2017 Was The Second Or Third Warmest Year On Record. It Depends On Who You Ask

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Government scientists declared Thursday that 2017 was among the top three warmest years for the world on record, cooling about one-tenth of a degree Celsius from the record warmth of 2016.

NASA ranked 2017 as the second-warmest on record at 0.9 degrees Celsius above the 1951 to 1980 mean, while scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.K.’s Met Office said last year’s global average temperature was the third warmest on record. NOAA’s records go back to 1880 and the Met Office’s go back to 1850.

“2015, 2016 and 2017 were the three warmest years in the series,” Met Office scientist Colin Morice said in a statement. “In addition to the continuing sizable contribution from the release of greenhouse gases, 2015 and 2016 were boosted by the effect of a strong El Niño, which straddled both years.”

“However, 2017 is notable because the high temperatures continued despite the absence of El Niño and the onset of its cool counterpart, La Niña,” Morice said of the new global temperature data.

Divergences between NASA and NOAA data largely comes from how they treat the Arctic. NOAA doesn’t consider the Arctic in its global dataset, while NASA does. Added Arctic warming means that NASA’s data runs slightly hotter than NOAA’s.


The New York Times boldly stated that “unlike 2016, last year’s warmth was not aided by El Niño, the Pacific weather pattern that is usually linked to record-setting heat.” The Washington Post also reported that 2017 was “not substantially influenced by the periodic El Nino phenomenon.” But is this a totally accurate picture of 2017?

El Ninos occur periodically and can strongly influence global average temperature. During El Ninos, Pacific trade winds reverse, bringing warm water to typically colder areas and releasing pent-up heat into the atmosphere.

A recent study found a strong El Nino largely contributed to a 0.24 degree Celsius jump in global average temperature from 2014 to 2016. The Met Office estimated El Nino added o.2 degrees to 2016’s temperature, while NASA estimated it added 0.12 degrees.

Regardless, El Nino’s effects can persist, even in years where no technical El Nino forms. These “teleconnections” can have far-reaching impacts on weather outside the tropics.

NASA and NOAA scientists said most of the warmth in the past few years has come from the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but the strong El Nino played a major role boosting temperatures to record levels.

That aside, last year did see a near-El Nino just before the summer. In fact, NOAA forecasters gave a 50 to 60 percent chance of an El Nino forming in 2017.

Of course, a technical La Nina didn’t occur, but NOAA data shows there were strong El Nino-like conditions in the tropics. By the end of the year, a weak La Nina, which can cool global temperatures, had formed.

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