2014 was hottest year on record and the future’s not looking much better

On Friday, NASA and the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a pair of reports showing 2014 was the warmest year on Earth since 1880, and 10 of the warmest years in the 134 instrumental record have occurred since 2000.

Surface temperatures on Earth have increased 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in the same amount of time, “a trend that is largely driven by the increase in carbon dioxide and other human emissions into the planet’s atmosphere,” according to Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York City.

The latest data “reinforces the importance for NASA to study the Earth as a complete system, and particularly to understand the role and impacts on human activity,” adds John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.

global temperature anomaly data from 2014

What makes 2014 particularly interesting is the lack of weather patterns known to cause fluctuations in temperatures, like El Niño or La Niña.

Those who suffered from the long-lasting frigid temperatures of last winter might be scratching their heads and wondering how NASA and NOAA can possibly think the world is getting hotter when they faced days, if not weeks, of sub-zero temperatures and record snowfall.

It is also worth noting that some areas of the world reported hotter temperatures than had been recorded before, NASA notes.

“Regional differences in temperature are more strongly affected by weather dynamics than the global mean,” the agency says in a statement released Friday. “For example, in the U.S. in 2014, parts of the Midwest and East Coast were unusually cool, while Alaska and three western states — California, Arizona and Nevada — experienced their warmest year on record, according to NOAA.”

Chart showing warming

The information reviewed by GISS for the report was collected from 6,300 weather stations around the world, in addition to ship- and buoy-based observations of sea surface temperatures and data gathered from Antarctic research station. Both NASA and NOAA use this body of research, but NOAA uses a different baseline period for observation and comparison and use their own methods for estimating worldwide temperature.

Anyone who might want to do the math or review the data used by NASA and NOAA to make these analyses is welcome to do so: NASA has provided links the methodology used to make the temperature calculation and the 2014 surface temperature measurement data set available on its website.

These reports were released in the same week as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (Republican from Texas), who has fought against the occurrence of global warming and the notion that human activity is contributing to it, was named as chairman of the congressional subcommittee that oversees NASA’s budget. He has since said he wants NASA to focus more of its resources to space exploration — the agency’s Johnson Space Center is located in Texas, where “mission control” for most space flights has traditionally been located — but whether he’ll try to cut funding for planetary research remains to be seen.

Also last week, a new paper published in the journal Science written by 18 researchers has determined that the planet could cease to be a “safe operating space” for human beings in the coming decades.

This is the result of Earth having crossed four “planetary boundaries” that indicate overall health and habitability: the rate of extinction of species; deforestation; the level of carbon dioxide found in the atmosphere, and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorus into the ocean.

The paper’s lead author, Will Steffen, who is appointed to both the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Center, warns that these conditions are indicators that the problems facing our ability to stay on Earth are not to be dealt with in the future, but here and now.  He points to changes made worldwide since the 1950s and the expanding globalization of the economy as accelerating drivers of this decline in habitability.

Steffen and the other researchers looked at nine planetary boundaries including ozone depletion, freshwater use, ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosol pollution and use of exotic chemicals and modified organisms, and what happens when a factor crosses into a “zone of uncertainty,” meant to be viewed as a buffer zone for expected variables in calculations and conditions.

Once those buffer zones are crossed, however, it’s unknown how the planet will respond or what life on the surface will resemble.

How long might it take for the whole thing to collapse? Steffen tells the Washington Post the Earth could become destabilized within a time frame of “decades out to a century.”

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