NASA's Goddard Director Explains What Really Matters In 2016's Extraordinary Temperature Data

For the third consecutive year, NASA and NOAA have announced record high temperatures. It's upsetting yet unsurprising, given the dearth of damns we seem to give about the state of our planet. As Gizmodo previously reported, temperatures were 0.04C higher last year than they were in 2015 — but the real reason this matters isn't because the planet's thermostat suddenly spiked. The overarching, disturbing trend is indisputable.

Image credit: Andreas Weith/CC-AS 4.0

Moreover, that trend shows no signs of stopping, because neither do we. Though overwhelming evidence points to human activity as a critical cause of global climate change — after all, we're the ones burning fossil fuels and releasing all of that heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere — some people in power think it's all a hoax. Created by the Chinese. Because reasons.

Image credit: NASA/NOAA

While it's natural to get wrapped up in the immediate shock of seeing another record-breaking year, Gavin Schmidt, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, thinks there's something critical about 2016 that's being largely overlooked in a world obsessed with the present.

"I'm not sure how important it is that one year is hottest, or that we've had three in a row," Schmidt told Gizmodo. "These things are unusual, of course. But the real important thing that will give us the most information for the future are the long term trends."

To understand where we are — and more importantly, where we're headed — Schmidt said we should be focusing on data that shows how much the Earth has warmed since the Industrial Revolution. According to NASA, the global temperature has increased 0.9C since 1880. Over that same time frame, carbon dioxide levels have dramatically increased, from roughly 280 to 405.25 parts per million — the highest they have been in 650,000 years.

It doesn't take a clairvoyant to know where we're headed. The hard data collected by satellites and ocean buoys — coupled with paleoclimate data that tells us about Earth's warming trends over millions of years — informs us that what we're seeing now isn't natural. The fact that nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000 should be a big hint, too.

Image Credit: NASA

"If you don't want to look at things that are kind of ephemeral, you have to be focusing on the long-term trends, and the long-term trends are very clear," Schmidt said. "We've warmed over a degree Celsius, or like, two degrees Fahrenheit since the 19th century. And we're already seeing the impacts of that."

A cursory Google search confirms that Schmidt is right: Climate change is already happening, and the impacts are measurable. Sea levels are rising, droughts are intensifying and precipitation is increasing in several regions across the world. There are signs that warming is already causing more intense natural disasters, including stronger hurricanes in Hawaii and deadly snowstorms in Nepal.

"Climate change is not just something for the future, or something just scientists should be talking about," Schmidt said. He declined to comment on how President Trump, a noted climate change denier, could impact the future of NASA's research on the subject. Still, one doesn't have to work for NASA to see the obvious threats Trump and his administration pose to Earth and space scientists who depend on NASA funding for their research. In November, one of Trump's senior advisers, Robert Walker, said the incoming US administration would gut NASA's climate research departments, which he accused of promoting "politicized science".

Walker said NASA should focus on deep space exploration rather than "politically correct environmental monitoring".

While the onslaught of headlines about record-breaking climate and weather events, coupled with an incoming administration that doesn't seem to care, makes it easy to feel like we're screwed, Schmidt emphasised there are still plenty of actions we can make at the personal and legislative level to undo some of the damage. Investing in renewable energy and "greening" existing buildings are just a few steps we can take to create real change. Change won't happen overnight, but if we all start adopting a long-term mentality about our future, just as scientists do when they want to place one freaky year in context, we can still build a more sustainable planet.

"The future is yet unwritten," Schmidt said, "and we still do have leverage over what is written."

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