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Global temperatures hit record high in 2016, UN confirms

Arctic experiences ‘polar heatwaves’ as carbon dioxide emissions hit highest levels yet

A polar bear hides beneath melting sea ice. Arctic sea ice was well below average for most of the year in 2016. Photograph: Paul Souders/Worldfoto

History was made on the weather front in 2016 when it became the warmest year on record. Multiple climate-related records were broken last year, according to the annual climate statement of the UN’s weather agency, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

At 1.1 degrees above pre-industrial levels, the temperature increase broke the previous milestone set only the year before by 0.06 degrees.

Globally-averaged sea surface temperatures were the warmest on record. Global sea levels rose strongly during 2015/2016 with El Niño, reaching record highs in early 2016.

Oceans were unusually warm, global sea levels rose sharply, Arctic sea ice was well below average for most of the year and severe droughts hit southern and eastern Africa and Central America. Carbon dioxide emissions reached their highest levels yet.

Heatwave

Extreme conditions have continued into this year, with the Arctic experiencing the “polar equivalent of a heatwave” at least three times this winter, while Antarctic sea ice has been at a record low.

The UN Paris climate change accord, negotiated in 2015, aims to limit global temperature increases to below 2 degrees over pre-industrial levels, and at best no higher than 1.5 degrees.

But according to the WMO, temperature rises were above the 1961-1990 average (the baseline for climate change monitoring) virtually worldwide, except in central Argentina and parts of southwestern Australia.

Extreme rises were reported in areas such as the high Arctic at Svalbard, Norway, where the mean average temperature of -0.1 degree was 6.5 degrees above the 1961-1990 average and 1.6 degrees above the previous record.

It was the warmest year on record in North America and the third-warmest in Europe.

Global sea levels continued to rise, reaching record highs early in the year, and the extent of sea ice in the Arctic dropped more than four million square kilometres below average in November, “an unprecedented anomaly”. Antarctic sea ice has also been at a record low.

The report will be presented to UN members in New York on World Meteorological Day, March 23rd.