. Magazines like The Economist and Popular Science ran with the story. A little-known first-term senator from Tennessee named Albert Gore Jr. penned an op-ed in The New York Times, likening inaction in the face of climate change to Europe’s failure to prevent the Holocaust. In the 1980s, heat records were hotter than Tiffany.

Then the records kept coming, and coming, and coming. The 1990s were hotter than the 1980s, and the 2000s were hotter still. Nine of the ten hottest years on record have come since 2002. Heat records have less longevity than Olympic sprinting records these days.

Our blasé attitude, however, is dangerous and nonsensical. We should be getting even more worked up over heat records today than we did in the 1980s. Because it’s, like, totally hotter now than it was then, dude.

…Even as the temperature spread widens

If you’re looking for something to interest your friends, note the enormous temperature gap between 2015 and every other year. Last year didn’t just break the heat record; it obliterated the record. 2015 is the Usain Bolt to 2014’s Asafa Powell. Joe DiMaggio to its Willie Keeler. Wilt Chamberlain to its Wilt Chamberlain. (Wilt Chamberlain shattered his own single-game scoring record several times.) You get the idea.

NOAA measures heat records in terms of the year’s “temperature anomaly”—the number of degrees Celsius above the 20th-century average. Look at this table, which showed the heat records at the conclusion of 2013. The margins between the years are pretty thin. When a year set a heat record, it was usually by one or two hundredths of a degree.

Credit: NOAA

The pattern has since changed. The temperature anomaly in 2014 was 0.78 degrees Celsius, more than 0.1 degrees larger than the previous record set in 2010. The anomaly last year was 0.88 degrees Celsius, another jump of a tenth of a degree. The margin by which we’re breaking records has grown by an order of magnitude. That should scare us, once we snap out of our boredom.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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