2019 Capped the Hottest Decade on Record

Global temperatures in 2019 averaged 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, according to the data.

Global temperatures in 2019 averaged 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, according to the data. Shutterstock

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The past decade was the hottest in recorded history, and 2019 was the second-warmest year, according to data released Wednesday by NOAA and NASA.

The past decade was the planet’s warmest, with global temperatures averaging 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, according to data released Wednesday by the federal government.

“The decade that just ended is clearly the warmest decade on record,” Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in a statement. “Every decade since the 1960s clearly has been warmer than the one before.”

The data on last year’s global climate trends was released jointly by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, federal agencies that collect and analyze global temperature data to produce separate and independent reports. Consistency between the two, and between analyses from other countries, “increases confidence in the accuracy and assessment of the data and resulting conclusions,” the agencies said in a press release.

According to their findings, 2019 was the second-hottest year on record, trailing only 2016. Each of the previous five years rank among the planet’s hottest, and 19 of the hottest 20 years have occurred in the past two decades.

The average global surface temperature is now more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit above what it was in the late 19th century, and has risen every decade since 1880, with the rate of increase doubling after 1981. Those steadily warming temperatures are evidence of human-driven climate change, researchers said, propelled by increased emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It is likely to persist, they predicted.

“We crossed over into more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit warming territory in 2015 and we are unlikely to go back,” Schmidt said. “This shows that what’s happening is persistent, not a fluke due to some weather phenomenon. We know that the long-term trends are being driven by the increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

Part of the reason that researchers are confident in that assessment is their ability to remove data points that specifically relate to human activity and focus solely on natural climate influences, including volcanoes and solar cycles, Schmidt said. Those permutations result in “massive discrepancies” with the current climate conditions.

“That tells us that the natural forces are not capable of explaining the trends that we’ve seen since the 19th century,” he said Wednesday on a press call.

The western, southwestern and southeastern United States all experienced above average temperatures in 2019, with pockets of record warmth scattered throughout the country. North Carolina and Georgia had their warmest years ever, while Florida, South Carolina and Virginia notched their second-hottest years on record. Alaska also had its warmest year on record, with an average temperature of 32.2 degrees, more than 6 degrees higher than normal. 

Those warming trends have tangible consequences. The United States in 2019 had 14 weather and climate-related disasters with at least $1 billion in damage, the fifth consecutive year with 10 or more billion-dollar events. Those disasters accounted for $45 billion in direct losses, including $4.5 billion from wildfires in California and Alaska, $20 billion from floods and $14 billion from severe storms, according to the data.

It’s an alarming trend, Schmidt said, and one that’s likely to continue until the country takes widespread action to curtail emissions.

“The fact is that the planet is warming,” he said. “This is going to be part of what we see every year until we stabilize greenhouse gases.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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