State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

In 2015: Hot, Wet and Opinionated


Three interesting pieces of news about climate change, in case you missed them:

For starters, 2015 is shaping up to be the warmest year on record since 1880, according to new data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Potential sea level rise in Guilford, CT. Source: Climate Central
Potential sea level rise in Guilford, CT. Source: Climate Central

Second, if you’re wondering about the longer-term impacts of climate change: Climate Central has produced a startling new, interactive graphic that shows the potential effects of sea level rise, should the world continue to grow warmer, melting more and more of the world’s ice sheets and glaciers. From a general view of the impacts on the United States, you can drill down into the graphic and see what’s likely to happen in your nearest coastal community. You can adjust the scene to see what might happen under various scenarios, should we actually succeed in cutting back carbon emissions.

Translation? My former hometown’s downtown would be pretty much under water, along with a substantial stretch of the Amtrak line running up through coastal Connecticut, by the end of the century. Posted Oct. 14, you can check it out here—just in case you want to plan ahead.

The third piece of news is more optimistic: A new University of Texas poll says that 76 percent of Americans now believe climate change is occurring, up from 68 percent a year ago. And the number of those who say it’s not is declining. Interestingly, the rise in people accepting the fact of climate change grew more among self-described Republicans, from 47 percent in March to 59 percent in September. Was it something about the summer?

Read more in this piece in Scientific American, written by Sheril Kirshenbaum, director of The Energy Poll at The University of Texas at Austin.

But back to 2015. September is already the hottest on record: 1.62°F above the 20th century average of 59°F. And according to NOAA: “The first nine months of 2015 comprised the warmest such period on record across the world’s land and ocean surfaces, at 0.85°C (1.53°F) above the 20th century average, surpassing the previous records of 2010 and 2014 by 0.12°C (0.21°F).”

Chart: NOAA
Chart: NOAA

The major El Niño event going on the eastern Pacific now is a factor, boosting global temperatures; but it’s not the only thing going on.

“Generally, the El Niño years keep getting warmer compared to one another,” Jessica Blunden, a climate scientist with ERT Inc., at NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Information, told Climate Central. The cooler La Niña years also have grown warmer; together those trends offer “a clear signal” that overall, the world is warming, she said.

The El Niño event—resulting in a swath of warmer waters pushed into the eastern Pacific by changes in prevailing wind patterns—is likely to lead to higher than average precipitation in some areas. That includes the southern U.S., possibly bringing some relief to drought-stricken California. (A recent post on Medium by Elizabeth Gawthrop, of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, discusses the finer points of forecasting El Niño’s effects there.)

El Niño also is contributing to drier conditions elsewhere, including the northern U.S. and other places around the world. Dry conditions in Indonesia are already contributing to what could be the worst fire season in nearly 20 years (since the last major El Niño event), spewing vast unhealthy clouds of pollution into the atmosphere. (For more on that, check out another Medium post by Gawthrop’s colleague, Francesco Fiondella.)

This year’s El Niño also has contributed to drought in Ethiopia and a weaker than normal monsoon season in India, Marc Cane, a climate scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told the Discovery News website. The story, by freelance environmental writer Emily Sohn, focuses on the potential for civil conflict rooted in climate shifts. Some researchers say manmade global warming may heighten future conflicts, and one study earlier this year tied the civil war in Syria to a drought that preceeded the conflict. Co-author Richard Seager, another climate scientist at Lamont-Doherty, said the drought added to other stressors: “It helped kick things over the threshold into conflict,” he said.

For a nice explanation of how El Niño works, we refer you to a graphic posted by the New York Times inside this story. Want more? Try this primer on the science of El Nino, at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society website.

In the Times story on Wednesday about 2015 temperatures, Seager summed it up this way: “The warning is out. The world has had time to plan for this.”

Chart: NOAA
Chart: NOAA
Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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