(WFLA) — It’s quite the claim: This week, Earth broke an unofficial record for its hottest day in 120,000 years. Actually, the Earth broke that record three times — on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, according to the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer.
El Niño (a natural cycle) is just getting started. As it gets stronger, and adds more heat to Earth’s system, this summer will continue to set new all-time global records for hot days. And along with that, many other records will be shattered as well.
But no matter how hot it gets, the summer of 2023 will soon be considered a “cool” summer in a couple of decades amid the steady drumbeat of human-caused climate heating.
How can experts be so confident of these bold assertions? As a climate specialist, I’ll do my best to explain. It’s all fairly simple — and fully expected — by the climate science community.
First, researchers know using observations that temperatures over the past decade have been warmer than any ever seen since record-keeping began in the 1800s. Since then, Earth has warmed by 1.2 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit).
Scientists also know through sophisticated methods of examining copious climate clues in proxy data like tree rings, ice cores, ocean sediments, etc. that Earth’s average temperature has not been this warm since the ice age ended 20,000 years ago.
The message is quite simple and stark, when seen on the visual below. Earth’s temperature has skyrocketed since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and it’s projected to keep climbing.
The rate of warming today is unprecedented in the 20,000 years shown. In fact, coming out of the last ice age, it took 10,000 years for the Earth’s average temperature to warm 3 degrees C.
Astonishingly, humans — due to the burning of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions — will likely cause the same amount of warming in 200 years. That means our current warming rate is 50 times that of the natural warming rate that proceeded the most recent ice age.
Between 10,000 years ago and today’s rapid man-made warming, Earth’s average temperature was relatively constant, allowing human civilizations to thrive. There were disruptive regional cooling episodes like the disparate Little Ice Age events, but the impact on overall global temperature was relatively minor.
Since at the peak of the last ice age, Earth’s average temperature was about 10 degrees cooler than today, and it has not been this warm since before the last ice age. We call that time the “last interglacial” (in-between glacial periods) which peaked around 125,000 years ago.
Proxy data shows that the average global temperature during the last interglacial was about 1 degree Celsius warmer than today. During that time, scientists estimate the sea level was 30 feet higher than today. With continued warming, the past warns that future generations may very well have to deal with that same kind of rising sea level.
In fact, the Earth can expect to gain another degree of warming by mid-century, putting it on par with the temperatures of the last interglacial. And by the end of the century, if carbon emissions aren’t curbed, we may very well experience the hottest temperatures in over 1 million years.
But taking a step back, warming trends post-2050 are a lot more uncertain. That’s because it’s not entirely possible to know how much humans will reduce emissions. It’s also hard to be certain of the Earth’s system feedbacks to warming temperatures. Earthlings, too, may embark on some sort of geoengineering project to try to reduce warming.
The latest estimate, assuming current government policies on emissions, is that Earth is set to warm ~2.7 degrees C by 2100. But betting on governmental policies is a big assumption, and significantly greater warming is possible if emissions continue as they do now.
Admittedly, this may all seem hopeless. But unlike a terminal illness, we know exactly what the problem is, we know exactly how to fix it, and we have all the solutions we need now. What is required is that we pay attention and get serious — quickly. Our future depends on it.
Jeff Berardelli is the chief meteorologist and climate specialist at News 2’s sister station, WFLA. Those interested in learning more can follow Berardelli on Twitter for comprehensive documentation of the changing climate.
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