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2023 is "virtually certain" to be the warmest year ever recorded, climate agency says

2023 poised to be hottest year on record
2023 poised to be hottest year on record, scientists say 03:42

As 2023 creeps closer to its end, new climate data shows that the global average temperature is already the highest ever recorded – and that the year is "virtually certain" to be the hottest in observational history. 

The data, compiled by the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service, shows that from January to October, average temperatures across Earth were 1.43 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, a level dangerously close to the 1.5 degree Celsius warming threshold climate scientists have long warned would bring significant challenges for people worldwide. The average experienced so far this year is also .10 degrees Celsius higher than the 10-month average for 2016, scientists said, which is the current record-holder for the warmest year. 

"We can say with near certainty that 2023 will be the warmest year on record," Samantha Burgess, deputy director of Copernicus, said. "...The sense of urgency for ambitious climate action going into COP28 has never been higher." 

Monthly global surface air temperature anomalies (°C) relative to 1991–2020 from January 1940 to October 2023, plotted as time series for each year. 2023 and 2016 are shown with thick lines shaded in bright red and dark red, respectively. Other years are shown with thin lines and shaded according to the decade, from blue (1940s) to brick red (2020s). Data source: ERA5 Copernicus Climate Change Service/ECMWF

After months of dangerous and deadly heat waves across the globe, October continued the trend. Scientists said it was the warmest October ever recorded on the planet, with temperatures nearly half a degree warmer than the previous warmest October in 2019. 

And October's heat wasn't just in the air – it was also in the ocean. Copernicus said in a news release that the average sea surface temperature for the month was more than 69 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest on record. The ocean absorbs 90% of the warming that takes place on Earth, and as both air and sea surface temperatures rise, it will continue to cause vital ice across the planet to melt, in turn, causing sea levels to rise. Last month, Copernicus said, was the sixth in a row in which the area of Antarctic sea ice was at record low levels for the time of year. 

A warmer ocean is also fuel for hurricanes, putting more people at risk of natural disasters. 

Global daily sea surface temperature (°C) from 1 January 1940 to 31 October 2023, plotted as time series for each year. 2023 and 2016 are shown with thick lines shaded in bright red and dark red, respectively. Other years are shown with thin lines and shaded according to the decade, from blue (1940s) to brick red (2020s). The dotted line and grey envelope represent the 1.5°C threshold above preindustrial level (1850-1900) and its uncertainty. Data source: ERA5 C3S/ECMWF

While the latest data paints a dire situation for the state of the climate crisis, it was not unexpected. 

In May, the World Meteorological Organization warned that the planet will have its hottest year yet at least once within the next five years. This year has seen numerous climate extremes upon the return of El Niño, a natural climate pattern that occurs every few years when the Pacific Ocean warms. 

With that message, WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas also issued another warning: "There's a 66% chance that we would exceed 1.5 degrees during the coming five years. And there's a 33% probability that we will see the whole coming five years exceeding that threshold."

Once the planet consistently hits average temperatures that are 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial times, scientists have warned that severe heat waves – which have already proved to be increasingly difficult to navigate – will become more frequent, as will periods of precipitation and drought, which will also be more intense. All of this will cause a strain on basic needs for human survival, including energy, food and water, and it is already making many areas in the U.S. "uninsurable" because of the risks.

The latest data was released a few weeks before the United Nations' COP28, a conference that aims to bring together government officials, investors, young people, Indigenous groups and others – including this year, Pope Francis – to develop solutions to limit the worst impacts of global warming, which is primarily amplified through the burning of fossil fuels. 

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