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March Temperature “Shocker”

Dr David Whitehouse

The global temperature is up again. It’s a “shocker,” say some and to others indicates a “kind of climate emergency.” According to some figures every one of the past eleven months has been a record for that month. It is, of course, the result of an intense El Niño which is causing the global temperature spike, but one might not come away with that idea from media reports.

Some reporters and researchers have been trying to drag the El Nino phenomenon away from the weather/natural variability category into the climate camp for years. Climate is usually defined as a period of 30 years, although that definition was rather arbitrary and based on the length of data sets available decades ago, it could equally have been 25 years. But it could not have been taken to be five years. Despite this El Niño’s are regarded by many as climatic phenomenon especially when their global effect is considered. The UK Met Office describes it thus, “El Niño and La Niña are terms for climatic events originating in the tropical Pacific that recur every few years as part of a naturally-occurring cycle.” Now if that’s not a contradictory definition, I don’t know what is.

The Guardian also mixes climate and weather. In its report about the record temperatures in March it says, ” Climate change is usually assessed over years and decades,” to which I say nonsense. The recent El Niño is intense because it had a false start that allowed a greater accumulation of heat. The global rise in temperature that resulted is far to fast to be a climatic phenomenon.

Such sloppiness is contagious. Barely a week after the current El Niño strength was not linked to climate change Christine Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change said on the BBC News website, “The very unfortunate circumstance we now have is the overlap of a very intense Niño El Nino that has been magnified by Climate Change.”

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The current El Niño is declining though the surface temperature has continued to rise as the heat works its way through the system. Temperature measurements in the Pacific have returned to normal (see Fig 1, click on image to enlarge) signaling the probable start of a cooling La Nina. Despite this, the strength of the El Niño has been such that 2016 may also be a record year.

The New York Times says, after more than two record-setting hot years — 2014 and 2015 and an extremely warm few months in 2016 — many of the devastating effects of the one-two punch of global warming and El Niño may be inescapable, setting the world on a course for an extended period of rapid global warming, after a period of relatively slow warming that began in 1998 and lasted for about a decade.

In 2017 the global temperature will probably decline. If it does we will probably see the use of another piece of climate communication sloppiness; when temperatures go up it’s climate change, when they go down, it’s natural variation.