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Earth’s hottest year in recorded history

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In 2016, the world witnessed the worst coral bleaching event in history, record low sea ice coverage in the Arctic during the start of the northern winter, and monthly temperature records smashed one after the other.

All this is likely to culminate in the year just gone being officially declared Earth’s warmest ever recorded.

According to reports, US scientists will soon confirm that 2016 was the hottest since records began in 1880. They are expected to make the announcement on January 18, just two days before the inauguration of known climate sceptic, US president-elect Donald Trump.

Both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US have released preliminary data reports that show global temperatures for the year just passed to be 1.02°C and 1.69°C above average, respectively.

This is largely in line with the prediction made by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) at the recent global climate summit in Morocco that 2016 average global temperatures would be around 1.2°C higher than the pre-industrial average.

“Another year. Another record. The high temperatures we saw in 2015 are set to be beaten in 2016,” WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas said at the time.

temperature anomalies
Monthly temperature anomalies with base 1980-2015, superimposed on a 1980-2015 mean seasonal cycle. Source: NASA/GISS/Schmidt

Back in July, NASA announced that the first half of 2016 was the warmest half-year on record. With the second half also expected to have the same claim, this will mean 2016 will beat 2015 (which had also broken the record set in 2014) as Earth’s warmest year ever recorded.

Dr Karl Braganza, manager of climate monitoring at the Bureau of Meteorology, recently said 2016 was also expected to be in the top 10 warmest years in Australia.

“It’s likely to be Australia’s fifth-warmest year on record – pretty much that’s on trend, so we’ve got natural variability causing those ups and downs in temperatures for Australia and the globe more generally,” Dr Braganza said.

“The year started with a significant El Niño in place in the Pacific and this led to very warm and dry conditions, particularly across eastern Australia.”

As a result, Australia experienced some significant bushfire activity, particularly in Tasmania, as well as the country’s warmest autumn on record.

Record sea surface temperatures in northern parts of the country from summer through to autumn also had the effect of driving the coral bleaching event that decimated the Great Barrier Reef.

According to experts at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, the death toll for corals in the 700km northern stretch of the Reef was around 67 per cent, whereas bleached corals in the central and southern parts of the Reef were mostly able to recover.

coral bleaching
Average loss of coral along each section of the Great Barrier Reef. Source: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

In the polar regions, the extent of sea ice in the Arctic, which is regarded as a canary in a coal mine for global warming, reached record lows in October and November at a time when sea ice extent should actually be increasing going into the northern winter.

This loss of sea ice has been driven largely thanks to warmer temperatures, with some areas of the Arctic reaching more than 20°C -30°C warmer than average.

In November, Arctic sea ice extent was just 9.08 million sq km, a staggering 1.95 million sq km below the long-term average – the size of the ‘missing’ area is larger than the size of Alaska.

arctic ice
Daily Arctic sea ice extent as of December 5, 2016. Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center

All of these phenomena combined, coupled with temperature averages gathered by various climate bodies, point to 2016 being the warmest year on record.

The Bureau of Meteorology will release its final figures for Australia’s 2016 temperatures on Thursday.

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