Report: 2015 hottest year on record, temperatures expected to keep rising

Published: Jan. 20, 2016 at 11:17 PM MST|Updated: Mar. 16, 2016 at 11:45 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - 2015 was the hottest year on record, government weather experts say.

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released new findings on Wednesday, Jan. 20, stating Earth's surface temperatures last year "were the warmest since modern record keeping began in 1880."

The El Niño ocean phenomenon released heat from the ocean into the atmosphere, according to University of Arizona geosciences associate professor Dr. Joellen Russell.

The increase in temperature just from 2014 to 2015 is shocking, said co-director of the UA Institute of the Environment Dr. Jonathan Overpeck.

And 2016 could be even hotter because of the El Niño ocean phenomenon.

"Global warming is ocean warming," Russell said.

Scientists are using the most sophisticated satellites and other devices to watch the world heat up. Russell said it is the world heating, not just the atmosphere. She said 93 percent of heat from global warming is in the ocean.

"So in a year like this year where we have this big El Niño, the ocean is giving back just a tiny fraction of that heat into the atmosphere, which is why we're seeing record warm temperatures this year," Russell said.

How much heat is accumulating in the ocean?

"If the excess heat in the system that's now in the ocean were in the atmosphere, the surface air temperatures - the temperatures we experience - would be 100 degrees warmer," Russell said.

That's 100 degrees Celsius, and more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Russell said excess heat is expected to continue accumulating in the ocean as people create more greenhouse gases that trap heat on Earth.

"If you're thinking about global warming as both the atmosphere and the ocean - every single year warms. We just don't always see the warming in the atmosphere, but we always see it in the ocean," Russell said.

She said as temperatures rise, things change for plants, animals and people. More heat has meant more extreme weather. It also means people need to use more energy and more water for crops.

Imagine America's bread basket having to move north, a huge and expensive undertaking.

"We would find it difficult and we're the richest country in the world. Other nations are going to really suffer, and if people can't feed their kids, they're going to make more extreme choices, and I worry about that," Russell said.

Russell said the world can cut emissions and slow the heating trend so people have time to adapt.

"What's so cool is the U.S. is already (adapting). We're 10 percent off our peak emissions while our economy grew. So we have shown the world that you can de-carbonize your economy and make money at the same time," Russell said.

Both Russell and Overpeck will be participating in the UA College of Science Spring Lecture Series, "Earth Transformed," which will be held at UA Centennial Hall.

Russell's topic on Monday, Jan. 25, will be "The Ocean's Role in Climate: Heat and Carbon Uptake in the Anthropocene."

Overpeck will present on "The Changing Earth: It's Not Just A New Normal" on Monday, March 7. All lectures begin at 7 p.m. and are free and open to the public.

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