Global Temperature Spike


GISTEMP - February 2016

Last month Earth’s temperature soared to a record high. This graph, which only goes up to January, shows how much higher the Earth’s surface temperature is than the 1951-1980 average. It’s updated each month by the Goddard Institute of Space Studies, and it’s called GISTEMP. Here is the next month’s graph, which includes February:

GISTEMP 3 2016

As you can see, we’re currently experiencing a huge spike in temperatures! GISTEMP had to change the temperature scale on its graph to handle the new higher temperatures.

GISTEMP relies heavily on meteorological stations. Upper atmosphere temperatures measured by satellites have shown less temperature increase, leading to some interesting controversies. But now, one of the main satellite temperature records, the University of Alabama at Huntsville satellite temperature dataset, is also reporting a big temperature spike.

“The record might have as much to do with an extraordinarily warm month in the Arctic as it does with warming caused by the El Niño,” said John Christy, director of the Earth System Science Center at UAH.

UAH satellite temperature records up to February 2016

It’s also nice to look at a map of temperature anomalies—that is, the temperature in some region minus the average temperature in that region during that time of the year. Here is one from HADCrut4, a data set compiled by the Met Office Hadley Centre in England:


This is from January—that’s the most recent one I could find from them.

This article puts the news quite dramatically:

• Eric Holthaus, Our hemisphere’s temperature just reached a terrifying milestone, Slate, 1 March 2016.

Holthaus, a meteorologist who works for Slate, wrote:

There are dozens of global temperature datasets, and usually I (and my climate journalist colleagues) wait until the official ones are released about the middle of the following month to announce a record-warm month at the global level. But this month’s data is so extraordinary that there’s no need to wait: February obliterated the all-time global temperature record set just last month.

Using unofficial data and adjusting for different base-line temperatures, it appears that February 2016 was likely somewhere between 1.15 and 1.4 degrees warmer than the long-term average, and about 0.2 degrees above last month—good enough for the most above-average month ever measured. (Since the globe had already warmed by about +0.45 degrees above pre-industrial levels during the 1981-2010 base-line meteorologists commonly use, that amount has been added to the data released today.)

Keep in mind that it took from the dawn of the industrial age until last October to reach the first 1.0 degree Celsius, and we’ve come as much as an extra 0.4 degrees further in just the last five months. Even accounting for the margin of error associated with these preliminary datasets, that means it’s virtually certain that February handily beat the record set just last month for the most anomalously warm month ever recorded. That’s stunning.

Then on March 3rd he added this comment:

Since this post was originally published, the heat wave has continued. As of Thursday morning, it appears that average temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere have breached the 2 degrees Celsius above “normal” mark for the first time in recorded history, and likely the first time since human civilization began thousands of years ago. That mark has long been held (somewhat arbitrarily) as the point above which climate change may begin to become “dangerous” to humanity. It’s now arrived—though very briefly—much more quickly than anticipated. This is a milestone moment for our species. Climate change deserves our greatest possible attention.

25 Responses to Global Temperature Spike

  1. Nick Stokes says:

    “Earth’s temperature soared to a record high last month.”
    The graph shows surface temps up to January. January was a record for GISS Land/Ocean, though only a small rise from December. But February looks like following the satellite measures with a big rise. GISS should be out mid-month.

    • John Baez says:

      Whoops! Thanks. Here’s the graph of daily NCEP/NCAR temperature anomalies from the website you pointed us to, going to February:

      • nad says:

        NOAA also found rising temperatures especially in the northern hemisphere.

        Methane values partially also soared, in the very north like in Alaska or Iceland, which could be due to permafrost or also as described in this article due to fracking, but since they soared also in more southern regions like on the Azores and Germany (however already in 2015….), this looks very bad.

