"Climate scientists concluded that 2015 would have been a record-breaking hot year even without an El Niño assist, and 2014 broke the previous record without any El Niño assist at all," explained Nuccitelli. "[Penn State professor] Michael Mann estimated that the record-breaking months in early 2016 could be attributed roughly half to global warming and half to El Niño and other weather fluctuations. So El Niño and global warming are both significant contributors to the record heat."
In addition, of course, the two are not exactly separable, in that a warming world creates the conditions for more frequent extreme El Niño events.
But after El Niño comes La Niña, which tends to have contrary effects. Indeed, added Nuccitelli, "we're coming out of a period where we saw a short-term slowdown in the rate of global surface warming due to a preponderance of La Niña events since 1999." And another La Niña is almost upon us, which means that 2017 is almost certain to be cooler than the last couple of years. Even if that's the case, however, expect warming to resume its upward trajectory again thereafter.
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But, predicted Nuccitelli, such has been the combined effect of climate change and a monster El Niño over the last couple of years.
"I think it will be several years before we get another record-breaker," he said. "We may not break the record again until we get another strong El Niño, and we can't predict when that will happen. However, we'll certainly see another record-breaking hot year in the relatively near future, because global warming is still happening."
And because of that global warming, the underlying trend will not improve until we do something to address it. That is the important issue, which is why the problem with repeated "new monthly record" articles is what happens when the record-breaking comes to a halt for a while.
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"The myth of the warming "pause" should remind us that it's unwise to put too much focus on short-term global surface temperature changes, when the long-term global warming trend is what we're really worried about," emphasized Nuccitelli.
"We saw something similar in recent years with Arctic sea ice. 2012 shattered the previous record low for summer Arctic sea ice extent, and in 2013 and 2014, when the record wasn't broken again, there were suddenly numerous stories in conservative media outlets claiming that sea ice had "recovered" when in reality over the long-term, we'd lost about 70 percent of Arctic sea ice over a period of just three decades. I have no doubt that when 2017 doesn't break the temperature record, we'll see the same conservative media outlets claiming that temperatures are cooling and we don't have to worry about global warming anymore."
Which is not to say that this particular streak of record months and years is without any kind of significance. After all, if 2016 breaks the record as expected, this will be the first time on record (since the mid-to-late 1800s) that we'll have experienced three consecutive record-breaking hot years -- and that's a period that covers multiple El Niño events, including some monsters. Within the broader context, that's significant.
"Over the past several years, we've heard a lot of arguments from people who are in denial about the problem, claiming that global warming magically went away and we don't have to worry about it anymore," noted Nuccitelli. "The record-shattering heat over the past three years has completely debunked those arguments. It's a sign that we need to stop listening to the delayers and start getting serious about curbing the carbon pollution that's responsible for global warming."
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