2017 Ranks in Top 3 Hottest Years Ever, But Hope Isn’t Lost

If we discount the effects of El Niño and La Niña, 2017 would have been the hottest year, bar none.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration don't agree on whether 2017 ranked second or third among the top three hottest-ever years, but either way, it's important news. 

The agencies announced the news at a joint press conference on Jan. 18, in Washington — citing temperature records that go back to 1880.

NASA ranked 2017 as the second-hottest year on record, second only to 2016 saying these findings "continue the planet's long-term warming trend" driven primarily by human activity, specifically carbon dioxide emissions. The NOAA ranked 2017 third behind 2016 and 2015. In both rankings, however, the past three years have been hotter than any others on record.

In fact, as CNN reports, the six hottest years on record are entirely contained in the 2010s, while 17 of the hottest 18 years on record have occurred since 2001.

La Niña, a cooling of the water in the equatorial Pacific, could help explain 2017's slight downturn. The latest La Niña cycle began in late 2016 and lasted into 2017. 2015 and 2016, on the other hand, witnessed a strong recurrence of El Niño, a warming cycle in the Equatorial Pacific. "If the effects of the recent El Niño and La Niña patterns were statistically removed from the record, 2017 would have been the warmest year on record," NASA warned.

The effects of climate change can be seen all over the world. Antarctic ice reached a record low in Antartica in 2017, beating the previous low by a deficit of 154,000 square miles. At the opposite pole, Arctic sea ice extent reached its second-lowest level on record.

But global warming also causes more extreme cold, as we've reported, and the average snow cover extent in the Northern hemisphere was the largest in more than 30 years. Closer to the tropics, the U.S. and Caribbean endured a record number of major hurricanes, helping 2017 become the costliest year for weather disasters in U.S. history.

So what can be done? For one, we can persuade our lawmakers to take steps to reduce our carbon emissions. According to a United Nations estimate, the world can only take a rise of 2 more degrees Celsius before things get even more dangerous. And according to the Climate Science Special Report, which academics and government officials released in November, we have a two-thirds chance of going over that limit within 23 years at our current rate of carbon emission. 

"If we want to do something like stay under 2 degrees Celsius of warming, the window to do that is closing in the next couple decades," Robert Kopp, one of the lead authors of the report and a professor of climate since at Rutgers University, told The Atlantic.

We can also take action at home, though. In July, Lund University published a study of the most effective ways to reduce individual contributions to climate change.

"We found there are four actions that could result in substantial decreases in an individual's carbon footprint: eating a plant-based diet, avoiding air travel, living car-free, and having smaller families. For example, living car-free saves about 2.4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, while eating a plant-based diet saves 0.8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year," lead author Seth Wynes said, per the Institute of Physics.

"These actions, therefore, have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (which is 4 times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household lightbulbs (8 times less effective)."

Whereas living car-free represents an annual climate savings of more than 2 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, as Wynes pointed out, having one fewer child saves more than 50 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

"We recognize these are deeply personal choices," study co-author Kimberly Nicholas said. "But we can't ignore the climate effect our lifestyle actually has."

Cover photo via Thomas Hanfeneth on Unsplash

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