        Apart from human sources like this I had already said that I could imagine that circulation patterns like this could be a reason, and that in particular “folklore” like this:

        At 10 km (top of the troposphere) virtually all radiation below 290 nm has been absorbed. … Between 300 and 800 nm the stratosphere is only weakly absorbing and most of the solar radiation at these wavelengths is transmitted into the troposphere. There is little tropospheric absorption below 600 nm but H2O and CO2, at high tropospheric concentrations, deplete the near IR part of the incoming solar flux appreciably. Hence, surface solar irradiance is dominated by visible wavelengths.

        might be oversimplifying if not wrong.

        You know that I question the radiative forcing of methane.

        I had tried to get a better feeling about the exact correlation between temperature and methane (here some plots) but the datasets which I found or which are available to me are not sufficient. Moreover I guess even if I would present more evidence this might be overheard, or not be taken seriously.

        A lot of unpaid work in vain. Finally I am no official scientist let alone climate scientist. (By the way… as it seems, I am not even a fully non compos mentis citizen, that is my polite but detailed email writings to local politicians about the problemacy of a demolition in my local neighbourhood were called by one of them “muddleheaded”).

        John, I think you somewhat followed this discussion. Please have a more in depth look at the radiative forcing of methane and the correlation between temperature and methane. I know you are also no official climate scientist, but you have a good reputation in the scientific community. You know that I had written to Gunnar Myrhe about the radiative forcing and it seemed he was convinced that there is no problem, in particular I heard nothing back about it since then. Maybe he is right but maybe not, what I have seen sofar by looking at that methane thing wasn’t at all comforting and there is a lot at stake here.

        Remark: I appealed here to John Baez, since I assume that he doesn’t consider me muddleheaded, but of course if some other serious scientists would look at that issue than that would be good too.

        • nad says:

          If one for example looks at Terceira then CH4 increased from roughly 1825 nmol/mol in 2000 to 1925 nmol/mol in 2016 that is in 2016 there is about 0.1 mikromol/mol more CH4 than in 2000.
          For CO2 one has an increase from roughly 370 mikromol/mol to 400 mikromol/mol. I haven’t fully understood this GWP factor, but as it is stated it is supposed to provide a linear factor which can be used as a rough estimate in order to see a corresponding temperature increase. So if I assume that 30 mikromol/mol more CO2 gives 30T0 more heat in form of higher temperatures then if I have an 0.1 mikromol/mol CH4 this needs to be muliplied by the corresponding GWP factor, which is if I recollect rightly currently at 86 for 20 years and 28 for 100 years. So this gives for the 20 years 8.6T0 and for the 100 years 2.8*T0. In short if the GWP factor of methane would be roughly bigger by a factor of 3 (20 years) or more then methane would dominate the temperature curves at least on a shorter time scale by this reasoning. A factor 3 or even a factor 10 doesn’t seem so far away given how complicate the calculations are, moreover as said there are some spectral lines which hadn’t been taken into account in the estimation of the GWP of methane.

          John could you please comment on this briefly, so that I see that you had at least noticed the above comments?

        • John Baez says:

          Hi, Nad. Yes, I’ve noticed your comments. Unfortunately I don’t know any easy way to get more knowledge on radiative forcing due to methane than the supposed experts. Ab initio calculations of the radiative properties of methane are much too complicated for me, and I’m not good at experiments either.

        • nad says:

          It would at least be good to know, if there are even worse things lurking, like more UV lines.
          Gunnar Myrhe seemed to have not known about the UV lines at mpic (at least he thanked me for pointing them out to him). And maybe he would be more alerted if he got more lines. However the website with the lines has been since quite a while unreachable, moreover I still haven’t got an answer to a concrete email to people there asking for absorption lines for methane in the range 170nm-750nm.

        • What contributes to an extra spike in global temperatures is that the El Niño contributes lots of heat to the surface of the equatorial Pacific. This heat causes more evaporation which leads to more clouds and these clouds trap infrared radiation, leading to a positive reinforcement.

