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Despite the Deep Freeze on the US East Coast, This Winter Was the Hottest on Record

The three-month stretch from December through February was the warmest ever recorded, according the US National Climate Data Center.

by Matt Smith
Mar 19 2015, 9:05pm

Photo by John Schults/Reuters

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It may not make shivering Northeasterners feel any better, but their miserable winter wasn't shared by the rest of the planet.

The three-month stretch from December through February was the warmest on record, the US National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) reported this week. Average global temperatures were 0.79 degrees Celsius (1.42 Fahrenheit) above the 20th century average, the highest mark since record keeping began in 1880. February's average alone was 0.82 degrees Celsius (1.48 Fahrenheit) above the last century's benchmark, the second highest on record for the month.

While the heavy snowfalls on the US East Coast and even parts of the South got a lot of attention this winter, the American West, Europe, and most of Russia had a warmer-than-average winter. Parts of Siberia saw average temperatures five degrees Celsius (nine Fahrenheit) above normal.

"I had a meeting over in London — it was in mid-February — and people there were saying, 'Oh, what a nice, early spring,' " Donald Wuebbles, a University of Illinois atmospheric science professor and co-author of last year's National Climate Report, told VICE News.

The latest figures "are a nice indication that things are continuing to happen," Wuebbles said. But he added: "It's only one indicator of the many things happening in the Earth's climate system that we expect to continue."

Related: Watch a weeks' worth of Senator Ted Cruz denying climate change

Scientists expect that the increasing global temperatures — up an average of about 0.8 degree Celsius (1.4 Fahrenheit) since 1880, and forecast to rise at least two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) by 2100 — will bring more extreme storms and droughts and an increase in global sea levels, with consequences falling disproportionately on the world's poor.

"We're seeing an ever-increasing tendency toward more severe weather," Wuebbles said. "We're getting more severe precipitation ... That's the real harm — that, and sea-level rise."

A long-awaited but weak El Nino, the periodic wave of Pacific Ocean warmth, finally emerged in February. That may bring some hope of rainfall to drought-wracked California, where officials announced new water restrictions this week after a disappointingly dry winter.

But a warmer ocean could also mean more intense tropical cyclones like the one that smashed into the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu this month. Scientists say they can't hang any specific storm on climate change — but warmer temperatures load the dice toward more extreme events.

And after global temperatures edged out a previous high to make 2014 the warmest year on record, the first two months of 2015 were also the warmest January-February period on the books. While the Great Lakes, northeastern Canada and the far northern Atlantic saw record lows, record highs stood out across the western US, the western Atlantic Ocean, and southwestern Pacific.

"Nine of the past 12 months have been either warmest or second-warmest on record for their respective months," reported to the NCDC, an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Only November, July, and March 2014 weren't in the top two, the agency said.

In the Southern Hemisphere, where it's been summer for the past three months, land and surface temperatures were both higher than average. Australia recorded its second-warmest February and its fifth-warmest summer behind the record year 2013, when a devastating heat wave wracked the land Down Under.

In the Arctic, the sea ice that surrounds the North Pole was more than six percent smaller than the average for the 30 years between 1981 and 2010. That's the third lowest since satellites started keeping track of the northern icecap in 1979.

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On the other end of the planet, the sea ice around Antarctica was more than 21 percent above average, continuing a streak of recent high numbers that climate change deniers have pointed to in hopes of discrediting the scientific consensus on warming.

But that increase involves "rather small" area and most likely the result of changes in wind patterns in the Antarctic, Wuebbles said.

"It's not a big deal on the global climate system scale, and it's much smaller than the decrease in sea ice that we've seen in the Arctic," he said. In the meantime, scientists now believe that the land ice that covers Antarctica is increasingly endangered by warmer oceans lapping at its edges — a problem with far greater implications for sea levels than the formation of sea ice.

The idea that the buildup of carbon emissions in the atmosphere is warming the planet is accepted as fact by an overwhelming majority of scientists. But it remains politically controversial, and many leading Republicans reject the concept outright. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who leads a subcommittee that oversees NASA, said last week that he wants to force the agency to shift resources away from Earth science, while Oklahoma's James Inhofe — the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — brought a snowball onto the chamber's floor last month to somehow demonstrate that a Washington blizzard disproved the scientific consensus.

Related: Watch Senator James Inhofe throw a snowball on the Senate floor to prove climate change doesn't exist

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl