2016: The Year Climate Change Got Crazy

Paul YoungEnvironment8 Comments

2016… it’s felt like living in a history book at times. The spate of iconic celebrity deaths. The earthquakes. And of course, the disruptive politics of Brexit, Donald Trump, and now for New Zealanders, the unexpected resignation of our Prime Minister. It almost makes you wonder if everything is connected somehow…

Against this backdrop, one of the year’s most important news stories has struggled for airtime: the profound changes happening to our planet. As the Earth continues to heat up, in 2016 we’ve seen increasingly clear signs of ‘climate disruption’.

A new new record

Before the year is through, both NASA and the World Meteorological Organisation say it is set to be the hottest on record. 2016 will take the title off 2015, which itself dethroned 2014. Noticing a pattern here?

For the year up to October, global temperatures are approximately 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels, edging ever closer to the 1.5°C line the world agreed to aim to stay below in the Paris Agreement. Driven by a strong El Niño on top of the long-term warming trend, the early months of the year came very close to breaching this limit for the first time. It will very likely be breached within a decade and on current trends, we’d expect the annual average to hit 1.5°C in 20-30 years’ time. This goes to show how little time we have to get carbon emissions drastically down.


This is pretty much global-warming-as-usual, but it’s what is currently happening at the poles that has some people freaking out.

Sea ice in unchartered territory

The unprecedented situation with global sea ice was drawn to attention when graphs like this started circulating on Twitter:


Source: James Renwick via Twitter

Scientists have been measuring the area of sea ice using satellites since 1979. As you can see in the graph, up until this year the total global sea ice extent [1] had followed a broadly similar pattern within a range. But the last two months have seen a divergence from that pattern into completely new territory. Compared to the 1981-2010 average, there is around 4 million square kilometres of sea ice missing – that’s roughly fifteen New Zealands. What is going on?

Firstly, this graph combines the sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, which are really different systems. To understand what we’re seeing we need to look at these separately. You can explore the full data yourself in the National Snow & Ice Data Centre’s great interactive tool here. The graphs below, comparing the November sea ice area since records began, give an immediate picture of what’s up.


Source: NSIDC. Note the y-axes do not start at zero.

Arctic – melting moments

Arctic sea ice area has been in decline since records began, and 2016 has continued that trend. While the September minimum was higher than in 2012, October and November have seen record lows due to exceptionally warm conditions.

Source: Carbon Brief from NSIDC data

Normally, the sea ice is rapidly regrowing during this period as the sun disappears and the Arctic heads into winter. But twice in the last two months, the sea ice extent has actually briefly declined with more melting than growing. Sea ice scientists said this was “almost unprecedented”.

There is no real mystery about what caused this – a combination of warmer air, warmer oceans, and wind patterns pushing the ice north. Air temperature in some areas of the Arctic has been an incredible 20°C warmer than normal (but still below freezing), while a blob of cold Arctic air has been displaced over Siberia. Events like this are related to the polar jet stream – a band of strong wind in the upper atmosphere encircling the pole –

which scientists agree may be being impacted by climate change.

Antarctic – the winds of change

The Antarctic sea ice story has been more mysterious and complex, and what we are seeing now is downright weird. As the earlier graph showed, Antarctic sea ice extent has actually had a slight increasing trend for the last decade or so. This year’s sudden drop – the lowest November extent by far – sticks out like a sore thumb.

Climate scientist Professor James Renwick explains in a blog post on Hot Topic that sea ice trends in the Antarctic have so far been driven by wind and circulation patterns, and the same likely applies to what we are seeing now. When I spoke to Dr Renwick he said it is possible that the recent trend was simply down to natural variability, and that most scientists expect the long-term global warming trend to take over at some point leading to a decline in Antarctic sea ice. It is too early to say whether what we are seeing now is the beginning of that or simply an anomaly. One thing’s for sure: there is plenty of work to do for the scientists studying this.

Expect the unexpected

We should be very concerned about the changes we are seeing at the poles for a number of reasons. Disappearing sea ice is not only a sign of a rapidly warming world, it accelerates this very process by increasing the amount of solar energy the Earth absorbs (because water is darker than ice). The impacts will be not only local, but wide-ranging – on weather patterns and ecological systems, for example – potentially triggering new feedback effects of which we are not yet aware.

More broadly, the dramatic changes we have seen this year are a reminder and warning that climate change is not a smooth, linear process. The Earth is a highly complex, nonlinear system. As long as we keep dumping carbon into the atmosphere and allow global warming to continue, we can expect more of this type of climate disruption.

With climate change, as with so much else, 2016 should teach us to expect the unexpected.


[1] Sea ice extent is defined as the total area where the sea ice concentration is at least 15 percent.

2016: The Year Climate Change Got Crazy was last modified: February 8th, 2017 by Paul Young
About the Author

Paul Young

Paul Young joined the Morgan Foundation in 2015. Paul has an academic background in physics and maths, and graduated with a Master's degree from University of Otago where he researched ocean wave power. He is one of the founders of Generation Zero - a Kiwi youth organisation that advocates for action on climate change. He is passionate about the role New Zealand can play in leading the way to a thriving zero carbon future. Paul conducts research for the Morgan Foundation on climate change and other issues, and writes the occasional blog post.

