The first ten months of 2014 have been the hottest since record keeping began more than 130 years ago, according to new data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That may seem counterintuitive for people in places like Buffalo, New York, which saw a record early snowfall this year. But NOAA says, despite the early bitter cold across some parts of the United States in recent weeks, average global temperatures have been unusually high this year.
Now, with just two months left on the calendar, 2014 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record.
According to NOAA data, the average global temperature between January and October has been 0.68 degrees Celsius (1.22 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than the 20th century’s average global temperature of 14.1 C (57.4 F), surpassing the previous record set in 1998 and 2010.
Notably, these record-breaking warm temperatures have all occurred in the absence of El Niño, a large-scale warming of the eastern and central equatorial Pacific Ocean that generally occurs every five to seven years on average.
Typically, global temperature records are driven by the combination of long-term manmade warming and regional El Niño warming patterns. But as September’s record-setting temperatures show, the influence of human activities is strong enough to drive warming trends even without El Niño’s help.
October’s record-breaking heat
Last month ranked as the hottest October on record, NOAA data showed, marking the third consecutive month and fifth of the past six with a record high global temperature for its respective month (July was fourth highest).
The average global temperature for the month was more than one degree Fahrenheit above the 20th century average of 57.1 F. It was also the fourth warmest October on record for the United States, NOAA said.
“The record high October temperature was driven by warmth across the globe over both the land and ocean surfaces and was fairly evenly distributed between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres,” the agency said.
That’s significant, scientists say, because it shows that this record warmth is not contained to any specific part of the world, demonstrating the magnitude of these warming patterns.
NOAA’s analysis breaks down global temperatures into two categories — land and ocean — then an average that includes both. The record high temperatures in October were recorded across both land and sea.
This month, the surface temperature on land approached a particularly important scientific benchmark. It was almost 2 degrees Celsius higher than the 20th century average for October of 9.3 C (48.7 F).
Scientists have long predicted that a change in global average temperature of just 2 to 3 degrees higher could spell disaster for the planet, contributing to catastrophic storms, sea level rise, dangerous storm surges and melting polar ice.
According to the non-binding international agreement on climate change — the Copenhagen Accord, reached in 2009 — any temperature increase above the 2 degree Celsius mark is “dangerous.”
NOAA said the ocean temperatures were also the warmest on record in October with an increase of 1.12 F over the 20th century average of 60.6 degrees.
“Record warmth for the year-to-date was particularly notable across much of northern and western Europe, parts of Far East Russia, and large areas of the northeastern and western equatorial Pacific Ocean, ” NOAA said. “It is also notable that record warmth was observed in at least some areas of every continent and major ocean basin around the world,” the agency added.
Of particular note, several countries have already seen an average temperature increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius in October 2014 compared to 20th century averages, including Australia, Germany, France, Switzerland, and Sweden.
Other significant climate anomalies recorded last month include a drop in the arctic sea ice extent, which was 9.5 percent below the 1981-2010 average — the sixth smallest October sea ice extent on record — and abnormally high incidences of severe storms, including record-high rainfall levels, in areas such as Japan and India. Meanwhile, warm sea temperatures also paved the way for Hurricane Gonzalo, the first Category 4 hurricane in the Atlantic since 2011.
There was also one notable cold spot on the map: the average temperature this year in the midsection of the United States, which saw a severe winter, has been below the 20th century average.
Deadly heat waves
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heat waves are already the deadliest extreme weather event in the U.S., accounting for more deaths annually than hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined.
Extreme heat is dangerous for everyone, but the elderly, children, the poor and those with pre-existing medical condition are particularly at risk. Those who have outdoor jobs like athletes and laborers are also in danger, as are city dwellers, who face elevated temperatures — known as the “urban heat island effect” — due to the magnifying effect of paved surfaces and the lack of tree cover.
In the United States, an average of 700 deaths per year are directly related to heat, and an estimated 1,800 die from illnesses made worse by heat – including heat exhaustion, heat stroke, cardiovascular disease, and kidney disease. But studies suggest that, if current emissions hold steady, excess heat-related deaths in the U.S. could climb from an average of about 700 each year currently, to between 3,000 and 5,000 per year by 2050.