Science

2020 joint warmest year on record according to NASA

global warming
The figure suggests we are heading rapidly towards the upper limit of the Paris Agreement. Source: TheDigitalArtist (via Pixabay)
2020 was the joint warmest year, tied with 2016, suggesting more needs to be done to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

By Holly Giles | Deputy Editor 

According to NASA’s records, 2020 was tied with 2016 for the highest global average surface temperature since records began. This claim is disputed by different meteorological agencies, who analyse the data in different ways, but they all agree 2020 was a very hot year and one that is indicative of years to come. 

Looking at the conflicting findings, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), Gavin Schmidt, said:

“The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record, typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend. Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important – the important things are long-term trends. With these trends, and as the human impact on the climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken.” 

These findings mean that on average the global temperature is around 1.2C warmer than in the pre-industrial era (from 1850-1900). Under the Paris Agreement, governments have promised to try and keep this figure below 1.5C this century but more must be done for this to be possible. 

Schmidt continued: “We anticipate that the planet will continue to warm at the rate that it has and maybe even accelerate, unless we get those emissions down, and that’s a big task”. 

Of particular concern for researchers is that 2020 included the La Niña event which normally provides temporary cooling of ocean surface temperatures. La Niña occurs when strong winds blow the warm surface waters away from South America towards Indonesia. This pulls colder waters up from the deep ocean, leading to a cooling of the average water temperature.

This occurred in October 2020 but, due to the extent of human activity, was unable to offset the increase in temperatures, suggesting the true effect of our emissions may be higher. Professor Petteri Taalas from the World Meteorological Organisation explained this further: “La Niña typically has a cooling effect on global temperatures, but this is more than offset by the heat trapped in our atmosphere by greenhouse gases.”

This was seconded by Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at Berkeley Earth, who said:

“While the current La Niña event will likely end up affecting 2021 temperature more than 2020, it definitely had a cooling effect on the last quarter of the year… Records like this further reinforce the need to reduce our emissions sooner rather than later.” 

Taken together this means the warming driven by humans is now too large for nature to compensate for, with many researchers predicting the temperatures will rise 3-5C by 2100, a far cry from the plans made in the Paris Agreement. This was echoed by Antonio Guterres, secretary general of the UN, in his warning:

We are headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of 3-5C this century. Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top priority for everyone, everywhere.”

World leaders from nearly 200 nations signed the Paris Agreement in 2015 and President-Elect Biden is expected to re-join the agreement on the first day of his presidency. The US is the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind China, so it is hoped their return to the plan will lead to reduced emissions worldwide. China has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2060 and the EU has seconded this with a plan to be carbon neutral by 2050. These promises combined with America’s rejoining are a beacon of hope for many environmentalists. 

Overall, whilst we are on the right track through the Paris agreement, these figures show that more needs to be done to prevent global warming and climate change. 

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