2018 was the fourth-warmest year on record, federal climate experts announced today — just behind 2015, 2016, and 2017. The year also featured $91 billion in direct losses from 14 weather disasters in the United States that cost $1 billion or more, making it the fourth-costliest year on record, too.
The results show that, put together, the last five years have been the hottest ever recorded, according to NASA. This year’s fourth place finish is also an average, which means that parts of the world reached record-high annual temperatures, including stretches of Europe, the Middle East, New Zealand, and Russia, according to NOAA. Ocean surface temperatures in parts of the Atlantic and the southern and northwestern Pacific reached record highs as well. And sea ice the Arctic and the Antarctic both dwindled to their second-smallest annual average footprints.
These new data points are part of an alarming trend of rising average global surface temperatures, which have climbed roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, according to NASA. And the NOAA and NASA data aren’t the only ones to show temperatures climbing: five different records show temperatures rising farther and farther from a baseline set at the average annual global temperatures in 1951 through 1980. “When you have a statistic like the last five years are the warmest we’ve ever seen, that seems notable,” Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in a press briefing today.
Deke Arndt, chief of the monitoring section at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, compared the rise and fall of temperatures to someone riding up an escalator while bouncing. “The long term trip along the escalator primarily, that’s a metaphor for the long term global warming that we’re seeing,” he says. And the bouncing refers to the small peaks and valleys that can be driven by internal variability in the climate system, he said.
The briefing covered global climate statistics, but also consequences on the ground, including that 2018 was the third-wettest year on record in the United States. Most of that precipitation fell on the eastern half of the US. “2018 was an exclamation point on a trend that we’re seeing towards more big rain,” Arndt said. And, he added, the trend to more precipitation has a clear connection with long-term warming. “If a warmer atmosphere can convey more water vapor, those rainmaking storms can deliver more water in the form of precipitation.”
In addition to rainfall, the announcement updated the tally for disasters in the United States that each cost over a billion dollars in 2018. The $91 billion total in direct losses included $25 billion for Hurricane Michael, $25 billion for Hurricane Florence, and $24 billion for the wildfires that burned along the West Coast. The Camp Fire in California, which burned more than 153,000 acres and killed 86 people, certainly contributed to that total. It was the most destructive and the deadliest fire in the state’s recorded history.
The long-awaited announcement was delayed by the recent US government shutdown, Kendra Pierre-Louis reported for The New York Times. Now that it’s out, it’s another addition in an alarming number of federal analyses that point to the long-term damage of climate change. In November, the White House attempted to bury an authoritative climate report that described the risks that climate change poses to aspects of American life. As global temperatures and financial costs related to climate change continue to rise, the numbers forecast a worrying future.
“The key message is that the planet is warming. The long term trends are extremely robust,” Schmidt said. And scientists know why we’re seeing these trends, too: “It’s because of the increases in greenhouse gasses that we put into the atmosphere over the last hundred years.”