The 1.35-degree difference from the 1951 base line marked the greatest monthly departure on record, 0.21 degrees Celsius above the next biggest departure established just the month before that.
The extraordinary global warmth was set in motion by the long-term climate-warming trend, but it surged to another level because of the record-challenging El Niño event that released into the atmosphere large quantities of heat stored in the tropical Pacific Ocean.
The heat injection helped this February pass February 1998, the previous record holder, by a whopping 0.47 degrees Celsius (0.85 Fahrenheit).
Although February 1998’s global temperature also spiked because of El Niño, this year’s rise was steeper and started at a higher base line because of the years of climate warming in between.
February’s warmth was especially pronounced over land areas in the Northern Hemisphere outside the tropics. In the Arctic, temperatures were remarkably warm, about 6 degrees Celsius (almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal, and sea ice was at a record low for the month.
The planetary warmth that began 2016 is without a rival, at a whole different level from the past two years, which ultimately set records.
The year will probably end as the warmest on record, passing 2015 and 2014. Deke Arndt, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, put it this way in a conversation with Discover’s Tom Yulsman: “If my wife asked me if I thought 2016 was going to be the warmest year, I’d say ‘yes’ pretty confidently. However, as a public servant and as a scientist, we’re a pretty conservative lot, and I don’t think we’d say that until we were 100 percent sure.”
At some point, 2016’s chart-topping warmth is bound to reverse. The present El Niño is forecast to wane as the spring wears on and a La Niña event, which exerts a cooling effect on the planetary temperature, could kick in later this year or in 2017.
“‘Global warming’ is not a relentless march towards warmer temperature with every month and season and year and decade being warmer than the preceding month and season and decade,” climate scientist Jerry Meehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research told Yulsman. “Human-caused warming due to increasing greenhouse gases can best be seen over the long term so that the internal variations average out, leaving the more steady increase of global temperatures over those longer time scales.”