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Earth just had its hottest year ever recorded — by far

The E.U.’s Copernicus Climate Change Service said global temperatures in 2023 were higher than in any year going back to at least 1850, averaging 1.48 degrees Celsius warmer than in pre-industrial times.
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Last year was Earth’s hottest in recorded history, the European Union’s climate agency announced Tuesday, confirming what scientists have been expecting — and dreading.

The E.U.’s Copernicus Climate Change Service said global temperatures in 2023 were higher than in any year going back to at least 1850, reaching “exceptionally high” levels and averaging 1.48 degrees Celsius (2.66 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than in pre-industrial times.

It’s a milestone that many climate scientists saw coming after a year that was chock full of extremes. Beginning in June, the planet notched month after month of warmer-than-usual conditions, with July and August 2023 coming in as the warmest two months ever recorded, according to the Copernicus report.

This trajectory of global warming has been predicted in climate models, but what unfolded last year was still in a league of its own.

A man cools off during a heat wave in Baghdad on July, 6, 2023.
A man cools off during a heat wave in Baghdad on July, 6. Hadi Mizban / AP file

“2023 was an exceptional year with climate records tumbling like dominoes,” said Samantha Burgess, deputy director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, adding that temperatures last year “likely exceed those of any period in at least the last 100,000 years.”

The consequences of that warming were felt in nearly every corner of the planet last year. Dangerous and oppressive heat waves gripped parts of North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. The world’s oceans were also exceptionally warm, with months of off-the-charts sea surface temperatures that intensified storms and whipped up tropical cyclones. And fires raged in what was a historic wildfire season in Canada, burning at least 45 million acres and sending air quality plummeting in cities south of the border.

“We knew thanks to the work of the Copernicus programme throughout 2023 that we would not receive good news today. But the annual data presented here provides yet more evidence of the increasing impacts of climate change,” Mauro Facchini, head of Earth observation at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Defence Industry and Space, said in a statement.

Warm conditions last year were boosted by El Niño, a natural climate pattern characterized by warmer-than-usual waters in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. El Niño typically compounds background warming from human-caused climate change, making temperature extremes more likely.

Image; A man pours water over his head from a gallon jug amid soaring temperatures in Phoenix on July 16.
A man cools off during a heat wave in Phoenix on July 16.Brandon Bell / Getty Images file

The Copernicus report highlights the challenge ahead in keeping global warming within the limits established by the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement. Countries agreed in that climate accord to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) above pre-industrial times to avert the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.

According to the Copernicus report, nearly half of the days in 2023 were more than 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. That alone does not mean that the climate accord goals have failed, because the threshold refers to warming over 1.5 degrees across decades, but still “sets a dire precedent,” according to Copernicus scientists.

The European report was one of the first to confirm the new record. Other organizations, including NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are expected to announce their own findings later this week.