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And the heat keeps coming: Global temperature record broken for 10th month in a row in March

Silhouettes of people in the ocean with the sun behind them
People cool off in the water off Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during a March heat wave.
(Silvia Izquierdo / Associated Press)
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Earth’s worrisome warming trajectory continued unabated last month, with March marking the 10th month in a row that the planet has broken global heat records, international climate officials announced this week.

With an average surface temperature of 57.45 degrees Fahrenheit, last month was warmer globally than any previous March on record, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. The month was about 0.18 of a degree warmer than the previous hottest March, in 2016, the service said.

“March 2024 continues the sequence of climate records toppling for both air temperature and ocean surface temperatures, with the 10th consecutive record-breaking month,” read a statement from Samantha Burgess, Copernicus’ deputy director. “The global average temperature is the highest on record, with the past 12 months being 1.58 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Stopping further warming requires rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

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Indeed, March was well above the 1.5-degree Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) international target for limiting the worst effects of climate change. The global average temperature measured about 3 degrees, or 1.68 degrees Celsius, warmer than the designated 1850 to 1900 preindustrial reference period.

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What’s more, the global average temperature for the last 12 months — April 2023 through March 2024 — is the highest on record, at 2.8 degrees, or 1.58 degrees Celsius, above the preindustrial average.

Brenda Ekwurzel, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted that the 1.5-degree Celsius limit established under the 2015 Paris climate agreement refers to decades of sustained warming at that temperature, as opposed to a single day, month or year.

“It’s just the initial part of a decadal average,” she said of recent records. However, “when you see so many months in a row being just above the indicator that the Paris climate agreement is hoping the world will stay below — it’s troubling.”

On Tuesday, a group of women in Switzerland won a landmark victory from Europe’s highest human rights court on charges that their government was failing to protect them from the dangers of extreme heat and worsening climate change. The women, part of a group called Senior Women for Climate Protection, have joined other activists in arguing that governments must do more to ensure global warming is held to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Every bit of planetary warming will have impacts beyond those already occurring, including biodiversity loss, longer heat waves and extreme rainfall.

Feb. 1, 2024

The current stretch of simmering global heat has been largely driven by human-caused climate change and the presence of El Ni?o, a climate pattern in the tropical Pacific associated with hotter global temperatures, experts say.

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El Ni?o arrived in June and ushered in a sweltering summer and fall marked by deadly heat, raging wildfires and boiling ocean temperatures. Last month, Brazil was stifled by a dangerous heat wave that saw its heat index soar to 144 degrees.

“I’m surprised at the magnitude of the heat — that is remarkable — but I’m not surprised it’s the tenth consecutive month,” Ekwurzel said.

Human-caused climate change driven by fossil fuel emissions is beginning to become more dominant than natural variability signals such as El Ni?o, she said, noting that “hot times are now much hotter because of climate change, and ... cool times are just not as cool because of climate change.”

But while the worsening heat is in many ways predictable given current trends, some scientists have struggled to explain why conditions are so far above normal as temperatures soar higher than even some climate models predicted.

“It’s humbling, and a bit worrying, to admit that no year has confounded climate scientists’ predictive capabilities more than 2023 has,” wrote Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in a recent article in the journal Nature.

Theories behind the additional warming include changes in aerosol emissions, which have allowed more sunlight to reach the Earth, and a recent volcanic eruption that may have trapped some heat, Schmidt told The Times last month.

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That the recent spike in temperatures arrived before the peak of El Ni?o has “never happened in the temperature record that we have,” he said.

Blistering global temperatures have one NASA scientist warning: ‘We could be in uncharted territory.’ Others aren’t so sure.

March 27, 2024

Ekwurzel described this confluence of variables as “the double-edged sword of uncertainty with climate change” and said factors such as warmer and drier air, worsening wildfire smoke, and temporary changes in aerosols and volcanic eruptions can all have a net effect on global temperatures, including both heating and cooling.

For that reason, it’s possible “we’re not feeling the full brunt of what we’ve overloaded the atmosphere with primarily by burning fossil fuels,” she said.

She said a recent study found that the majority of global carbon dioxide and fossil fuel emissions produced since the Paris agreement — 80% — can be traced back to just 57 oil, gas and cement companies.

And it’s not only the land that is baking as a result.

The global sea surface temperature in March was 69.93 degrees — the highest monthly value on record, marginally hotter than the temperature measured in February, according to Copernicus.

Antarctic sea ice extent was 20% below average — the sixth-lowest extent for March in the satellite data record.

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However, Arctic sea ice reached its annual maximum in March with a monthly value slightly below average, marking the highest March extent since 2013, the agency said.

With a global average temperature of 58.96 degrees, the year was nearly one-third of a degree warmer than the previous hottest year on record, according to officials.

Jan. 9, 2024

The heat is also not reaching all parts of the planet equally.

In the United States, March was the 17th warmest in the 130-year data record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The average temperature in the contiguous U.S. was 45.1 degrees — 3.6 degrees above average.

“March temperatures were above average across much of the contiguous U.S., while below-average temperatures were observed in small pockets of the West and Southwest,” the agency said this week, noting that a blizzard blasted parts of California’s Sierra Nevada with up to 10 feet of snow at the beginning of the month.

January through March marked the fifth-hottest start to the year in the U.S., NOAA said.

The agency’s latest seasonal outlook indicates above-normal temperatures will continue for much of the U.S. through April, May and June — particularly in the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes region. Northern California is likely to see warmer-than-usual temperatures, while the forecast is inconclusive for Southern California.

NOAA’s most recent El Ni?o advisory also indicates that the pattern is waning and will probably return to neutral conditions in the weeks ahead. There is a 62% chance that its cooler, drier counterpart, La Ni?a, will develop between June and August.

That could be good news for temperatures but bad news for water supplies — at least in Southern Califonia, Ekwurzel said.

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“It could be cooler, but ... the jet stream will be bringing a lot of weather and water to northern parts of the U.S., and the southern part can get pretty dry,” she said. “Which, with warmer temperatures, can be a tough combination for the semi-arid southwest United States.”

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