On Wednesday, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists marked a disturbing new milestone in Earth’s history: 2016 has been officially declared the warmest year on record. The previous record was set in 2015, which beat record highs in 2014. That means that for three years in a row, global temperatures have continued to soar to unprecedented highs unlike anything we’ve seen in the modern era.
Part of the record-busting temperatures in 2015 and 2016 could be attributed to an unusually warm El Niño, however, without the ongoing release of greenhouse gasses into the air, even the recent weather phenomenon couldn’t have made such a strong impact. Deke Arndt, chief of global climate monitoring for NOAA, told the New York Times, “A single warm year is something of a curiosity. It’s really the trend, and the fact that we’re punching at the ceiling every year now, that is the real indicator that we’re undergoing big changes.”
Some of the most extreme temperatures were seen in the Arctic, with ocean temperatures rising 20 to 30 degrees above normal. In fact, the climate was so unusual that enough Arctic ice melted to let a luxury cruise ship cross the Northwest Passage for the first time ever. Nature photographers captured horrifying images of polar bears stranded on dry earth with no snow or ice in sight. Devastating drought also hit Africa and India, with the town of Phalodi experiencing the hottest day in recorded Indian history at 123.8 degrees.
With El Niño over, scientists are expecting 2017 to be a cooler year than those that have come recently. However, that doesn’t mean climate change is not still a concern. In fact, some worry that climate change could accelerate quickly in the coming years. The temperature burst between 2013 and 2016 – about half a degree globally in total – was the largest change in a three year period measured on the planet’s surface since 1880.