The world is on course for the hottest year ever in 2014, the United Nations weather agency said on Wednesday, heightening the sense of urgency around climate change negotiations underway in Lima.
Preliminary estimates from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) found global average land and sea surface temperatures for the first 10 months of 2014 had soared higher than ever recorded.
The findings – broadly in line with those of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) and other scientific agencies – indicate that by year-end 2014 will break all previous high temperature records.
The steady escalation of greenhouse gas emissions, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, have seen a succession of record-breaking years for temperature since the dawning of the 21st century and 2014 promises to be no exception, the WMO said.
“Fourteen of the 15 warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century,” said the WMO’s secretary-general Michel Jarraud. “What we saw in 2014 is consistent with what we expect from a changing climate.
“Record-breaking heat combined with torrential rainfall and floods destroyed livelihoods and ruined lives. What is particularly unusual and alarming this year are the high temperatures of vast areas of the ocean surface, including in the northern hemisphere,” he said.
Christiana Figueres, the UN’s top climate official, said the findings drove home the urgency of reaching a deal. Negotiations have been grinding on for more than 20 years.
“Our climate is changing and every year the risks of extreme weather events and impacts on humanity rise,” she said.
Ed Davey, the UK climate secretary, said the UN climate talks were critical to stop temperatures rising to dangerous levels. “More record warm temperatures in the UK and across the world are yet more evidence that we need to act urgently to prevent dangerous climate change,” he said.
Officials from nearly 200 countries will spend the next two weeks in Lima working to agree on a plan to cut global greenhouse gas emissions fast enough and deeply enough to limit warming to 2C above pre-industrial times, the official objective of the UN talks.
But even that goal – which scientists say may not go far enough to prevent low-lying island states from drowning in rising seas – may be moving beyond reach.
“When confronted with numbers like these, the challenge to stablise global warming below dangerous levels can seem daunting indeed,” Michael Mann, the climate scientist, said. “The globe is warming, ice is melting, and our climate is changing, as a result. And the damage is being felt – in the forms of more destructive weather extremes, more devastating wildfires, and unprecedented threats to the survival of endangered animal species.”
He said the Lima climate talks – and a summit scheduled for Paris at the end of next year – were “perhaps our last real opportunity to stave off truly dangerous and irreversible world-wide changes in our climate.”
Bill McKibben, leader of the 350.org campaign group, saw the findings as a call to arms to climate activists. “If you thought 2014 was hot, wait ‘til you see 2015. This means we need to turn up the flame even higher under the fossil fuel companies that are frying our planet,” he said.
The WMO report found the global average air temperature over land and sea surface for January to October was about 0.57C above the average of 14C for the 1961-1990 reference period, and 0.09C above the average for the past 10 years (2004-2013).
The most striking evidence of warming was probably in the oceans, however. Most of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gas emissions ends up in the oceans.
The WMO said global sea surface temperatures were 0.45C higher than the average over the last 50 years.
If November and December continue on the same course, then 2014 will edge out 2010, 2005 and 1998 as the hottest years ever known – but only by a few hundredths of a degree. Different data sets also show slightly different rankings, the WMO said.
In any event, the trend line is clear. The world is getting warmer, especially the oceans. Those higher temperatures were already exacting a toll, in terms of heavy rainfall and flooding in some countries, and extreme drought in others, the WMO said.
The agency dismissed outright the notion posed by some climate deniers of a pause in the warming trend.
“There is no standstill in global warming,” Jarraud said.
The world’s big three emitters – the US, China, and the EU – have pledged new targets for cutting their use of fossil fuels, injecting optimism into the Lima talks.
But scientists say even those targets are not enough to limit warming to 2C, and other big carbon polluters such as India, Russia, and Australia have yet to come on board.
Campaign groups monitoring the talks called on negotiators to take the new WMO findings to heart.
“The fact that we’re tracking towards the hottest year on record should send chills through anyone who says they care about climate change – especially negotiators at the UN climate talks here in Lima,” said Samantha Smith, who heads WWF’s climate and energy initiative. “This is more scientific evidence of the real impact climate change is having on our world. The changes will be felt the most by the most vulnerable people, whose lives and livelihoods are already being affected.”
The WMO found western North America, Europe, eastern Eurasia, much of Africa, large areas of South America and southern and western Australia were especially warm. South Africa, Australia, and Argentina started the year with blistering heat waves.
However, the US and Canada ushered in 2014 with the chill Arctic winds of the polar vortex. Central Russia also recorded cooler than average conditions for the year.
In Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, more than two million people were caught up in severe flooding. Parts of Turkey saw five times the normal amount of rain, and France experienced its wettest summer since 1959.
South Asia also experienced heavy rains, with severe flooding in northern Bangladesh, northern Pakistan and India, affecting millions of people in August and September.
For other parts of the world, however, 2014 brought drought. Rainfall in parts of the Yellow River basin in China were less than half of the summer average. A large swathe of the western US continued under drought. New South Wales and southeast Queensland in Australia also went without rain.