Last year was the hottest on record, two federal agencies confirmed Wednesday morning, after months of warning that 2016 would be another chart-buster.
Findings from separate analyses by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration mark the third consecutive year that the planet has experienced record-high temperatures and the 40th consecutive year that global temperatures were above average in more than a century of record-keeping.
NASA found that 2016 was 1.78 degrees warmer than the mid-20th century average, while NOAA found 2016 was 1.69 degrees warmer than the 20th century average. The agencies use those periods as a set point for measuring climate change.
“The trends that we’ve been seeing since the 1970s are continuing and have not paused in any way,” Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told reporters Wednesday.
The 2016 record should be viewed as “part of a multi-decade trend,” Deke Arndt, chief of the global monitoring branch of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, told reporters Wednesday.
“2016 being the warmest year on record is a data point at the end of many data points that indicate several decades of warming that continue,” he said.
The announcement comes the same day that an annual Yale University/George Mason University survey found that 19 percent of Americans are “very worried” about global warming, marking the highest percentage since they first began surveying in 2008.
The U.S. agencies’ findings confirm those released by the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service earlier this month. According to its findings, the average global surface temperature soared to 58.6 degrees Fahrenheit, approximately 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial times.
The writing’s been on the wall since the beginning of the year, when the agencies recorded a record hot January. By the release of April’s data, which marked a yearlong streak of record-high monthly temperatures by NOAA’s analysis, Schmidt tweeted that it was more than 99 percent likely that 2016 would set a record.
“I think most climate scientists are surprised at the speed that [temperature increase is] happening,” Astrid Caldas, a climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists and a Huffington Post contributor, said at the time.
“It’s the amount by which the records are being broken, not the fact that the record’s being broken, that’s really striking,” Caldas said.
Schmidt said that given years of warming, he’s already predicting 2017 will be an exceptionally hot year, but the irregular La Niña cooling phenomenon may prevent it from setting a new record.
“Because we’re right now starting this year with a very mild La Niña... we expect that to give a small negative push to next year’s temperature,” he told reporters. “But because the long-term trends are so clear, it’s still going to be a top-five year in our analysis. I’m pretty confident about that, but it’s unlikely to be another record year.”
Temperatures were high in the U.S. in 2016, but they weren’t high enough to knock out 2012 as the country’s hottest year on record. According to findings released by NOAA earlier this month, the average U.S. temperature in 2016 was 54.9 degrees, 2.9 degrees above the pre-industrial average.
Still, average temperatures across the Lower 48 states were nearly 3 degrees above normal and nearly 6 degrees above average in Alaska.
“Every state in the union had an average annual temperature that was among the warmest seven of their historical records, and all but Iowa, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Utah had one of their warmest five years,” the agency said.
In total, 34 cities, including Houston, New Orleans, Cleveland and Atlanta, saw their warmest years on record, NOAA said.
High temperatures were linked to a range of weather catastrophes in 2016, including extreme floods, an exceptional hurricane season and deadly wildfires.
Those global and national temperature records are the result of human emissions, Schmidt explained in an August video.
“[W]hat we find is that the long-term warming that we’re seeing, that we’re experiencing right now, is dominated by the changes in greenhouse gases,” he said. “So when people talk about the record warm temperatures, it’s not just a statistical fluke. It’s happening for a reason that involves us. What it means is that if we don’t change those activities, that if we continue along a business-as-usual path, we aren’t going to hear the end of these record-breaking temperatures.”
The agencies’ temperature announcement comes just days before President-elect Donald Trump is sworn into office. Many of his Cabinet appointees have either downplayed the effects of climate change or denied its existence and generally oppose the energy policies scientists say are necessary to slow the global rise in temperature.
His picks include Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, whose company is under investigation for climate denial, as secretary of state; Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, which he is suing to stop power plant regulations; former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy, which he once pledged to eliminate; and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has opposed funding to address climate change, to lead the Department of Justice.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred incorrectly to the temperature baseline averages as “pre-industrial.”
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