Housebound by a pandemic, humanity slowed its emissions of greenhouse gases in 2020. But Earth paid little heed: Temperatures last year tied the modern record, climate scientists reported today. Overall, the planet was about 1.25°C warmer than in preindustrial times, according to jointly reported assessments from NASA, the U.K. Met Office, and other institutions.
The annual update of global surface temperatures—an average of readings from thousands of weather stations and ocean probes—shows 2020 essentially tied records set in 2016. But the years were nothing alike. Temperatures in 2016 were boosted by a strong El Niño, a weather pattern that warms the globe by blocking the rise of cold deep waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Last year, however, the Pacific entered La Niña, which has a cooling effect. That La Niña didn’t provide more relief is an unwelcome surprise, says Nerilie Abram, a climate scientist at Australian National University. “It makes me worried about how quickly the global warming trend is growing.”
The past 6 years are the six warmest on record, but the warming of the atmosphere is unsteady because of its chaotic nature. The ocean, which absorbs more than 90% of the heat from global warming, displays a steadier trend, and here, too, 2020 was a record year. The upper levels of the ocean contained 20 zettajoules (1021 joules) more heat than in 2019, and the rise was double the typical annual increase, scientists reported yesterday in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences. The subtropical Atlantic Ocean was particularly hot, fueling a record outbreak of hurricanes, says Lijing Cheng, a climate scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s Institute of Atmospheric Physics who led the work.
This heat, monitored down to 2000 meters by a fleet of 4000 robotic probes, is spreading deeper into the ocean while also migrating toward the poles. An extreme heat wave struck the northern Pacific, killing marine life. For the first time, warm Atlantic waters were seen penetrating into the Arctic Ocean, melting sea ice from below and driving its extent nearly to a record low. The warming ocean and melting ice sheets are raising sea levels by 4.8 millimeters per year, and the rate is accelerating.
On land, 2020 was even more relentless, with temperatures rising 1.96°C above preindustrial levels, a clear record, reported Berkeley Earth, one of the monitoring groups. It was the warmest year ever in Asia and Europe and tied for the warmest in South America. Russia was particularly hot, breaking its previous record by 1.2°C, while swaths of Siberia were 7°C warmer than in preindustrial time, leading to large-scale fires and thawing permafrost that caused buildings to founder and set off oil spills. “Siberia was crazy,” says Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the Breakthrough Institute and co-author of the Berkeley Earth analysis. “That heat would effectively be impossible without the warming we’ve seen.”
In Australia, record-setting heat and drought fueled catastrophic bushfires at the start of 2020. Fires torched nearly one-quarter of southeastern Australia’s forests and destroyed 3000 homes. Climate change was to blame for the country’s “Black Summer,” Abram and co-authors concluded in a study published this month in Communications Earth & Environment.
Meanwhile, in the United States, unprecedented heat came to the desert Southwest, which is already warming faster than the rest of the country. Phoenix wilted under its hottest summer ever, averaging 36°C. Arizona’s Maricopa county, home to Phoenix, is a leader in addressing heat exposure, yet its heat deaths have hit a new record each year since 2016. In 2020, the number approached 300, a jump of some 50% over the previous year, says David Hondula, a climatologist who studies heat mortality at Arizona State University, Tempe. “It was just off the charts in terms of heat.”
Although the global economic slowdown of the COVID-19 pandemic cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by some 7%, atmospheric CO2 is long-lived, and warming from previous emissions was preordained. In any case, the drop in emissions is unlikely to last. Later this year, in May, before photosynthesis in the Northern Hemisphere draws down CO2, the U.K. Met Office predicts that levels of atmospheric CO2 will pass 417 parts per million for several weeks, 50% higher than preindustrial levels. Only dramatic action by the world’s countries, far beyond existing efforts, can begin to halt this build up, Cheng says.
Should the current rate of warming continue, the world will breach the targets set in the Paris climate agreement—limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C—by 2035 and 2065, respectively. But Hausfather says it’s quite possible that warming, which has largely held steady for the past few decades at 0.19°C per decade, will actually speed up. The rate of warming over the past 14 years is well above the long-term trend. The debate now, he says, is whether that is an omen of an even darker future.