A Hot Year To Remember

It may surprise folks caught in winter's icy grip, but it's hot outside. According to NASA, last year was the hottest year on record, worldwide, reports CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker.

Looking back on 1998, the sizzling signs that the planet was a full third degree warmer than the previous record in 1995 are now clear. The endless, scorching heat and drought that baked Texas last summer; the fires that raged in Mexico and shrouded the United States' mid-section; and the hellish blazes in Indonesia that choked Southeast Asia for months.

Monstrous heat also spawns monstrous hurricanes, such as Mitch, which laid waste to Central America last year. Even places where the cold is barely penetrated by the warmth of the sun, were oddly hotter in 1998.

"We had a warm summer last year," says scientist Don Perovich. "The ice was thinner."

Scientists were alarmed to find that an Arctic ice shelf that used to be six feet thick had shrunk to four.

In fact, it's been so warm in the far north, the Arctic ice pack has retreated more than 100 miles toward the North Pole.

Scientists lay part of the blame on El Nino, which bathed the globe in tropical heat last year. However, the rising mercury appears to be part of a long-term trend. This was the 20th straight year of above normal temperatures. Ten of the hottest years on record began in the early 80s -- seven since 1990.

The Earth has sweat new monthly highs each of the past 18 months. Rising temperatures have sparked concern that the Earth's temperature could increase dangerously. That concern led to the controversial agreement reached in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997, seeking to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases thought to threaten the climate.

Nevertheless, there's no scientific consensus that any of this proves, or disproves global warming. It could just be natural, cyclical fluctuations, scientists say. Whatever the cause, it doesn't seem the planet's going to chill out any time soon.

While temperatures in the United States were the warmest in at least 40 years, final figures aren't complete, NASA said. But, the agency added, it is clear that 1998 did not match the record warmth of 1934, which occurred during the Dust Bowl era.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration planned a similar announcement Wednesday at the American Meteorological Society convention in Dallas.

Written by Randolph E. Schmid