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7 Climate Records Broken in 2014 Indicates Earth Is 'Gravely Ill'

Climate

The annual State of the Climate report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and American Meteorological Society assembles climate studies and reports from the previous year in one package. The 25th annual report is out and the news isn't good: indicators of climate change show up everywhere.

(Click to enlarge) Geographical distribution of notable climate anomalies and events occurring around the world in 2014. Image credit: NOAA State of the Climate report

"Most of the dozens of essential climate variables monitored each year in this report continued to follow their long-term trends in 2014, with several setting new records," the report said.

A lot of the 292-page study is highly technical as it incorporates the work of more than 400 scientists analyzing everything from temperatures to precipitation to extreme weather events to ice melt all over the world. But one of the main conclusions of the report is how much things are changing and how quickly.

Perhaps Jeff Severinghaus of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography provides the best takeaway from the report, saying, if this is Earth's annual checkup, "the doctor is saying 'you are gravely ill.'"

Here are seven climate records broken in 2014:

1. Hottest Year: Records for the hottest temperature were set around the world with the highest average global surface temperature since record-keeping began, according to four separate analyses. Records were shattered everywhere. Europe and Mexico had their warmest years ever, while Argentina and Uruguay had their second hottest years and Australia its third warmest after enduring all-time record heat in 2013. Africa and Asia also had above-average temperatures.

The following table lists the global combined land and ocean annually-averaged temperature rank and anomaly for each of the 10 warmest years on record. Chart credit: NOAA

"Warmer-than-average conditions were present across much of the world’s land and ocean surfaces during 2014," the report said. "These contributed to a global average temperature that was the highest or joint highest since records began in the mid-to-late 1800s. Over land surfaces, Eurasia and western North America were particularly warm, while noticeable cold was felt in eastern North America, which suffered several Arctic cold-air outbreaks in early 2014. The frequency of warm extreme temperatures was above average for all regions apart from North America."

2. Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Driving those temperature increases were all the major heat-trapping greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, which reported record high atmospheric concentrations. Carbon levels at Mauna Loa stayed above 400 ppm from April through June, and globally the average was 397.2ppm. Methane concentrations rose as well, with an increase that's bigger than the average annual increase of the past decade.

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3. Sea Surface Temperature: The average sea surface temperature globally was the highest on record, with especially warm temperatures in the western Atlantic and central and northeast Pacific. While this didn't drive an El Niño event in 2014, scientists expect one to arrive in 2015.

4. Ocean Temperature: The heat content of the ocean's waters also set a record, reflecting the fact that the oceans absorb more than 90 percent of the heat trapped in the Earth's atmosphere by greenhouse gases. As greenhouse gases rise, therefore, so do ocean temperatures.

Ocean heat content each year since 1993 compared to the 1993-2013 average (dashed line) from a variety of data sources. Exact estimates differ among data sets, but they all show the same upward trend. Graph adapted from Figure 3.7 in State of the Climate in 2014.

5. Sea Level Rise: Sea levels are setting records too. Sea levels are now about 67 millimeters, or about 2.6 inches, higher than they were in 1993. Factors contributing to this rise include the melting of glaciers and other sea ice, the fact that water expands as it warms and melting land ice flowing out to sea.

(Click to enlarge) Global sea level each year since 1993 compared to the 1993 average (dashed line). Graph adapted from Plate 1.1x in State of the Climate in 2014.

6. Greenland Ice Melt: The Greenland ice sheet was above average in its rate for melt for 90 percent of the regular melt season. It hit a record low for August in how much of the sun's energy is reflected off its surface. Melting darkens the ice sheet's surface, making it less able to reflect the sun's energy.

a) Map of Greenland Ice Sheet surface albedo for summer (June to August) 2014, relative to the summer average 2000-2011, b) Average surface albedo of the whole ice sheet each summer since 2000, and c) Average surface albedo of the ice sheet each August since 2000. Image courtesy: American Meteorological Society

7. Antarctic Ice Melt: Antarctic sea ice set a different record—for highest sea ice extent, which has broken records three years running. One possible reason for that is changing wind patterns, scientists say. Without land to block it as in the Arctic, ice near land blows out to sea, exposing open water, which then freezes. While it might sound counterintuitive to the idea of a warming planet, it's indicative of  potentially climate change-driven atmospheric shifts.

"As we step into the next quarter-century of this report’s life, we look forward to seeing our Earth science disciplines grow to meet the challenges associated with documenting the evolving state of our planet’s climate system in this series," says the report. "These challenges are not just in observing and documenting, but in connecting: across the climate system’s several major components and associated myriad sub-components, the time scales and observing practices related to these, and the possibilities of satellite-era Big Data with the longevity and purpose of more traditional observations."

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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