          Subsequently, this trapped latent heat within the clouds and atmosphere gets transported over land. The heat is released during precipitation. That’s why it’s called latent heat. The delay between a peak El Niño event and the global temperature peak can be 3 to 6 months.

          For the La Nina, the cooling spikes are there but they are not reinforced because the clouds are not formed as strongly.

          For the pure ENSO index, that of SOI, this EL vs LN asymmetry is not observed, since the index is simply observing the sloshing of the Pacific ocean waters and not the reinforced latent heat.

          In my modeling of ENSO, I can see this asymmetry clearly. The SOI model is best fit without an asymmetry while the NINO3.4 temperature measure fits better with a model that has more spikiness on the El Niño peaks.

    • John Baez says:

      Here is the new global surface temperature from GISTEMP, which includes February data:

      GISTEMP 3 2016

      As you can see, the spike got bigger! GISTEMP had to change the temperature scale on its graph to handle the new higher temperatures.

      • Indeed. According to the conventional ENSO metrics such as SOI and NINO3.4, this event is still smaller in magnitude than the 1998 event. Yet it seems to be having a bigger impact on the global warming signal.

        And then you have the 1983 event which in magnitude was arguably larger in SOI scale than the 1998 spike, yet that didn’t have as large an impact because the concurrent volcanic eruption essentially neutralized the heating.

        Since the eventual global signal lags the ENSO signal by ~6 months, we definitely will see the eventual contribution to warming by June. With the February data, it was at most 3 months since the “official” ENSO peak, so there is room left.

        Yet, according to today’s reading of SOI, it is still as strongly negative as it was late last year.

  2. Somebody should call Eric Holthaus on this statement he made:
    “In fact, El Niño’s influence on global temperatures as a whole is likely small—on the order of 0.1 degree Celsius or so.”

    That is clearly not the case because the transient influence appears on the order of at least 0.5 degrees. One can see this just be looking at the chart of global temperature.

    Yet there are cases thhat the impact wasn’t as big — consider the very strong El Niño of 1982-1983. But this is understood to have had a smaller impact on global temperatures because of the significant compensating cooling during the El Chichón volcano of 1982.

    Holthaus is a meteorologist and not a journalist, so it is odd for him to make this kind of obvious mistake.

    • John Baez says:

      This graph makes it look like El Niñ has an influence on the oder of 0.1 °C if we average global temperatures over a whole year:

      If we average over a shorter time period, or a larger area, the figure will be larger. I think Holthaus’ statement is too vague to be definitively correct or incorrect.

    • Uli says:

      I think Eric Holthaus is correct in this statement.
      The influence of the ENSO on yearly global mean SAT is about 0.1°C (standard deviation).
      For the strongest El Niño’s so far in 1982/83 and 1997/98 the influence of the later years (1983 and 1998) was about +0.2°C.
      The influence of the current El Niño on 2015 was about +0.1°C. If you consider warmest El Niño minus coldest La Nina year since 1950 you will get 0.4°C from peak to peak.
      Regional or monthly influence may be greater.

      • Uli,
        The exact value is only important in the context of how much ENSO is explanatory of the current heat spike.

        IMO, Eric Holthaus was trying to marginalize the impact of ENSO by claiming that ENSO is only contributing about 0.1 C to the global temperature spike.

        Read again what he said:

        “But El Niño isn’t entirely responsible for the absurd numbers we’re seeing. El Niño’s influence on the Arctic still isn’t well-known and is likely small. In fact, El Niño’s influence on global temperatures as a whole is likely small—on the order of 0.1 degree Celsius or so.”

        One can’t have it both ways. One can’t average over a year and claim that the contribution is small (only 0.1), while at the same time point to monthly extremes and claim that the high numbers are “absurd”.

        If one compares monthly to monthly, for example NINO3.4 to global temperatures, one sees a significantly influential correlation, albeit lagged by ~6 months as the ENSO propagates across the world.

        BTW, the model of ENSO that we are developing on the project forum nailed the current spike to within a few months, with the training interval extending from 1880 to 2013. It projected a spike in 2016 not as strong as in 1998 but wider.

  3. Well John …if it is averaged over 10 years, then the impact is closer to 0.0, since the compensating La Ninas will be included in the averaging process.

    The point is that the ENSO phenomenon is a transitory behavior and the temperature extremes within specific intervals of time are what is important. I shouldn’t need to say this but time-averaging doesn’t remove the impacts that >0.5 C global temperature spikes will have on the environment and people’s lives and livelihoods. That is an enormous amount of heat being released by the equatorial Pacific in a brief amount of time — and I am still not sure if Holthaus was trying to marginalize its impact.

    • John Baez says:

      Well John …if it is averaged over 10 years, then the impact is closer to 0.0, since the compensating La Ninas will be included in the averaging process.

      Yes, and if we average over a day, the variation will be quite large. This is why a time scale needs to be specified. If we’re interested in effects on “the environment and people’s lives and livelihoods” we also need to specify an area: nobody feels the global average temperature.

      I am still not sure if Holthaus was trying to marginalize its impact.

      I don’t know. I don’t know his attitude to these issues.

      • Maybe I misread what Eric Holthaus said in the Slate article. This is the full paragraph:

        “Of course, all this is happening in the context of a record-setting El Niño, which tends to boost global temperatures for as much as six or eight months beyond its wintertime peak—mainly because it takes that long for excess heat to filter its way across the planet from the tropical Pacific Ocean. But El Niño isn’t entirely responsible for the absurd numbers we’re seeing. El Niño’s influence on the Arctic still isn’t well-known and is likely small. In fact, El Niño’s influence on global temperatures as a whole is likely small—on the order of 0.1 degree Celsius or so.”

        It doesn’t make sense that he is referring to “absurd numbers we’re seeing” and then saying “El Niño’s influence on global temperatures as a whole is likely small”. Yet, exactly the same “absurd” behavior occurred in 1998 — a huge spike — but we know in retrospect that spike was likely all due to El Niño !

        What am I missing?

        Interesting that Mr.Holthaus is advocating for a new web site that critically evaluates climate science media coverage — reported today in Science: . The article quotes Mr. Holthaus:

        “Climate scientists have a form of information that is relevant to almost everyone on the planet,” says journalist Eric Holthaus, who requested that the group critique one of his pieces last summer. “Their discipline, whether they chose it for this reason or not, is a very political one. It makes sense for them to know that, and that their opinion matters beyond just academic circles.”

        I think what I am accomplishing here is giving the critical analysis that Mr. Holthaus seems to desire in regards to his own work.

        • John Baez says:

          I suggest you send him an email – I doubt he reads this blog! I agree that his point should be corrected or at least clarified.

  4. I was reading the latest NOAA report here

    Click to access 201601.pdf

    The Radiosonde Data at the bottom says 57 year record but the graph only shows 37.

    This paper seems to show the missing data;2

    So why isn’t it part of the graph? What am I missing?

    • John Baez says:

      The two graphs above the radiosonde data show middle troposphere data and lower troposphere, where (they claim) there is only a 37 year record. These slides are meant to be attractive and easily understood. So, they probably wanted all three graphs to line up nicely and show the latest 37 years, to make them easy to compare.

      • Thanks John! I’m interested because this image below from a biased blog I read, put the two graphs together and showed there isn’t much change between today and 57 years ago

        I’m struggling with how to reconcile it.

      • John Baez says:

        Interesting! It can take some work to straighten out these issues where a ‘climate skeptic’ throws some graphs onto their blog and claims that the US government is engaged in a conspiracy to distort the record. But it can be worthwhile, if only to develop ones ability to dig up and analyze data.

        A lot of the really important temperature data is available online. You can find a bunch starting here:

        • Azimuth Library, Climate data.

