2016: Year of the Black Swan

March 14, 2016


This weekend’s new graph of February 2016 temps left a lot of scientists gasping.

Looking for historical “black swan” events of this magnitude, the collapse of the Larsen B Ice shelf in 2002, and 2007’s sudden drop in Arctic sea ice come to mind. We’re watching something very historic unfold, in the midst of a turbulent election year where this could become an issue.

Jeff Masters and Bob Henson at Weather Underground:

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).

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.



I’ve updated the chart for El Niño years, too. I had to expand the y axis a lot to fit the February data:


Figure 2 | Global mean surface temperature for El Nino years. Data source: GISS NASA

The shaded area is the normal period for an El Niño.
It’s more than El Niño that’s causing the extra heat. Below is a map showing just where it’s getting so hot. It’s the northern hemisphere, including the Arctic, parts of the USA and Canada, and much of northern Europe:


Look, it’s too soon to post any year to date temperatures, but here’s a chart showing just the months of February:


For this year, I’ll have to extend the y axis a whole lot. Here’s a taste. The lines represent the running average. The end point marked 2016 is the average of January and February anomalies this year:


Figure 6 | Global mean surface temperature, progressive year to date to February 2016. Data source. GISS NASA


Important to note, as the graph from  Roy Spencer at the University of Alabama shows, we are in the part of the El Nino cycle where temp tends to spike.  You can see the previous giant spike in 1998, and a smaller one at the end of 2010 – both related to  El Nino events.


A senior scientist cautions me to keep this in mind – and especially in climate communication efforts, not to create an expectation that this is going to continue on a steady rocket like February – at least so far as we know.
We expect there will be a leveling out, after which temps will fluctuate around a new, hotter “stair step”, as Kevin Trenberth predicted several years ago.

Safe to say, “the pause” in global temperature, if there ever was one – is over.




17 Responses to “2016: Year of the Black Swan”

  1. grindupbaker Says:

    Some handy graphs there thanks. The “at least 0.5°C of additional atmospheric warming as heat stored in the ocean makes its way into the air” in the posted text is incorrect. The ~0.5°C residual is caused by the ocean well-mixed layer (topmost 2.4% of ocean depth) not being able to warm as much the ocean surface (offhand the 0.5°C mentioned seems about right but I’ve not come across enough depth-detailed data of ocean heat anomaly or had the personal time to compute things yet) and this, in turn, keeps the ocean surface behind where it trying to get to in order to regain balance. I do not know whether this would simply be the difference between land (+1.2) and ocean surface (+0.7) anomalies or whether the vast ocean would essentially always remain somewhat behind the flakey land/atmosphere even in a state that’s as balanced as can happen on less than multi-millennial time scales. So, the deep ocean holds back the thermocline anomaly to the extent that mixing occurs, the thermocline holds back the well-mixed layer anomaly to the extent that mixing occurs, the well-mixed layer holds back the ocean surface anomaly and, to a lesser extent, the ocean surface restrained anomaly holds back the land/atmosphere anomaly. Not the same as “heat stored in the ocean makes its way into the air”.

  2. grindupbaker Says:

    The fun question is whether February 2016 was the warmest February globally-averaged since 133,000 years ago. Based on paleoclimate talks I’ve listened to, I say yes.

  3. […] also recommend reading this story at ClimateCrocks on the latest data. It will chill […]

  4. vierotchka Says:

    The French have an expression that is quite relevant to this situation, an expression basically meaning that “we are screwed” – that expression is “nous sommes cuits”, literally “we are cooked”…

    • dumboldguy Says:

      The Italians have a “nice” euphemism as well—-iamo fregati (we are scrubbed) Other countries speak more plainly—-wir sind geschraubt (screwed), estamos jodidos (F**ked up), and rydym yn sgriwio (Welsh—screwed).

      • vierotchka Says:

        Sure, but none of those are heat-related the way the French one is.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          Yes, and the fact that one nickname for the French is “frogs” and the human race has been likened to frogs sitting in a pot of water that is being slowly heated to boiling as AGW overtakes us makes yours even more” elegant” and fitting.

          And do we want to get into geese being cooked as well? The French do love their foie gras, and come to think of it, their frog legs as well. Yes, “nous sommes cuits” works on many levels.

          • vierotchka Says:

            Irrelevant and bordering on thread hijacking, leading far away from my point.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            What was hugely irrelevant was you starting the whole thing by bringing in a prissy French term for “we’re screwed” and saying it was “quite relevant”. In actuality, those of us that frequent Crock are quite comfortable with “we’re screwed” or “we’re f**ked” (if we want to be a bit more vulgar) when we talk about impending black swans.

            And “thread hijacking”? LMAO! I was PLAYING with you, dear, when I made my first reply, and you then had to be Captain Obvious and point out the “heat-relatedness” of your clever little bon mot. Which caused me to play with you some MORE (and actually pay you a compliment as well). Your response has now earned you membership in OPSH, the Order of the Perfumed Sleeve Hanky—-sniff away.

            (And are you the vierotchka of the web? And do you know that the name Verochka loosely means “true” or “faith” in Russian?)

            Semper Fi, sweet one.

          • vierotchka Says:

            I know the meaning of my name (which is Vera, Vierotchka being its popular and widespread diminutive) because I am Russian. As for the rest of your post and your previous responses, I have found a video all about you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=670if6Etx0o

          • vierotchka Says:

            Furthermore, Vera does NOT mean true in Russian, it ONLY means faith.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Ah, le petit visage de chou (since V-Gal likes French “expressions”) does it again, with her nit picking over irrelevancies and posting a linkabout trolls that shows why her name should be “Cranky Old Witch” (or something that rhymes closely with it).

            I stand corrected in the irrelevant debate we are having here over the COW’s name. I should have said something closer to—-“And do you know that the name Vera is derived from the LATIN and means “true”, AND also means “faith” in Russian?”

            The answer to “And are you the vierotchka of the web?” is a definite YES, as a search will prove. She IS with us on the side of right when it comes to AGW, but is not too pleasant about it.

            I hope V-Gal can get back to the real import or this post—-The Black Swan—and stop making irrelevant, angry, and thread stealing comments about French expressions or the derivation of her name that lead us far off any “point”.

            PS I must warn her that I am a charter member of P.O.O.P. (People Offended by Offended People), a group that is NOT really offended by COWs but WILL play with them and help them look foolish if invited to do so.

          • dumboldguy Says:


          • dumboldguy Says:

            And with that absolutely crushing riposte from the Granny in Switzerland I concede defeat and leave her triumphantly sitting on her high horse and sniffing her perfumed sleeve hanky. I am now going to crawl back under my bridge and sulk.

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