February Smashes Earth's All-Time Global Heat Record by a Jaw-Dropping Margin
By Jeff Masters and Bob Henson
On Saturday, NASA dropped a bombshell of a climate report. February 2016 has soared past all rivals as the warmest seasonally adjusted month in more than a century of global recordkeeping. NASA's analysis showed that February ran 1.35°C (2.43°F) above the 1951-1980 global average for the month, as can be seen in the list of monthly anomalies going back to 1880.
The previous record was set just last month, as January 2016 came in 1.14°C above the 1951-1980 average for the month. In other words, February has dispensed with this one-month-old record by a full 0.21°C (0.38°F)—an extraordinary margin to beat a monthly world temperature record by. Perhaps even more remarkable is that February 2015 crushed the previous February record—set in 1998 during the peak atmospheric influence of the 1997-98 “super" El Niño that's comparable in strength to the current one—by a massive 0.47°C (0.85°F).
An ominous milestone in our march toward an ever-warmer planet
Because there is so much land in the Northern Hemisphere, and since land temperatures rise and fall more sharply with the seasons than ocean temperatures, global readings tend to average about 4°C cooler in January and February than they do in July or August. Thus, February is not atop the pack in terms of absolute warmest global temperature: that record was set in July 2015.
The real significance of the February record is in its departure from the seasonal norms that people, plants, animals and the Earth system are accustomed to dealing with at a given time of year. Drawing from NASA's graph of long-term temperature trends, if we add 0.2°C as a conservative estimate of the amount of human-produced warming that occurred between the late 1800s and 1951-1980, then the February result winds up at 1.55°C above average. If we use 0.4°C as a higher-end estimate, then February sits at 1.75°C above average.
Either way, this result is a true shocker, and yet another reminder of the incessant long-term rise in global temperature resulting from human-produced greenhouse gases. Averaged on a yearly basis, global temperatures are now around 1.0°C beyond where they stood in the late 19th century, when industrialization was ramping up.
Michael Mann (Pennsylvania State University) notes that the human-induced warming is even greater if you reach back to the very start of the Industrial Revolution. Making matters worse, even if we could somehow manage to slash emissions enough to stabilize concentrations of carbon dioxide at their current level, we are still committed to at least 0.5°C of additional atmospheric warming as heat stored in the ocean makes its way into the air, as recently emphasized by Jerry Meehl (National Center for Atmospheric Research). In short, we are now hurtling at a frightening pace toward the globally agreed maximum of 2.0°C warming over pre-industrial levels.
El Niño and La Niña are responsible for many of the one-year up-and-down spikes we see in global temperature. By spreading warm surface water across a large swath of the tropical Pacific, El Niño allows the global oceans to transfer heat more readily into the atmosphere. El Niño effects on global temperature typically peak several months after the highest temperatures occur in the Niño3.4 region of the eastern tropical Pacific. The weekly Niño3.4 anomalies peaked in mid-November 2015 at a record +3.1°C , so it's possible that February 2016 will stand as the apex of the influence of the 2015-16 El Niño on global temperature, although the first half of March appears to be giving February a run for its money. We can expect the next several months to remain well above the long-term average, and it remains very possible (though not yet certain) that 2016 will top 2015 as the warmest year in global record-keeping.
Lower atmosphere also sets a record in February
Satellite-based estimates of temperature in the lowest few miles of the atmosphere also set an impressive global record in February. Calculations from the University of Alabama in Huntsville show that February's reading in the lower atmosphere marked the largest monthly anomaly since the UAH dataset began in late 1978. UAH's Dr. Roy Spencer, who considers himself a climate change skeptic, told Capital Weather Gang earlier this month, “There has been warming. The question is how much warming there's been and how does that compare to what's expected and what's predicted." The satellite readings apply to temperatures miles above Earth's surface, rather than what is experienced at the ground, and a variety of adjustments and bias corrections in recent years (including an important one just this month) have brought satellite-based readings closer to the surface-observed trends.
