Earth is off to a hot start in 2020.
On the heels of the warmest January in recorded history and the second-warmest February, the planet has now logged its second-hottest March on record, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Thursday.
It’s just the latest milestone in what NOAA says is a clear, long-term warming trend. And though there are nine months left in the year, the agency’s models are already suggesting that there’s a good chance that 2020 could end up as the warmest year since record-keeping began in 1880.
“It does look like there’s a better-than-half probability that we will finish the year warmest on record,” Deke Arndt, chief of the monitoring branch at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, said Thursday in a news briefing about the agency’s latest monthly climate report.
Last month was the 44th consecutive March, and the 423rd consecutive month, with temperatures above the 20th century average, according to NOAA’s report.
The average temperature across land and ocean surfaces last month was 2.09 degrees Fahrenheit (1.16 degrees Celsius) warmer than the 20th century average. Only March 2016 was warmer, and 2016 overall remains the current hottest year in recorded history, according to NOAA.
The recent temperature records show that even amid natural variations, the planet is continuing to warm at an accelerated pace. NOAA’s report showed that the 10 warmest Marches have all occurred since 1990, and the period from January 2020 through March 2020 was the second-hottest year to date on record for the entire planet.
South America experienced its warmest March on record, while parts of Europe, Asia and Australia recorded hotter-than-usual temperatures last month.
Most of the contiguous United States, particularly across the East and South, also experienced warmer-than-usual temperatures in the previous month, and Florida recorded its warmest-ever March, according to NOAA. Conversely, California saw cooler-than-average temperatures in March, and Alaska recorded its coldest January through March period since 2012, Arndt said.
The warm temperatures shrank Arctic sea ice to its 11th-lowest extent, covering 251,000 square miles.
“Arctic sea ice tends to expand to its largest footprint over the month of March,” Arndt said. “This year, it was small.”
Antarctic sea ice fared better, with satellite records mapping its extent at 1.54 million square miles, which is near the average for this time of year, according to the NOAA report.
The agency’s forecasts also suggest that El Niño, a naturally occurring climate pattern that can drive climate anomalies and extremes, is unlikely to return this year. Many of the temperature records that were set in 2016 were amplified by a strong El Niño, but Arndt stressed that any impact from these warm oscillations already occur against a backdrop of accelerated global warming.
“Long-term warming is a lot like riding on an escalator — the longer you stay on the escalator, the higher you go,” he said. “El Niño is like standing tall and crouching down as you’re riding up that escalator. While we’re not at the stand-as-tall-as-you-can El Niño stage, we’re not exactly crouching down either.”