2023 Broke Temperature Records. Will 2024 Be Even More Extreme?

Climate scientists have confirmed that last year’s heat was unprecedented, surpassing records by a wide margin—but it could be one of the coolest years to come

a living saguaro cactus and a dead one against a blue sky
In the extreme heat of summer 2023, saguaro cactuses died in Arizona. Mario Tama / Getty Images

Not only has 2023 officially claimed the title of the hottest year on record—exceeding the prior record set in 2016—but it did so by an incredible margin, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) announced Tuesday. And as hot as it was last year, many scientists expect the heat to rise in 2024.

Even before the year ended, C3S experts had already projected 2023 would be record-setting. But now, the agency has confirmed that 2023’s mean global temperature was 1.48 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average. Each month from June to December slashed records as the hottest one of its kind.

“It was record-breaking for seven months. We had the warmest June, July, August, September, October, November, December,” says Samantha Burgess, deputy director of Copernicus, to Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press (AP). She adds that 2023 didn’t earn its place at the top of the charts for a single “exceptional” season or month. “It was exceptional for over half the year.”

The scientists’ calculations indicate the average global temperature in 2023 was 14.98 degrees Celsius (nearly 59 degrees Fahrenheit)—just over one-sixth of a degree Celsius higher than the previous record set in 2016. Though it’s just a fraction of a degree, this jump was an “exceptionally large margin for the new record,” writes the AP.

For the first time in recorded history, each day of the year was at least 1 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial level, which represents temperatures from 1850 to 1900. And for the first time, two days during the year—November 17 and 18—were the first to reach more than 2 degrees Celsius above that norm.

“The timing could not be more urgent,” Brenda Ekwurzel, the director of climate science for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told CNN’s Rachel Ramirez in December.

a map showing global temperature anomaly in June 2023—red, representing warmer than usual areas, covers much of the globe
A map of the global temperature anomaly in June 2023, which was the hottest June on record. NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies

Last year’s temperatures were primarily driven by human-caused climate change and the El Niño weather pattern, which has a global warming effect, per the AP. At the same time, natural ocean variations, increased solar activity and the 2022 eruption of an underwater volcano in Tonga contributed to the heat.

Despite 2023’s record-setting weather, some experts say it may very well rank among the coolest years to come. The upcoming year is likely to be even warmer than the last as El Niño continues, Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, tells Axios’ Andrew Freedman.

2024 is “very, very likely to be top three, if not the record,” says Emily J. Becker, a climate scientist at the University of Miami, to the New York Times’ Raymond Zhong and Keith Collins.

In December, the United Kingdom’s Met Office predicted that 2024 could become the first year ever documented to surpass a global average temperature of 1.5 degrees Celsius—the internationally agreed-upon benchmark for limiting warming.

Other scientists, however, are more conservative with predictions for this year. Michelle L’Heureux, an El Niño forecaster with NOAA, tells Axios that this El Niño could give way to a La Niña event in the spring, bringing cooler temperatures to the Pacific.

Copernicus scientists are still calling for nations to reach net-zero carbon emissions as soon as possible to lower the risk of more record-setting years.

Unless emissions are quickly cut, temperatures will continue to rise and bring more extreme weather events, meaning “catastrophic floods, fires, heat waves, droughts will continue,” Burgess told the AP in December. “2023 is very likely to be a cool year in the future unless we do something about our dependence on fossil fuels.”

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