Arctic leads the way
Figure 2 shows a big factor in the February result: a superheated Arctic. As shown by the darkest-red splotches in the figure, large parts of Alaska, Canada, eastern Europe, and Russia, as well as much of the Arctic Ocean, ran more than 4.0°C (7.2°F) above average for the month. This unusual warmth helped drive Arctic sea ice to its lowest February extent on record in February 2016. The tremendous Arctic warmth was probably related to interactions among warm air streaming into the Arctic, warm water extending poleward from the far northeast Atlantic, and the record-low extent of Arctic sea ice.
Ground Zero for this pattern was the Barents and Kara Seas, north of Scandinavia and western Russia, where sea ice extent was far below average in February. Typically, the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard—which includes the northernmost civilian settlements on Earth—is largely surrounded by ice from early winter into spring. This winter, the edge of the persistent ice has stayed mostly to the north of Svalbard, which has helped an absurd level of mildness to persist over the islands for months.
Air temperatures at the Longyearbyen airport (latitude 78°N) have been close to 10°C (18°F) above average over the past three-plus months. This is the single most astounding season-long anomaly we've seen for any station anywhere on Earth. (If anyone can beat it, please let us know and we'll add it here!) Update (March 14): It turns out in the winter of 2013-14, Svalbard was even more amazingly mild: the Dec-Jan-Feb average was -4.73°C, compared to the -5.12°C average from this past winter. According to Deke Arndt (NOAA/NCEI), a handful of high-latitude stations in Alaska, Canada, Kazakhstan, Norway, and Russia have racked up full-winter anomalies during past years in the range of 6°C to 8°C above the 1981-2010 average. At least some of these might be large enough to beat out the 2013-14 and 2015-16 Svalbard anomalies of around 10°C if these other readings were recalculated against the generally cooler 1961-1990 base period used by the Norwegian Meteorological Institute.
February's heat had severe impacts
It has long been agreed upon in international climate negotiations that a 2°C warming of the Earth above modern pre-industrial levels represents a "dangerous" level of warming that the nations of the world should work diligently to avoid. The December 2015 Paris climate accord, signed by 195 nations, included language on this, and the accord recommend that we should keep our planet from warming more than 1.5°C, if possible. Although the science of attributing extreme weather events to a warming climate is still evolving (more on this in an upcoming post), February 2016 gave us a number of extreme weather events that were made more probable by a warmer climate, giving us an excellent example of how a 2°C warming of the climate can potentially lead to dangerous impacts. And, as we have been repeatedly warned might likely be the case, these impacts came primarily in less developed nations—the ones with the least resources available to deal with dangerous climate change.
According to the February 2016 Catastrophe Report from insurance broker Aon Benfield, three nations suffered extreme weather disasters in February 2016 that cost at least 4 percent of their GDP—roughly the equivalent of what in the U.S. would be five simultaneous Hurricane Katrinas. According to EM-DAT, the International Disaster Database, these disasters set records for the all-time most expensive weather-related disaster in their nations' history. For comparison, nine nations had their most expensive weather-related natural disasters in history in all of 2015, and only one did so in 2014.
Here are the nations that have set records in February 2016 for their most expensive weather-related natural disaster in history:
Vietnam has suffered $6.7 billion in damage from its 2016 drought, which has hit farmers especially hard in the crucial southern Mekong Delta. This cost is approximately 4 percent of Vietnam's GDP, and beats the $785 million cost (2009 USD) of Typhoon Ketsana of Sept. 28, 2009 for most expensive disaster in their history. In this image, we see a boy holding his brother walking across a drought-hit rice field in Long Phu district, southern delta province of Soc Trang on March 2, 2016.
Zimbabwe has suffered $1.6 billion in damage from its 2016 drought. This is approximately 12 percent of their GDP, and beats the $200 million cost (2003 USD) of a February 2003 flood for most expensive disaster in their history. Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe on Feb. 5, 2016 declared a 'state of disaster' in many rural areas hit by a severe drought, with more than a quarter of the population facing food shortages.
Fiji suffered $470 million in damage from Category 5 Cyclone Winston's impact in February. This is approximately 10 percent of their GDP. The previous costliest disaster in Fiji was Tropical Cyclone Kina in January 1993, at $182 million (2016 USD) in damage. In this image, we see how Category 5 winds can completely flatten human-built structures: Fiji's Koro Island received a direct hit from Winston when the storm was at peak strength with 185 mph winds.
One other severe impact from February's record heat is the on-going global coral bleaching episode, just the third such event in recorded history (1998 and 2010 were the others.) NOAA's Coral Reef Watch has placed portions of Australia's Great Barrier Reef under their "Alert Level 1", meaning that widespread coral bleaching capable of causing coral death is likely to occur. Widespread but minor bleaching has already been reported on the reef, and the coming month will be critical for determining whether or not the reef will experience its third major mass bleaching event on record.
Last year saw Earth's highest-ever increase in carbon dioxide
Despite efforts to slow down human emissions of carbon dioxide, 2015 saw the biggest yearly jump in global CO2 levels ever measured, said NOAA last week. The annual growth rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide measured at NOAA's Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii jumped by 3.05 parts per million during 2015, the largest year-to-year increase since measurements began there in 1958.
In another first, 2015 was the fourth consecutive year that CO2 grew more than 2 ppm, said Pieter Tans, lead scientist of NOAA's Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network. “Carbon dioxide levels are increasing faster than they have in hundreds of thousands of years," Tans said. “It's explosive compared to natural processes." The last time the Earth experienced such a sustained CO2 increase was between 17,000 and 11,000 years ago, when CO2 levels increased by 80 ppm. Today's rate of increase is 200 times faster, said Tans. In February 2016, the average global atmospheric CO2 level stood at 402.59 ppm. Prior to 1800, atmospheric CO2 averaged about 280 ppm.
The big jump in CO2 in 2015 is partially due to the current El Niño weather pattern, as forests, plant life and other terrestrial systems responded to changes in weather, precipitation and drought. In particular, El Niño-driven drought and massive wildfires in Indonesia were a huge source of CO2 to the atmosphere in 2015. The largest previous global increase in CO2 levels occurred in 1998, which was also a strong El Niño year. However, continued high emissions from human-caused burning of fossil fuels are driving the underlying growth rate.
We are now approaching the annual peak in global CO2 levels that occurs during northern spring, after which the value will dip by several ppm. It is quite possible that the annual minimum in late 2016 will for the first time fail to get below 400 ppm, as predicted by Ralph Keeling (Scripps Institution of Oceanography) last October. To track CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa and global CO2 concentrations, visit NOAA's Greenhouse Gas Reference Network and the Keeling Curve website (Scripps).
