Animation showing deviations of the global mean surface temperature from the average over the period 1951-1980. Image: NASA AIVD.
Believe it or not, average surface temperatures on Earth have actually been relatively cool for the past three years, but that’s about to change.
Why it matters: Temperatures are expected to rise this year – and 2024 could set a new world record.
The big picture: A rare La Niña “triple dip” in the tropical Pacific kept temperatures in check in 2022, marking the fifth year of warmest since instrument records began.
- La Niña events are characterized by cooler-than-average waters in the equatorial tropical Pacific Ocean, and tend to put pressure on global temperatures.
- But 2022 still ended up being the fifth warmest year on record according to NASA and the Copernicus Climate Change Service. And if the phenomenon disappears, as forecasts increasingly indicate, global temperatures will rise even more this year and next.
- If an El Niño event — characterized by milder-than-average ocean temperatures — begins in the tropical Pacific, 2023 could even reach or nearly reach an all-time high.
What they say: “I predict about a 15% chance of a new record in 2023. And if we’re in an El Niño by the end of 2023, a near certainty of a new record in 2024,” said Gavin Schmidt, chief of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, Axios told me via email.
Zoom in: According to NASA, the record warmest year occurred in 2020 and 2016, the latter of which occurred when a major El Niño was underway. This has led some climate change doubters to claim that global warming stopped in 2016.
What’s next: This year looks milder than in recent years. It has a decent chance of making at least the top five, if not the top three warmest years, depending on how a transition to an El Niño goes.
- Then 2024 has a higher chance of setting a new record, scientists told Axios. This is partly because there is a delay in the atmosphere’s response to El Niño.
Threat level: The UK Met Office predicts that global average temperatures will be at least 1.2°C (2.16°F) above the pre-industrial average by 2023. Keep in mind that the Paris Agreement aims to limit warming to 1.5°C.
- If warming exceeds this target, studies show, the likelihood of potentially devastating climate change impacts, such as greater melting of the polar ice caps and the loss of tropical coral reefs, will increase.
- Zeke Hausfather, climate research lead at payments company Stripe, said 2023 looks warmer than in recent years, but pinpointing exactly how much is difficult at the moment.
- “Given the delays in surface temperature response, a transition to El Niño conditions in the second half of 2023 would have a greater impact in 2024,” he said via email.