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We're Changing the Climate at an 'Unprecedented' Rate

The rate of change to Earth's climate is unlike any time in modern history, says the World Meteorological Organization, as US and UK researchers say carbon emissions are higher than in 66 million years.

by Elaisha Stokes
Mar 21 2016, 9:00pm

Imagen por John Giles/AP

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Hardly a week goes by anymore without some scientific agency reporting that Earth has surpassed some sort of alarming threshold: biggest monthly temperature anomaly, lowest amount of sea ice in the Arctic, highest wind speeds of any tropical storm, quickest pace of sea level rise.

But two new reports are especially alarming, even for the generally catastrophic subject of human-induced global warming: The rate of climate change is "unprecedented" in recorded history, according to the World Meteorological Agency and, said a group of American and British researchers, the amount of carbon emissions today is likely greater than at any point in the last 66 million years.

"The future is happening now," said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. "The alarming rate of change we are now witnessing in our climate as a result of greenhouse gas emissions is unprecedented in modern records."

Global average surface temperatures in 2015 were 0.76 degrees Celsius above the 1961-1990 average. Russia and China had their warmest years ever. Heat waves rippled across the globe. Temperatures reached 47C (116F) during a hot spell in India in late May, causing 2,500 deaths and decimating livestock.

Global rainfall was close to average, but there were anomalous events that the agency attributed to a warming climate. Sorman, Libya received 90 mm (3.5 inches) of rain in a single day in September, compared to the usual monthly average of just 8 mm (0.3 inches).

The oceans also warmed. Measurements 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) below the surface were the hottest ever recorded. Arctic sea ice extent was the lowest ever recorded, although that record has already been broken this year.Some of the extremes can be attributed to El Niño, which occurs every two to seven years and can trigger devastating weather events across the globe.

"Not only did we have a strong El Niño this year, but it was surging on top of a global warming trend," explained Michael Oppenheimer a professor of geosciences at Princeton University "The two things combined gave us an impressively hot year."

Whether or not climate change will create stronger El Niño's in the future, he said, remains uncertain. "Global warming builds over decades," he said. "You don't see the full consequence of today's emissions until several decades into the future. Simply put, we don't know what is to come."

Related: We've Passed Peak El Niño — But Many More Months of Extreme Weather Is Likely

Rising global temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events are driven by human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. And because of human activity, emissions are now higher than at any time in the last 66 million years, according to research published in Nature Geoscience.

About 56 million years ago, during a period called the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), Earth warmed by 5C because of a spike in carbon dioxide, an event that scientists say closely resembles what humans are doing to the atmosphere due to all the coal were burning for power, gas were consuming to move our vehicles, and trees we cut down for any number of reasons. The carbon release way back then occurred over 4,000 years — a relative blip on the geologic timescale — but caused a massive die off of marine organisms. But there's an important difference between now and then: Carbon emissions during the PETM were 0.6 to 1.1 billion tonnes per year; modern-day carbon emissions, however, are now estimated to be 10 billion tonnes per year.

Last year's record-breaking temperatures were just a dose of what's to come, said Heidi Cullen, a scientist at Climate Central, a non-profit that conducts research and produces news about global climate change.

"We are witnessing a profound transformation of our climate system," she said. "The sooner we begin to transition to a low carbon economy, the fewer impacts we will pass on to future generations."

Oppenheimer said human influence on the climate needs to be scaled back quickly.

"We're already steering the ship," he said. "What we should be doing is slowing it down."

Related: Ban Ki-moon Says It's Time for Investors to Cut Some Checks for Renewable Energy

Follow Elaisha Stokes on Twitter: @ElaishaStokes

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