How hot was 2020? It depends who you ask, but it was another one for the record books, agencies say


Once again, 2020 was a hot one.

According to NASA and recent findings from the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, last year tied 2016 as the warmest on record.

It was the second-warmest according to the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — with a global average temperature that was 0.98 C higher than the pre-industrial average. 

But the differences between the findings are negligible, the scientists say, with a 0.02 C difference on either side. But the message is still the same: Earth is continuing to warm.

“Year to year, there are always differences,” said Chris Derksen, a senior researcher at Environment and Climate Change Canada. “We don’t always expect every year to break the record set the previous year. But what’s important is the long-term trend and the consistency of this trend that has emerged.”

That long-term trend pegs the past decade as the warmest on record, dating back to 1880. 

The slight differences between the agencies are due to a few factors, including how they analyze the raw temperature data and how they account for missing temperatures in polar regions.

Ultimately, though, “It’s a statistical tie,” Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said at a news conference on Thursday.

The record heat comes amid almost a year of lockdowns around the globe due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But the researchers found that didn’t really affect the upward temperature trend.

That’s because Earth is basically playing catch-up with the greenhouse gases that have already been released in the atmosphere, said Ahira Sanchez-Lugo, a physical scientist who compiles global temperature data at NOAA’s National Centres for Environmental Information.

This graphic illustrates how the global land and ocean temperatures differ from the pre-industrial average. (NOAA)

Greenhouse gases live for thousands of years in the atmosphere, acting like a blanket. 

“Just think about yourself, when you’re in bed, and you keep adding extra layers of blanket over you: there’s a point where you’re going to start getting hot,” she said. “[With] COVID, we’ve seen a decrease in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That does not mean that we’re peeling off these layers that we’ve already added to Earth, it just means that we’re not adding more layers.”

Change in the Arctic

According to NOAA, the Northern Hemisphere experienced its hottest year ever, with the Arctic warming at twice the global average, and some parts as high as three to four times the average.

No one needs to tell Fred Sangris, the community negotiator for the Yellowknife Dene in the Northwest Territories. He said his community is seeing the changes firsthand.

WATCH | 2020 reached record temperatures:

Despite reduced emissions during the pandemic, annual climate reports from NASA and the NOAA have declared 2020 a virtual tie with 2016 for the warmest year on record, with the Northern Hemisphere seeing the greatest effects. 1:55

“In the last 30, 40 years, climate change is starting to warm up a bit,” he said. “We have cougars that moved into this area. We have coyotes that moved here from the south. We also have birds like magpies. We have other animals that are moving north. Birds that we’ve never seen before are migrating here.”

But more importantly, it’s changing the way of life in the Arctic, one that has existed for generations: Lakes are drying up, caribou numbers are dwindling, the permafrost is thawing and the ice isn’t as thick as it once was, posing a serious danger for those who depend on it for hunting and fishing. And it’s threatening lives.

Aerial view of melting permafrost tundra and lakes near the Yupik village of Quinhagak on the Yukon Delta in Alaska on April 12, 2019. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

“The rivers are not freezing like they used to,” Sangris said. “I used to cross the river here with the sled dogs, dog teams way back. But now that the rivers are thin ice, they’re not freezing … People are going through the ice as they travel. And if they don’t get injured, then they lose their life.”

Sangris is trying to find a way to make it safer for the younger generation to travel in an ever-changing Arctic, one where the traditions no longer seem to apply.

“In the past year, we’ve been trying to develop a map for a young generation, a community map that they can take with them saying this area is soft here, that river is soft, this point here is open water,” he said. “So we’re trying to educate the younger generation so that they have safe travel.”

While the changes aren’t as dramatic south of the Arctic, Canadians can expect to see more climate-change linked events.

“We should expect temperatures to continue to increase,” Derksen said. “We can expect changes in precipitation, so more extreme precipitation events during the summer. But in overall reduction in water availability, we have changes in glaciers happening in Western Canada that also affects freshwater access for Canadians.”

44 consecutive years 

Canadians can expect more heat waves, a potential increase in fires and more precipitation. 

Weather events across the country in 2020 had an insured loss estimate of close to $2.5 billion. And while it was a quiet fire season in the west, southern B.C. was plunged into darkness as smoke from fires in California and Oregon sent thick smoke high into the atmosphere, blanketing the region.

WATCH | 2020 tied for hottest year on record, NASA says:

Last year was also the 44th in a row that Earth’s temperature has been above the pre-industrial average. 

“I’m of the age where Earth has had warmer-than-average temperatures for 44 consecutive years … That means I’ve lived almost my entire life on a planet that’s warmer than average,” Derksen said. “So Canadians should anticipate and expect to continue living in that environment.”

So what does that mean for the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit pre-industrial warming to 1.5 C by 2100?

“Using baselines now, it’s likely that we will have one year or so of 1.5 C before around 2030,” Schmidt said. “Personally, I don’t think that there’s much that will change [in upward trajectory] that barring a massive volcano that would slow things down for a few years.”



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