World enters ‘uncharted territory’ with record-breaking climate change: UN report

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This US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration map shows the global temperature departures from the long-term average between Jan.-Dec. 2016
The world enters into ‘truly uncharted territory’ in 2017 with the planet continuing to experience record-breaking global temperature, shrinking sea ice and unremitting rise in ocean levels and heat recorded last year, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

The specialized UN agency issued the stark warning Tuesday in its annual statement on the State of the Global Climate.

The report is based on multiple international datasets maintained by independent research and analysis centres around the world, the WMO said.

“This report confirms that the year 2016 was the warmest on record – a remarkable 1.1 C above the pre-industrial period, which is 0.06 C above the previous record set in 2015,” WMO Secretary General Petteri Taalas said in a statement.

‘Warmest on record’

This increase in global temperature is consistent with other changes occurring in the climate system, he said.

“Globally averaged sea surface temperatures were also the warmest on record, global sea levels continued to rise, and Arctic sea-ice extent was well below average for most of the year,” Taalas said.

“With levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere consistently breaking new records, the influence of human activities on the climate system has become more and more evident.”

Each of the 16 years since 2001 has been at least 0.4 C above the long-term average for the 1961-1990 base period, used by WMO as a reference for climate change monitoring.

Arctic anomaly

Some of the biggest temperature increases were registered in the Arctic.

Scientists reported mean annual temperatures at least 3 C above the 1961–1990 average across the Arctic region, particularly along the Russia’s Arctic coast and in Alaska and far north-western Canada, and on islands in the Barents and Norwegian Seas. In the High Arctic, in Norway, Svalbard Airport’s mean annual temperature of −0.1 C was 6.5 C above the 1961–1990 average and 1.6 °C above the previous record, the report said.

El Niño effect

While the powerful El Niño event boosted warming in 2016, global temperatures continue to be consistent with a warming trend of 0.1 C to 0.2 C per decade, said the WMO report.

Starting in November 2014, the exceptionally strong El Niño also drove global sea levels up by about 15 millimetres, setting a new record high in February 2016, according to the report. This was well above the post-1993 trend of 3 to 3.5 mm per year.

In the meantime, global sea ice extent dropped more than 4 million square kilometres below average in November, an unprecedented anomaly for that month, the report said.

Human impact

“With carbon dioxide reaching a record annual average concentration of 400 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere, the influence of human activities on the climate system has become more and more evident,” Taalas said.

Furthermore these record carbon dioxide levels – the last time carbon dioxide levels on Earth were this high was about three to five million years ago – will not fall below that level for many generations to come because of the long-lasting nature of CO2.

The science clearly demonstrates the existence of links between man-made climate change and several cases of high-impact extreme events such as the severe droughts in parts of Africa and Central America, as well as Hurricane Matthew, Taalas said.

‘Truly uncharted territory’

New studies, which were not included in WMO’s report, indicate that ocean heat content may have increased even more than previously reported and there has been no letup in the rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, said WMO officials.

“Even without a strong El Niño in 2017, we are seeing other remarkable changes across the planet that are challenging the limits of our understanding of the climate system,” said World Climate Research Programme Director David Carlson.  “We are now in truly uncharted territory.”

Arctic heatwave

At least three times this winter, the Arctic witnessed the polar equivalent of a heatwave, the report said.

Powerful Atlantic storms pushed north warm, moist air, bringing polar temperatures close to melting point at the time when Arctic sea ice is supposed to grow the fastest, the report said.

The seasonal maximum, of 14.52 million square kilometres on 24 March, was the lowest in the 1979-2016 satellite record, said the WMO. The 2016 autumn freeze-up was exceptionally slow – with sea ice extent even contracting for a few days in mid-November.

Antarctic sea ice has also been at a record low, in contrast to the trend in recent years.

What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic

The melting polar sea ice is affecting weather far from the circumpolar regions.

Much of North America experienced unusually balmy weather in early 2017, while parts of the Arabian peninsula and North Africa, saw an unusually cold beginning of the year. In the U.S. alone, 11,743 warm temperature records were broken or tied in February, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Climate-driven Arctic permafrost thaw will dramatically alter northern landscapes: study, Radio Canada International

Finland: Winds challenging Finland’s icebreakers despite record low Baltic ice, Yle News

Germany: German scientists sound alarm on Arctic trash, Radio Canada International

Greenland: Can we still avert irreversible ice sheet melt?, Deutsche Welle’s Ice-Blog

Norway:  January sea ice extent at record low in Barents and Kara seas, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia:  Siberian erosion, river runoff speeds up Arctic Ocean acidification, Alaska Dispatch News

Sweden:  How will global warming affect the average Swede?, Radio Sweden

United States:  Warming ocean waters off Alaska bring widespread ecological changes, with more expected in the future, Alaska Dispatch News

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Levon Sevunts

Levon Sevunts, Radio Canada International

Born and raised in Armenia, Levon started his journalistic career in 1990, covering wars and civil strife in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In 1992, after the government in Armenia shut down the TV program he was working for, Levon immigrated to Canada. He learned English and eventually went back to journalism, working first in print and then in broadcasting. Levon’s journalistic assignments have taken him from the High Arctic to Sahara and the killing fields of Darfur, from the streets of Montreal to the snow-capped mountaintops of Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. He says, “But best of all, I’ve been privileged to tell the stories of hundreds of people who’ve generously opened up their homes, refugee tents and their hearts to me.”

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