Climate change may now begin to threaten humanity.
The year 2016 continues to be one for the record books, just not in a good way. The average carbon dioxide (CO2) level recorded at Mauna Loa, Hawaii during February 2016 was 404.02 parts per million (ppm), which is 3.76 ppm higher than the average for February 2015, according to New Scientist.
It is also the biggest ever increase over a 12-month period, with the previous record holder at 3.70 from September 1997 to September 1998. Now, you may have noticed something very interesting with those two dates — both correspond to a stronger than normal El Niño event, which causes CO2 levels to shoot up because it often results in an increase of wildfires in places such as Indonesia.
This is of course bad news because higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere mean the planet we call home will continue to warm.
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In fact, preliminary temperature data for February and early March have shown that the average temperature across the Northern Hemisphere breached 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels for the first time in recorded history.
The 2 degree mark has been long held as the point above which climate change may begin to be dangerous to humanity, and it happened much more quickly than anticipated.
It took from the dawn of the industrial age until October 2015 to reach the first increase of 1.0 degrees Celsius (1.8 degree Fahrenheit), and in as little as five months, the planet as a whole has come that much closer.
Many parts of the northern hemisphere did not experience a winter, and parts of the Arctic were more than 16 degrees Celsius (28.8 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than average for February. February is usually the coldest month and temperatures were brought a few degrees above freezing — on par with June temperatures.
In the US, the winter was record-warm across the country. Many countries in Europe and Asia set or tied their all-time temperature records for February, and in the tropics, the warming is prolonging the longest-lasting coral bleaching episode ever seen.
As mentioned, we are currently in the midst of a record-setting El Niño, which tends to boost global temperatures for six or eight months because it takes that long for excess heat to filter its way across the planet from the tropical Pacific Ocean.
However, it is not just El Niño that is causing the ridiculous numbers we are seeing. In fact, El Niño’s influence on global temperatures as a whole is likely small — on the order of 0.1 degrees or so.
So what does that leave? Human activities, of course. What is happening is the liberation of nearly two decades worth of global warming energy that has been stored in the oceans since the last major El Niño in 1997/1998.
The world is now within arm’s reach of the climate goals set during the Paris climate talks in December, where some nations set a global temperature target of no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) rise by the year 2100.
At this current pace, we may reach that level for the first time — though briefly — later this year. Peter Gleick, a climate scientist at the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, said to New Scientist, it is difficult to compare the current temperature spike: “The old assumptions about what was normal are being tossed out the window… The old normal is gone.”
We could now be entering a decade or more of surging global temperatures that could kick off a series of tipping points, and these tipping points could lead to repercussions for ourselves and the other species we share the planet with.