2014 Was the Warmest Year On Record, NASA and NOAA Say

January 16, 2015
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In this 2011 photo, the dried lake bed of Lake E.V. Spence is shown in Robert Lee, Texas. The lake that is quickly drying out in this drought-stricken region that see triple-digit heat daily is the main source of water for the small rural community that has a population of 1049. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The nation’s leading climate scientists declared 2014 the warmest year in recorded history on Friday, saying average global temperatures reached their highest levels since the start of official data keeping in 1880.

Scientists from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said that the combined average for land and ocean surfaces in 2014 rose 1.24 degrees Fahrenheit above the average for the 20th century, breaking the previous records set in 2005 and 2010.

But the main takeaway, say climate scientists, is not that 2014 was the warmest on record, but that it continued an even longer-term trend of rising global temperatures. Nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000, according to NOAA, and of the top 20 warmest years on record, 14 have occurred since the turn of the 20th century.

One reason why that’s important is that it would appear to undercut a key argument of climate change skeptics who have questioned the science of global warming by pointing to periods of time where the climate appears to be cooling.

Critics call that argument “going down the up escalator” and argue that it relies on being selective with the data. They say if you choose one particular start date and another particular end date, you can find cooling trends within the overall history of temperature records. “But actually, the whole thing has been moving up,” Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told FRONTLINE correspondent John Hockenberry in the below scene from 2012’s Climate of Doubt.

On Friday, Schmidt reiterated the point in a conference call with reporters.

“The specific year, which one is a record versus which one is not a record, is not attributable to greenhouse gases per say,” said Schmidt in response to a question about how much rising temperatures in a given year can be tied to greenhouse gas emissions. “But the long-term trend … the kind of bumps and wiggles, that is attributable,” said Schmidt.

Other key highlights from Friday’s announcement:

  • 2014 was the first time since 1990 that a global temperature record was broken in the absence of El Niño — a weather phenomenon that generally increases temperatures around the world.
  • Record warmth was widespread, as above-average temperatures were observed in far east Russia, the western United States, the interior of South America, broad swaths of Europe, North Africa and east and west Australia.
  • The average sea surface temperature in 2014 was 1.03 degrees above the 20th century average, the highest reading since 1880.
  • In 2014, the average land surface temperature was 1.80 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average for the 20th century, the fourth highest mark since 1880.
  • The month of December also set new records for global temperatures. Average land and ocean surface temperatures were 1.39 F, the most in recorded history, surpassing the previous record from 2006 by 0.04 F.

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