2010 Hits Top of Temperature Chart

2010 tied for the world's record hottest year, with extreme weather and melting glaciers forecasted as global sea temperatures continue to rise.

| January 19, 2010

average global temperature graph

The average global temperature has risen over the last 150 years, evidence of global climate change.


Topping off the warmest decade in history, 2010 experienced a global average temperature of 14.63 degrees Celsius (58.3 degrees Fahrenheit), tying 2005 as the hottest year in 131 years of recordkeeping.

This news will come as no surprise to residents of the 19 countries that experienced record heat in 2010. Belarus set a record of 38.7 degrees Celsius (101.7 degrees Fahrenheit) on August 6 and then broke it by 0.2 degrees Celsius just one day later. A 47.2-degree Celsius (117.0-degree Fahrenheit) spike in Burma set a record for Southeast Asia as a whole. And on May 26, 2010, the ancient city of Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan hit 53.5 degrees Celsius (128.3 degrees Fahrenheit)—a record not only for the country but for all of Asia. In fact, it was the fourth hottest temperature ever recorded anywhere. (See data at www.earth-policy.org/indicators/C51.)

The earth's temperature is not only rising, it is rising at an increasing rate. From 1880 through 1970, the global average temperature increased roughly 0.03 degrees Celsius each decade. Since 1970, that pace has increased dramatically, to 0.13 degrees Celsius per decade. Two thirds of the increase of nearly 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in the global temperature since the 1880s has occurred in the last 40 years. And 9 of the 10 warmest years happened in the last decade.

Global temperature is influenced by a number of factors, some natural and some due to human activities. A phenomenon known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation is characterized by extremes in Pacific Ocean temperatures and shifts in atmospheric patterns. The cycle involves opposite phases, both of which have global impacts. The El Niño phase typically raises the global average temperature, while its counterpart, La Niña, tends to depress it. Temperature variations are also partly determined by solar cycles. Because we are close to a minimum in solar irradiance (how much energy the earth receives from the sun) and entered a La Niña episode in the second half of 2010, we would expect a cooler year than normal-making 2010's record temperature even more remarkable.

Since the Industrial Revolution, emissions from human activities of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide have driven the earth's climate system dangerously outside of its normal range. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen nearly 40 percent, from 280 parts per million (ppm) to almost 390 ppm. As the atmosphere becomes increasingly overloaded with heat-trapping gases, the earth's temperature continues to rise.

Even seemingly small changes in global temperature have far-reaching effects on sea level, atmospheric circulation, and weather patterns around the globe. Climate scientists note that increases in both the frequency and severity of extreme weather events are characteristics of a hotter climate. In 2010, the heat wave in Russia, fires in Israel, flooding in Pakistan and Australia, landslides in China, record snowfall across the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, and 12 Atlantic Ocean hurricanes were among the extreme weather events. The human cost of these events was not small: the Russian heat wave and forest fires claimed 56,000 lives, while the Pakistan floods took 1,760.

Although the weather of 2010 seems extreme compared with that of earlier years, scientists warn that such patterns could become more common in the near future. And while no single event can be attributed directly to climate change, NASA climate scientist James Hansen notes that the extreme weather of 2010 would "almost certainly not" have occurred in the absence of excessive greenhouse gas emissions. Warmer air holds more water vapor, and that extra moisture leads to heavier storms. At the same time that precipitation events are becoming larger in some areas, climate change causes more intense and prolonged droughts in others. By some estimates, droughts could be up to 10 times as severe by the end of the century.

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