8 Comments on “2016: The Year Climate Change Got Crazy”

  1. Thanks Paul, of course melting of polar and sub-polar ice is accompanied by changing polar albedo, expulsion
    of permafrost methane and ice gas clathrates from continental shelves, all strong positive feedbacks in the climate system. With
    ocean acidification, these ‘smoking gun’ tipping points of previous mass
    extinctions are the stuff of climate scientists’ nightmares – an inconvenient
    truth of our fossil fuel addiction. It’s
    not for lack of warning though. We’ve known the truth for decades, despite
    well-funded lies from fossil fuel majors and cronies in media and government.
    We have wasted much precious time, when humanity faces the biggest challenge in
    our brief history. Continuing support for fossil fuels, including perverse
    subsidies, is delaying the critical transition to viable alternatives here and elsewhere.

    1. Thanks Lyndon. Yes, I neglected to mention the permafrost and hydrate feedback risks. Having read a lot of peer-reviewed papers on both of those I remain hopeful they can remain largely corked under a rapid emissions reduction scenario that keeps warming well below 2C. But the uncertainties around these and other feedbacks should make us very uncomfortable and drive extremely strong and immediate action.

  2. That first graph I find terrifying! Global temperature risen over 0.37C since 2010 – if that trend continues, we only got another six years before we hit the 1.5C “stay alive” ceiling of the Paris Agreement. Scary thing is that curve is looking exponential… what do we need to do to slow/stop this trend?

    1. Hi Sarah. I wouldn’t read too much into the short-term trends in air temperatures over just a few years – this is the same logic that led deniers to erroneously argue “global warming stopped in 1998” etc. We really need to look at the trend over a 20-30 year period, which is close to linear.

      The 2015/16 temperature spike was driven by the strong El Niño (peaking in February), which is correlated with an increase in global average air temperatures. It was a similar strength El Niño to what occurred in 1997/98. We’d expect global temperatures to drop back a bit in 2017 to around 1 degree C (http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/why-we-dont-know-if-it-will-be-sunny-next-month-but-we-know-itll-be-hot-all-year/). But this still doesn’t leave us much time.

      To slow the trend we need immediate and rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. To stop it, we actually need to get emissions of the long-lived gases – CO2, nitrous oxide and others – all the way to zero (or balance these out with carbon sinks). In order to stop warming below the 1.5 degree limit, the world would need to do this by 2050 or sooner, as well as find ways to economically suck lots of CO2 out of the atmosphere to make up for lost time.

      The hopeful news is that research finds it is still doable if we want to (see http://climateanalytics.org/latest/the-ten-most-important-short-term-steps-to-limit-warming-to-15c). And growth in global emissions has now stalled for the last three years, due mainly to rapid changes in China. But governments including ours have a long way to go from the scale of action required, so as citizens we need to mobilise and organise to force them to take action.

  3. Thanks for sharing Paul. NZ’s record on carbon emissions reduction under National, and before them Labour, has been downright criminal. As a legacy for future generations to live on planet Earth it ain’t gonna look good for golden boy John Key and his cronies, or for Helen. The Green Party has called for urgent action, and had the policies in place, for years and years. In my time in NZ, from 1998 until present, (basically since the Kyoto Treaty), our emissions have climbed year on year. Only creative accounting techniques have helped the figures look less damaging – think Emissions Trading Scheme.

    The solutions are of course multi-fold, but at the very top is a carbon tax to replace the completely flawed and failed ETS. The ETS sums up virtually everything that is wrong about crony capitalism and the money men thinking of clever ways of trying to dupe the public and keep the big polluters happy and the subsidies to fossil fuels going. On the other hand, a global carbon tax is as simple, transparent and non-discriminatory policy as it gets. Start at say $30 a tonne of carbon in 2017 rising by $10 a year, year on year, and in this way every country and every business has absolute certainty as to the cost of doing business now and into the future. The billions, actually trillions of dollars raised, will pay for the renewable energy to come on line super fast and for all the other actions we need to take collectively to move to low, ultra-low, or carbon neutral economies.

    NB;History lesson. The carbon tax was always going to the ultra-simple way to tackle carbon emissions, but ironically it was Al Gore himself, negotiating on behalf of the U.S. in the 1990s that insisted on dumping the tax in favour of the ETS. ETS’s allow the big polluting countries and corporations in the West to keep on expanding their business and profits at the expense of planet earth. The evidence of its epic failure over the subsequent 20 years is for all to see with global emissions continuing to rise year on year. The ultimate insult to all this was of course, that the U.Ss having shafted the carbon tax and demanded an ETS then under the Bush administration promptly bailed out of Kyoto anyway – haha!

    On a global scale, the other policy to address the issue of climate justice is that of “Contraction and Convergence”. Again it is disarmingly simple and transparent policy. Basically, using per capita allocations of carbon footprints, each country is allocated a carbon footprint allowance to aim towards over time. Initially i.e. now (or preferably starting 20 years a go), the West has a massive over allocation as our economies are so vastly damaging and over the capacity of the earth to handle/absorb, and the developing countries are still actually under that capacity. So over a period of decades, say twenty to thirty years, the West has to radically reduce its carbon footprint (the contraction bit – think 80% reductions) and the poor countries are allowed a slight increase, until such time that each and every country in the world has converged to the same per capita carbon footprint. That is fair and equitable, and the billions of dollars required to make it happen comes from the West, the very countries that historically and still to this day are responsible for the vast majority of the pollution. Check out articles in the Pacific Economist (an awesome publication) for more details.

    1. Those are two great policies but dauntingly difficult to implement until it is too late. Might it be easier to get a group of countries to set a target of, say, half the current US per head figure?

  4. I fear we are toast. The WAIS has passed it’s tipping point, global overall temperatures are out of control… and those permafrost protected methane sources are about to get loose; the methhane hydrates are soon to follow. We won’t mention how overpopulated our planet is with humans.

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