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Why You Should Wash Fresh Produce<p>Global pandemic or not, properly washing fresh fruits and vegetables is a good habit to practice to minimize the ingestion of potentially harmful residues and germs.</p><p>Fresh produce is handled by numerous people before you purchase it from the grocery store or the farmers market. It's best to assume that not every hand that has touched fresh produce has been clean.</p><p>With all of the people constantly bustling through these environments, it's also safe to assume that much of the <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/fresh-vs-frozen-fruit-and-vegetables" target="_blank">fresh produce</a> you purchase has been coughed on, sneezed on, and breathed on as well.</p><p>Adequately washing fresh fruits and vegetables before you eat them can significantly reduce residues that may be left on them during their journey to your kitchen.</p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>Washing fresh fruits and vegetables is a proven way to remove germs and unwanted residues from their surfaces before eating them.</p>
Best Produce Cleaning Methods<p>While rinsing fresh produce with water has long been the traditional method of preparing fruits and veggies before consumption, the current pandemic has many people wondering whether that's enough to really clean them.</p><p>Some people have advocated the use of soap, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/white-vinegar" target="_blank">vinegar</a>, lemon juice, or even commercial cleaners like bleach as an added measure.</p><p>However, health and food safety experts, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC), strongly urge consumers not to take this advice and stick with plain water.</p><p>Using such substances may pose further health dangers, and they're unnecessary to remove the most harmful residues from produce. <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/chlorine-poisoning" target="_blank">Ingesting commercial cleaning chemicals</a> like bleach can be lethal and should never be used to clean food.</p><p>Furthermore, substances like lemon juice, vinegar, and produce washes have not been shown to be any more effective at cleaning produce than plain water — and may even leave additional deposits on food.</p><p>While some research has suggested that using neutral electrolyzed water or a baking soda bath can be even more effective at removing certain substances, the consensus continues to be that cool tap water is sufficient in most cases.</p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>The best way to wash fresh produce before eating it is with cool water. Using other substances is largely unnecessary. Plus they're often not as effective as water and gentle friction. Commercial cleaners should never be used on food.</p>
How to Wash Fruits and Vegetables With Water<p>Washing fresh fruits and vegetables in cool water before eating them is a good practice when it comes to health hygiene and food safety.</p><p>Note that fresh produce should not be washed until right before you're ready to eat it. Washing fruits and vegetables before storing them may create an environment in which bacterial growth is more likely.</p><p>Before you begin washing fresh produce, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/how-long-should-you-wash-your-hands" target="_blank">wash your hands well</a> with soap and water. Be sure that any utensils, sinks, and surfaces you're using to prepare your produce are also thoroughly cleaned first.</p><p>Begin by cutting away any bruised or visibly rotten areas of fresh produce. If you're handling a fruit or vegetable that'll be peeled, such as an orange, wash it before peeling it to prevent any surface bacteria from entering the flesh.</p><p>The general methods to wash produce are as follows:</p><ul><li><strong>Firm produce.</strong> Fruits with firmer skins like apples, lemons, and pears, as well as <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/root-vegetables" target="_blank">root vegetables</a> like potatoes, carrots, and turnips, can benefit from being brushed with a clean, soft bristle to better remove residues from their pores.</li><li><strong>Leafy greens.</strong> Spinach, lettuce, Swiss chard, leeks, and cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts and bok choy should have their outermost layer removed, then be submerged in a bowl of cool water, swished, drained, and rinsed with fresh water.</li><li><strong>Delicate produce.</strong> Berries, mushrooms, and other types of produce that are more likely to fall apart can be cleaned with a steady stream of water and gentle friction using your fingers to remove grit.</li></ul><p>Once you have thoroughly rinsed your produce, dry it using a clean paper or cloth towel. More fragile produce can be laid out on the towel and gently patted or rolled around to dry them without damaging them.</p><p>Before consuming your fruits and veggies, follow the simple steps above to minimize the amount of germs and substances that may be on them.</p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>Most fresh fruits and veggies can gently be scrubbed under cold running water (using a clean soft brush for those with firmer skins) and then dried. It can help to soak, drain, and rinse produce that has more dirt-trapping layers.</p>
The Bottom Line<p>Practicing good food hygiene is an important health habit. Washing fresh produce helps minimize surface germs and residues that could make you sick.</p><p>Recent fears during the <a href="https://www.healthline.com/coronavirus" target="_blank">COVID-19 pandemic</a> have caused many people to wonder whether more aggressive washing methods, such as using soap or commercial cleaners on fresh produce, are better.</p><p>Health professionals agree that this isn't recommended or necessary — and could even be dangerous. Most fruits and vegetables can be sufficiently cleaned with cool water and light friction right before eating them.</p><p>Produce that has more layers and surface area can be more thoroughly washed by swishing it in a bowl of cool water to remove dirt particles.</p><p>Fresh fruits and vegetables offer a number of healthy nutrients and should continue to be eaten, as long as safe cleaning methods are practiced.</p>
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From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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