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NOAA and the terrible, horrible, no good, very hot year

The government agency confirmed that 2023 was the hottest year on record, adding to other troubling climate superlatives including record ocean heat and record low Antarctic sea ice.
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It’s official: Last year ranked as Earth’s hottest year ever recorded.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a news conference Friday with NASA that average land and ocean surface temperatures in 2023 were 2.12 degrees Fahrenheit above 20th-century averages, easily topping the next closest year, 2016.

That wasn’t the only troubling record set in 2023. The amount of heat stored in the upper ocean hit record highs, and the amount of Antarctic sea ice was the lowest in recorded history. The global temperature record dates back to 1850. 

The announcements — which were not a surprise to those who follow climatological records closely — show how rapidly a world upturned by climate change and excessive greenhouse gas emissions is transforming.

The last 10 years are the 10 warmest years in modern history, according to NOAA. Scientists expect the Earth to continue warming until world leaders effectively limit the use of fossil fuels.

Scientists were surprised by the magnitude of the change in temperature, particularly in comparison to their expectations heading into 2023. 

“We’re looking at this, and we’re frankly astonished,” said Gavin Schmidt, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “The predictions we had at the beginning of the year, because we were starting with a La Niña phase, were that this year would be pretty much on trend, with only a small chance of being a record. That’s not how it worked out.”

The land and ocean temperature was about 0.27 degrees Fahrenheit above the previous record. 

“That’s really big. Most records are set on a few hundredths of a degree. This is a big jump,” said Russell Vose, a chief of climate monitoring and assessment at NOAA. 

Schmidt said researchers don’t entirely understand why average temperatures rose so high and that more study is needed to understand why 2023 was such a significant outlier. 

“A lot more work needs to go into understanding what happened in 2023,” Schmidt said. “I am discomfited by the findings we’ve had beyond — Oh my gosh, another record year.”  

Temperatures in the United States hit their fifth-highest yearly marks, according to NOAA. Severe weather caused record amounts of damage in the U.S. The agency reported that there were $28 billion-dollar disaster events in the U.S., six more than the previous record. 

Also on Friday, the World Meteorological Organization confirmed global temperatures hit their highest mark in 2023. The WMO compared six climatological data sets produced by different organizations — all six ranked 2023 as the warmest year on record. 

The organization said El Niño, a natural climate pattern that releases ocean heat into the atmosphere, contributed to the record-setting heat of 2023 and could shape this year’s weather.

“The shift from cooling La Niña to warming El Niño by the middle of 2023 is clearly reflected in the rise in temperature from last year. Given that El Niño usually has the biggest impact on global temperatures after it peaks, 2024 could be even hotter,” said WMO Secretary-General Celeste Saulo. “While El Niño events are naturally occurring and come and go from one year to the next, longer term climate change is escalating and this is unequivocally because of human activities.”

NOAA estimates there is a 1 in 3 chance that 2024 will be warmer than 2023.