On Thursday, a city in northern India experienced the highest temperature ever recorded in the country – a scorching 51°C (123.8°F). The Asian subcontinent is notorious for its lethal heat waves, but Thursday’s temp was unprecedented in its intensity, overtaking the previous record-holder (50.6°C) set in 1956.
On Friday, BP Yadav, a director of India’s meteorological department, confirmed to the Guardian that the 51°C recorded in Phalodi, a city in the desert state of Rajasthan, was the hottest temperature in Indian history. “Severe heat wave” warnings have been issued across northern and western India, typically the hottest regions in the country, and several hundred Indians are already estimated to have died from the year’s heatwave.
At this time last year, temperatures in India rose two to five degrees higher than the seasonal average. Approximately 1,500 people succumbed to heat-related deaths, with more than 1,000 dying in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. “This is the highest death toll due to heatwave ever in the state,” Tulasi Rani, the special commissioner for disaster management in Andhra Pradesh, said in 2015. “Last year around 447 people died due to heat. This year the heatwave is continuing for a longer period than in previous years.”
Spurred by a long-gestating El Niño, 2015 was later confirmed as the hottest year on record, breaking the global heat record set just one year before. Indeed, since the 21st century began, heat records have been set and broken with alarming regularity. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have all occurred since 2000.
Global temperature records stretch back 136 years, and the last time the planet experienced a record cold year was in 1909.
Global Heat Wave Is on a 12-Month Streak
When NOAA reported that April 2016 was the warmest April on record earlier this week, it marked the twelfth consecutive month of record-breaking temperatures.
That means that, since April 2015, the global average temperature for each month has overtaken its respective record-holder. May 2015 was the hottest May on record, June 2015 was the hottest June on record, and so on and so forth until last month. May 2016 may very well break the 2015 record-breaker, and put 2016 on course to become the new hottest year on record – and possibly by the highest margin ever.
With Apr update, 2016 still > 99% likely to be a new record (assuming historical ytd/ann patterns valid). pic.twitter.com/GTN9sPL2D7
— Gavin Schmidt (@ClimateOfGavin) May 14, 2016
The recent wave of record-breakers is being massaged by El Niño, but scientists have pointed out that the 2015-2016 El Niño is not the biggest of its kind. That means that these increasingly hotter years have a high correlation with global warming. Of course, some scientists are willing to be more frank about the situation.
— Stefan Rahmstorf (@rahmstorf) May 15, 2016
“Climate scientists have been warning about this since at least the 1980s. And it’s been bloody obvious since the 2000s. So where’s the surprise?” said Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
Pitman spoke to the Guardian about the inertia of greenhouse gases that have built up in the atmosphere, and suggested that the planet will warm by more than 1.5°C by the end of this century no matter what measures are taken. Last year, international leaders met at Paris COP21 to discuss limiting emissions enough to keep global warming below 2°C. Without drastic reductions in carbon and methane emissions, that goal may soon be impossible.
Meanwhile, the effects of higher average temperatures are already taking their toll on the environment and human health. Wildfires are increasing in frequency and intensity; the oceans are becoming warmer and more acidic, leading to widespread coral bleaching and the formation of dead zones; drought in the Middle East exacerbated the Syrian Civil War and the ensuing refugee crisis; meanwhile, drought in California cost the state $2.7 billion in agricultural losses.
Meanwhile, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump believes global warming was made up by the Chinese, and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton wants to keep mining for coal.
So good night, America, and good luck.