        But it’s easy to get lost in the data if one doesn’t read published papers.

        For starters, in this particular subject, it’s good to know why scientists think the Earth’s surface should be warming more than the upper troposphere, with the stratosphere (further up) even cooling as CO2 concentrations increase. This is a complicated subject, and you can read 3 levels of explanation here, with links to papers for more details:

        Satellite measurements of warming in the troposphere, Skeptical Science.

        I spent 10 minutes looking for radiosonde (= weather balloon) measurements of troposphere temperatures. I found this:

        • U. S. Department of Energy, Tropospheric and Lower Stratospheric Temperature Anomalies Based on Global Radiosonde Network Data.

        This has data from 1958 to 2005. It includes temperature measurements taken at the pressures of 850-300 hectopascals (troposphere) and 100-50 hectopascals (lower stratosphere). I believe that for rather obvious reasons it’s easier to maintain a weather balloon at a given pressure than at a given height; however, these ranges seem quite large.

        You can look at the graphs. They do a trend analysis and write in summary

        The estimates of linear trends in these temperature anomaly time series indicate strong cooling in the lower stratosphere.

        Eyeballing the graph of global data, it seems there’s a strong cooling trend in the lower stratosphere and a slight warming trend in the troposphere, compatible with what Skeptical Science mentions:

        • nad says:

          I forgot to set the link on one of the “this” in my comment above.

          It was to an article (which I cant read) pointed out by Jan Galkowski which seems to describe the circulation of ozone from the Stratosphere to the Troposphere. Paul Pukite just pointed to another article in which there are images! Yeah! (partially though not fully equipped but at least) and which show the correlation between stratospheric temperatures, QBO and ozone at 30hPa, (which is according to this converter at ca. 21.000 km, 50hPa is at around 19.000km)) . According to the “folklore” mentioned in my comment above

          Light of wavelengths of between 200 and 300 nm is strongly absorbed in the stratosphere by ozone.

          I don’t know whether this line range is a major reason for the correlation of temperature and ozone levels (here another correlation), but it should be reminded of at this point.
          Here one sees though an ozone depletion in the lower stratosphere at the south pole, but I dont know about other regions. So maybe next to circulations, also major stratospheric depletion of ozone takes place. In this context this ozone and hydroxyl hole should be mentioned.

    • Greg, Radiosonde data is essentially high-altitude balloon data. This goes back to about 1953, which means that there is 60+ years of data.

      The equatorial radiosonde data is the primary measure of stratospheric winds and in particular a sensitive measure of the Quasi-Biennial Oscillation (QBO) in those winds.

      The evidence points overwhelmingly to the fact that the period of the QBO is forced by the lunisolar tides:

      This is at odds with the accepted theory of QBO formulated by Richard Lindzen (yes, the AGW contrarian). As it turns out, Lindzen admitted in 1974 that if the QBO aligned with a lunar periodicity then that would conclusively establish the forcing. Alas, Lindzen did not account for the possibility of the lunar periods aliasing with the seasonal signal and so missed discovering the true forcing mechanism,

      Working this angle also on the Azimuth Forum

      BTW, the temperatures also show a QBO but I assume the data at the bottom considers the entire stratosphere and not just the equatorial portion.

      • A paper from this year showing the significant oscillations in equatorial stratospheric temperature that are related to the QBO of winds.

        Alsepan, Givo, Sandro Wellyanto Lubis, and Sonni Setiawan. “Analysis of the Equatorial Lower Stratosphere Quasi-Biennial Oscillation (QBO) Using ECMWF-Interim Reanalysis Data Set.” IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science. Vol. 31. No. 1. IOP Publishing, 2016.

        The paper above describes the thermal wind equation at the equator, which relates wind shear and temperature.

        So if we have the actual forcing mechanism behind QBO understood (not the Lindzen version) then it will be easier to compensate for the deterministic temperature variations and thus isolate the underlying global warming signal. That’s the plan anyways.

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