Ecocentric

Climate: Federal Scientists Say 2010 Tied As the Warmest Year on Record

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New Yorkers like myself awoke this morning to a fluffy layer of fresh snow. (And the sound of scores of plows sweeping the streets clean, as our billionaire mayor tries to make us forget about the Blizzard of 2009.) New Englanders are being walloped with a full-on major snowstorm—though hardened Bostonians just shrug it off—while the south has been gripped by wintry weather so severe, at least according to my twitter stream, that escape from the ice seems impossible. In fact, there was snow somewhere on the ground in every state in the Union except for sunny Florida—the first time that’s happened since 1977, when South Carolina was the lone holdout.

So, logically, now’s the time to hear that just-concluded 2010 now ranks tied with 2005 as the warmest year on record, according to the climate scientists at the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (The government’s records go back to 1880.) NOAA’s data—which comes from surface temperature stations around the world—found that the average combined land and ocean annual temperatures for 2010 were 1.12 F (0.62 C) above the 20th century average. (Also, interestingly, 2010 was on the whole the wettest year on record as well.) That continues the warming trend—each year since 2000 has ranked as one of the 15 warmest years on record, while 9 of the top 10 warmed years have all occurred since 2001. (The outlier is fairly recent too though—1998.) And the warming isn’t coming from sunspots or orbital variations or people leaving the thermostat too high. “There’s been some notion put forward that the climate stopped warming in 2005,” said David Easterling, the chief of the scientific services division at the NCDC. “These results show that the climate is continuing to show the influence of greenhouse gases, it’s showing evidence of warming.”

How does a warmer world square in the snowbound U.S. (and Europe)? Well that’s why they call it global warming, for one thing—NCDC’s data is an average of everything that happened temperature-wise across the globe. Right now ice station Atlanta may be unusually cold, with temperatures in the 20s, but Canadians will remember the unusually warm and dry weather in Vancouver last year that almost ruined the Winter Olympics. New York City has almost passed the amount of snow it gets in the average winter, yet the city set a record high for temperatures in 2010 between March and August during an intolerably sweaty summer. That was just uncomfortable, but 2010 was also marked by scorching heat waves and wildfires across western Russia—the NCDC’s top weather event for the year—which helped kill more than 15,000 people and ruined the country’s harvest, leading Moscow to temporarily ban grain exports. “Climate change is a global phenomenon,” said Easterling. “You can’t just look at where you live.”

Indeed. Globally, the picture looks a lot like this:

Of course, while warming may happen globally, we feel weather locally—and that’s especially true of extreme weather events. 2010 had no shortage of them, from the heat waves in Russia to a drought in Brazil to the catastrophic floods that struck Pakistan. Are those events—and the floods swamping Australia now—the product of the same warming trend that’s heating up the planet? We can’t quite say yet, but scientists are getting closer. “We can’t attribute any individual event to climate change,” said Easterling. “But it is key to note that the probability of events like the Russian heat waves increase as the climate warms. The cold waves we’re having now in the East will decline in number and severity as the climate warms, though we’ll still have the events [occasionally].” So Southerners packed in by the snow can cheer up—it won’t be this way forever.

More from TIME on weather and warming:

Holiday Blizzard: More Signs of Global Warming

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