Climate report confirms 2015 hit record highs on global heat, green house gasses and sea levels

By Kerry Sheridan in Miami

Warning from scientists after studies show 2015 set range of records.
Temperatures hit record levels last year. Photo / AP
Temperatures hit record levels last year. Photo / AP

Global heat, greenhouse gases and sea levels all climbed to record highs last year, making 2015 the worst in modern times across a range of key environmental indicators, international scientists said yesterday.

A dire picture of the Earth's health is painted in the State of the Climate report, a peer-reviewed 300-page tome that comes out once a year and is compiled by 450 scientists from around the world.

The record heat that the planet experienced last year was driven partially by global warming, and was exacerbated by the ocean-heating trend known as El Nino, it said.

El Nino, which ended last month, was one of the strongest the Earth had seen "since at least 1950", said the report, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Centres for Environmental Information.

Thomas Karl, director of the NOAA division, described the report as an "annual physical" of the Earth's health.

"Clearly, the report in 2015 shows not only that the temperature of the planet is increasing, but all the related symptoms that you might expect to see with a rising temperature are also occurring," he said.

"El Nino certainly gave it a boost, so to speak, from the standpoint of global temperatures."

Major concentrations of greenhouse gases - including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide - are the byproducts of fossil fuel burning.

All three "rose to new record high values during 2015", said the findings, based on tens of thousands of measurements from multiple independent datasets.

The annual average atmospheric CO2 concentration at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, reached 400.8 parts per million (ppm), surpassing 400 ppm for the first time, marking "the largest annual increase observed in the 58-year record". On average globally, last year's CO2 level was 399.4 ppm, an increase of 2.2 ppm over 2014.

This "means that 2016 is easily going to surpass this milestone", said climatologist Jessica Blunden, lead editor at NOAA's National Centres for Environmental Information.

The report also confirmed the NOAA and Nasa finding that Earth's average land and ocean surface temperatures warmed to record levels last year.

Karl and Blunden said experts foresee this year setting a new record for global heat.

"Just because the El Nino has ended does not mean that we are going to go back to where we were before. We are going to continue to climb," said Blunden.

Global sea levels swelled to their highest point yet, about 7cm higher than the 1993 average.

Sea level is creeping up gradually around the globe, averaging about 3.3cm a year, according to the report. In some places in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean waters rise faster.

Even though the current pace may appear slow, experts warn that sea-level rise will accelerate in the coming decades as glaciers and polar ice caps melt, putting millions of lives at risk in coastal communities around the world.

More extreme weather was seen in 2015, too, with an above-normal rainy season prompting major floods in some parts of the world.

Meanwhile, areas in severe drought nearly doubled, from 8 per cent of the planet in 2014 to 14 per cent last year.

The Arctic, which is considered particularly sensitive to climate change, continued to warm, and increasing temperatures led to thinner and smaller sea ice cover.

"The Arctic land surface temperature tied with 2007 and 2011 as the highest since records began in the early 20th century, representing a 2.8C increase since that time," said the report.

The Antarctic was colder than average, and the influence of El Nino on atmospheric circulation helped shift sea-ice cover "from record high levels in May to record low levels in August", it said.

Just because the El Nino has ended does not mean that we are going to go back to where we were before. We are going to continue to climb.
Jessica Blunden

Across the globe, alpine glaciers continued to retreat for the 36th year in a row.

June's late spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere marked the second-lowest in the 49-year satellite record.

Warming waters are also blamed for the severity of a widespread algal bloom last northern summer that stretched from central California to British Columbia, Canada, resulting in "significant impacts to marine life, coastal resources and the human communities that depend on these resources".

The Atlantic hurricane season was unusually mild for the second year in a row, largely due to El Nino, but tropical cyclones "were well above average overall", said the report.

There were 101 tropical cyclones across all ocean basins last year, well above the 1981-2010 average of 82 storms.

The eastern and central Pacific was roiled by 26 big storms, the most since 1992.

- AFP

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