2018 was the fourth hottest year on record, say both NASA and NOAA

Experts say global warming is no longer some future worry. It's already here.

  • President Trump and other politicians have routinely dismissed climate change as a hoax.
  • Data from NASA and NOAA show 2018 was the fourth hottest year on record.
  • Collectively, the last five years have represented the hottest in the 139-year record.

At a time when a majority of Americans worry over climate change, politicians and the fossil-fuel industry continue to drag their feet over regulating human-made greenhouse gases. The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released last November, warned that unrestrained climate change would devastate the economy and threaten American safety. President Donald Trump's response? "I don't believe it."

He went on to tell reporters, "So I want clean air, I want clean water, very important." Of course, he meant clean air and water for the American people, not just himself. Right, Mr. President? So… tacit agreement, then?

Regardless of President Trump's dismissal, reality, to paraphrase Philip K. Dick, doesn't go away because you stop believing in it. Just ask researchers at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

A hot take on 2018

The map shows global surface temperatures for 2014-2018. Higher than normal temperatures are in red, lower than normal in blue.

(Photo: NASA)

The map shows global surface temperatures for 2014-2018. Higher than normal temperatures are in red, lower than normal in blue.

NASA and NOAA released statements this month calling 2018 the fourth warmest year on record. Both organizations' data suggests that the average global temperature last year was roughly 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit (0.83 degrees Celsius) warmer than the 20th-century average. Globally, the land-surface temperature rose 2.02 degrees higher than average, while the sea-surface temperature was 1.19 degrees higher.

Not only was 2018 the fourth hottest, it added yet another year to global warming's trending tradition. Collectively, the past five years were the warmest in the record's 139-year history (2016 was the hottest ever). And 2018 was the 42nd year in a row sporting an above-average temperature, a streak that began in 1977.

"We're no longer talking about a situation where global warming is something in the future," Gavin A. Schmidt, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told the New York Times. "It's here. It's now."

Scientists have long warned that climate change will incur heavy costs on lives and economies the world over — costs we're already paying.

Regarding weather and climate disasters, 2018 proved the fourth costliest year for the U.S. since 1980 (when records began). Fourteen inclement weather events amassed an economic toll of $91 billion, with Hurricane Michael's $25 billion bill expending the most. These disasters also took at least 247 lives and grievously injured many more.

An April anomaly?

Some may argue that blizzards and deep freezes disprove global warming and climate change, but to do so is to confuse the weather with the climate.

Some may argue that blizzards and deep freezes disprove global warming and climate change, but to do so is to confuse the weather with the climate. Photo credit: Joe Amon/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Weather aficionados may remember another tidbit weather news: April of last year was the United State's coldest in 20 years. It's true. April 2018 was particularly chilled, thanks to an Arctic air engulfing many central and eastern states. Because of this and other factors, for the contiguous United States, 2018 would only be the 14th warmest year.

But climate change is a global problem. While the United States had an overall wet year, Australia continues to suffer horrible drought and rainfall deficiencies. Other countries that set record land temperatures include Russia, much of Europe, and parts of the Middle East.

As such, pointing to April's record lows to disregard global warming is to confuse today's weather with climate change. As the website Skeptical Science points out, "Weather is chaotic, making prediction difficult. However, climate takes a long-term view, averaging weather out over time. This removes the chaotic element, enabling climate models to successfully predict future climate change."

While April was a chaotic month of blizzards for much of the United States, overall and across the world, climate change models for 2018 proved accurate.

Science versus smoke screens

(Photo: NOAA)

This map shows the 14 weather disasters that struck the U.S. last year. Their total cost amounted to $91 billion, and they took at least 247 lives.

How certain are scientists that humans are responsible for climate change? As certain as they are that cigarettes cause lung disease. That is, extremely certain.

According to an American Association for the Advancement of Science 2014 report, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is human caused. As stated in that report:

"The science linking human activities to climate change is analogous to the science linking smoking to lung and cardiovascular diseases. Physicians, cardiovascular scientists, public health experts, and others all agree smoking causes cancer. And this consensus among the health community has convinced most Americans that the health risks from smoking are real. A similar consensus now exists among climate scientists, a consensus that maintains that climate change is happening and that human activity is the cause."

Yet, like the tobacco industry before, climate deniers continue to campaign hard against this scientific reality. The government continues to place people like oil lobbyist and climate denier Jim Inhofe in important environmental positions. Think tanks put out reports downplaying climate change, while "consistently conceal[ing] their sources of funding and final interest," as one study found. The fossil fuel industry has engaged in a decades-long disinformation campaign to gaslight the American people and will likely increase fossil fuel production.

"In short, [they] have marketed and sold their lethal product with zeal, with deception, with a single-mind focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted," wrote U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler of the District of Columbia.

Judge Kessler wasn't writing about climate change, politicians, or fossil fuel companies. This quote comes from a 1,652-page opinion about tobacco companies' attempts to silence the scientific consensus that smoking causes cancer and dissuade the public from the findings.

One wonders if the future holds a similar statement aimed at today's leaders, policymakers, and heads of industry.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.