Global temperatures hit record highs

Posted: 29 January 2004

Author: Lester R. Brown

Temperature data from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies for 2003 indicates that it was the third warmest year on record. The temperature averaged 14.62 degrees Celsius (58.3 degrees Fahrenheit) over the year, down slightly from the record high of 14.71 in 1998 and second-place-2002 at 14.70 degrees, but well above the average temperature of 14 degrees Celsius that prevailed from 1951 to 1980.

Studying these annual temperature data, one gets the unmistakable feeling that temperature is rising and that the rise is gaining momentum. The 17 warmest years since record-keeping began in 1867 occurred since 1980. The top four warmest years on record have come in the last six years.

Average Global Temperature 1880-2020. Photo Goddard Institute of Space Studies
Average Global Temperature 1880-2020. . Photo Goddard Institute of Space Studies

In addition to the longer-term annual temperature trend, recent monthly data also indicate an accelerating rise. In contrast to local temperatures, which fluctuate widely from season to season, the global average temperature is remarkably stable throughout the year because the seasonal contrasts of the northern and southern hemispheres offset each other. The temperature for September of last year of 14.72 degrees Celsius was the highest on record for September. The 14.68 degrees for October made it the warmest October on record. And in January, August, and December, the temperature was the second warmest. Since 1980, decadal average temperatures have risen well above the 14 degrees Celsius average for the span from 1951 to 1980, which is defined as the norm. During the 1980s, the global temperature averaged 14.26 degrees. In the 1990s it was 14.40 degrees. During the first four years of this decade (2000-2003), it has been 14.57 degrees. (See data)

Climate models

Rising temperature does not come as a surprise to atmospheric scientists who analyze the climate effects of rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas. Each year since detailed record-keeping began in 1959, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has climbed to a new high, making it one of the most predictable of all global environmental trends.

The rise in atmospheric CO2 levels is the result of massive fossil fuel burning that has simply overwhelmed nature's capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. The temperature rises observed over the last two decades are in line with the results of research using computerized global climate models to project the effects of rising CO2 levels on the earth's climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of more than 1,500 of the world's leading climate scientists, reports that if atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise as projected, the earth's average temperature will rise by 1.4-5.8 degrees Celsius during this century. The lower end of the projected increases would lead to a 0.14 degree rise in temperature per decade during this century, roughly the same as during each of the last two decades of the last century. But the higher end of the projected temperature range means an increase of nearly 0.6 degrees per decade, a rate that could be extraordinarily disruptive to both the earth's ecosystem and the economy that depends upon it.

Heat waves There are many manifestations of a higher temperature other than thermometer readings, including deadly heat waves, scorched crops, and ice melting. In May 2003, a record heat wave in India with the temperature reaching 117 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees C) claimed more than 1,600 lives. In societies without air conditioning, there is no ready escape from the dangerous heat. But any society unaccustomed to high temperatures can be disrupted by a heat wave. In August 2003, record high temperatures across Europe claimed a startling 35,000 lives. (For more information see Earth Policy Institute)

Wheat harvest, CA, USA
Wheat harvest in El Centro, California. North America's future harvest could be threatened by climate change.© Tim McCabe/USDA

Farmers may now be facing higher temperatures than any generation of farmers since agriculture began 11,000 years ago. Crop yields have fallen as temperatures have climbed in key food-producing countries, such as the United States and India. Many weeks of record or near-record temperatures combined with low rainfall wither crops. Depressed world grain harvests over the last 3 years have left the world with a grain shortfall of some 92 million tons.

Crop ecologists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines have recently reported that rice fertilization falls from 100 percent at 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees F) to essentially zero at 40 degrees (104 degrees F). Scientists in the U.S. Department of Agriculture are seeing a similar effect of high temperature on other grains. The scientific rule of thumb is that a 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum reduces grain yields by 10 per cent.

One of the most sensitive indicators of higher temperature is ice melting. Scientists now report ice melting in all the world's major mountain ranges, including the Rocky Mountains, the Andes, the Alps, and the Himalayas. In Alaska, where temperatures in some regions have risen 5-10 degrees Celsius over the norm, ice is melting far faster than had earlier been reported.

On Africa's snow-covered Kilimanjaro, the area covered by snow and ice has shrunk by 80 percent since 1900. Lonnie Thompson, Ohio State University glaciologist, reports that all the snow and ice there may disappear by 2020. For Americans, another landmark-Glacier National Park-may be forced to change its name. Half of its glaciers have already disappeared, and the U.S. Geological Survey projects that the remaining ones will disappear within the next 30 years. Scientists report that ice cover in the Arctic Ocean shrank to record lows in 2002 and 2003. The thinning of the ice is proceeding even faster. Since this ice is already in the water, its loss will not affect sea level, but when incoming sunlight strikes snow and ice, 80 percent of it bounces back into space and 20 percent is converted to heat. Conversely, when the incoming sunlight hits open water, only 20 percent is reflected and 80 percent is converted into heat, warming the region.

Withered harvests

Scientists are concerned with this warming because Greenland lies largely within the Arctic Sea. This ice-covered island is more than 3 times the size of Texas. It is losing some 51 cubic kilometres of ice each year. If the Greenland ice sheet, which is 1.5 miles thick in some areas, were to melt entirely, sea level would rise 7 meters (23 feet). What happens to the ice in the Arctic Sea and the climate in the region is of concern to the entire world.

Changing the earth's climate is a serious matter, one that should not be taken lightly. The risk is that climate change could soon spiral out of control, leaving future generations with soaring temperatures, withered harvests, deadly heat waves, melting ice, and rising seas. If we do not act quickly to stabilize climate, our grandchildren may never forgive us.

View data

Related links:

For more information on climate change, see: Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble

The Center for Climatic Research's Synoptic Climatology Lab

Environmental Protection Agency's Heat Island Page

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

National Center for Atmospheric Research, Heat Wave Awareness Project National Climatic Data Center Worldwatch Institute