To understand ourselves and our place in the universe, "we should have humility but also self-respect," Frank Wilczek writes in a new book.
In a joint briefing at the 101st American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting, NASA and NOAA revealed 2020's scorching climate data.
A dead heat<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTQ2MDU4Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNzM0MzIwNH0.3NrKDBoOdpFL5IXF3cDbom-Dp2RlrzJgvAciXcb0GDE/img.jpg?width=980" id="69d06" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="886a2617e756181e6a11e20a00b65dff" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1266" data-height="654" />
A graph showing the global mean temperatures from 1880–2020 (with the years 1951–1980 serving as the mean baseline).
Credit: NASA and NOAA<p>For <a href="https://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/" target="_blank">its 2020 analysis</a>, NASA gathered surface temperature measurements from more than 26,000 weather stations. This data was incorporated with data from satellites as well as sea-surface temperatures taken from ship and buoy instruments. Once tallied, NASA's data showed 2020 barely edged out 2016 as the warmest year on record, with average global temperatures 1.02°C (1.84°F) above the baseline mean (1951-1980).</p><p>In a separate analysis of the raw data, NOAA found 2020 to be slightly cooler than 2016. This distinction is the result of the different methodologies used in each—for example, NOAA uses a different baseline period (1901–2000) and does not infer temperatures in polar regions lacking observations. Together, these analyses put 2020 in a statistical dead heat with the sweltering 2016 and demonstrate the global-warming trend of the past four decades.</p><p>"The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record, typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend," <a href="http://email.prnewswire.com/ls/click?upn=OXp-2BEvHp8OzhyU1j9bSWuwMvMWelqIco5RbfBrouY-2BQCsSv6FnrhBjR9xReGqV57KGOs0rVc5GKMmgs-2FJKbOzjb0sJ6yjzUvrv2w75ulYk3EUck8pSjkzYhoy5ADXO0eOcn7LDjqsHyK2gp2NRf2UysMK-2F9SN4oYUmRylQcRtSUo6-2FcYeK-2B9naUetByXNCR2gF8u_FU3lc-2FvIcVOtjb4iEuBVjFYoW0IRF5dtM-2FDfzzkhmYHO5IVgq387-2BxdHEMunBZ1-2Fy0-2BJDgXnZEYvN604G1TWJfy4M4HKnIouyasgRyWEHIYmPTiDXeFrd9FqRmsl0JQfksEElkp2ITvgyFkkivWV3GiFH7z7tl1cTZ2rNh2c-2FbCRKQxkH4-2BChgYT6uWeYOvXusiC4cDsZkEBvw7lOEdPsPq78JT8F5x5gc5cMRaRJY-2FZ8q8peaKsS7Mfc5OQ6yjyEU5YUHR4QKJ1Fn-2FDuwJ5jk4Gm28sxJZNXX9IEO-2FOHlhyRcJbl6rMWcoeJZDEd-2BM8UJ5ZY-2FYqc1DHevd1Mz-2B1fQ-3D-3D" target="_blank">Gavin Schmidt</a>, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/01/210115103020.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said in a release</a>. "Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important—the important things are long-term trends. With these trends, and as the human impact on the climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken."</p><p>And they are. According to the analyses, 2020 was the warmest year on record for Asia and Europe, the second warmest for South America, the fourth warmest for Africa and Australia, and the tenth warmest for North America. </p><p>All told, 2020 was 1.19°C (2.14°F) above averages from the late-19<sup>th</sup> century, a period that provides a rough approximate for pre-industrial conditions. This temperature is closing in on the Paris Climate Agreement's preferred goal of <a href="https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreemen" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">limiting global warming to 1.5°C</a> of those pre-industrial conditions.</p>
2020's hotspot was—the Arctic?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTQ2MDU5My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMTA5OTU1MH0.0ZCixGwhHbjmyO6By_eaMI-cXrM2-rsPq32J-pAVWPs/img.jpg?width=980" id="34c94" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="846b12bfa65c6d1b8d0a5b0d0214e091" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1106" data-height="672" />
A map of global mean temperatures in 2020 shows an scorching year for the Arctic.
(Photo: NASA and NOAA)<p>Heatwaves have become more common all over the world, but a region that really endured the heat in 2020 was the <a href="https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/arctic-meteorology/climate_change.html#:~:text=Over%20the%20past%2030%20years,climate%20change%20in%20the%20Arctic." target="_blank">Arctic</a>.</p><p>"The big story this year is Siberia; it was a hotspot," Russell Vose, chief of the analysis and synthesis branch of NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information, said during the briefing. "In May, some places were 18°F above the average. There was a town in Siberia […] that reported a high temperature of 104°F. If that gets verified by the World Metrological Organization, it will the first there's been a weather station in the Arctic with a temperature above 100°F."</p><p>The Arctic is warming at three times the global mean, thanks to <a href="https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/arctic-meteorology/climate_change.html#:~:text=Over%20the%20past%2030%20years,climate%20change%20in%20the%20Arctic." target="_blank">a phenomenon known as Arctic Amplification</a>. As the Arctic warms, it loses its sea ice, and this creates a feedback loop. The more Arctic sea ice loss, the more heat introduced into the oceans; the more heat introduced, the more sea ice loss. And the longer this trend continues, the more devastating the effects.</p><p>For example, since the 1980s, there's been a 50 percent decline in sea ice, and this loss has exposed more of the ocean to the sun's rays. That energy then gets trapped in the ocean as heat. As the <a href="https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-ocean-heat-content" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ocean heat content</a> rises, it threatens rising sea levels and the sustainability of natural ecosystems. In 2020 alone, 255 zeta joules of heat above the baseline were introduced into Earth's oceans. In (admittedly) dramatic terms, that's <a href="https://www.mprnews.org/story/2020/01/14/twin-cities-scientist-heat-of-5-to-6-hiroshima-atom-bombs-per-second-into-earths-oceans" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the equivalent of introducing 5 to 6 Hiroshima atom bombs</a> worth of energy every second of every day.</p><p>Looking beyond the Arctic, the average snow cover for the Northern Hemisphere was also the lowest on record. Like the Arctic sea ices, such <a href="https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/snow/climate.html#:~:text=Snow's%20effect%20on%20climate,especially%20the%20western%20United%20States." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">snow cover</a> helps regulate Earth's surface temperatures. Its melt off in the spring and summer also provides the freshwater ecosystems rely on to survive and farmers need to grow crops, especially in <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/too-many-trees?rebelltitem=2#rebelltitem2" target="_self">the Western United States</a>.</p>
Natural disasters get a man-made bump<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTQ2MDU5NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MjUwMjE0Mn0.R_juvxCWUw-S9RDkAobjXeMn2qMHg-XVgsOHW74Uz-s/img.jpg?width=980" id="51830" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7b3e734e1d03eaec341dca40df0939f0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1123" data-height="672" />
A map of 2020's billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, which totaled approximately $95 billion in losses.
Credit: NASA and NOAA<p>2020 was also a record-breaking year for natural disasters. In the U.S. alone, there were 22 billion-dollar disasters, the most ever recorded. Combined, they resulted in a total of $95 billion in losses. The western wildfires alone consumed more than 10 million acres and destroyed large portions of Oregon, Colorado, and California.</p><p>The year also witnessed a record-setting Atlantic Hurricane season with more than 30 named storms, 13 of which were hurricanes. Typically, the World Meteorological Organization <a href="https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/aboutnames_history.shtml#:~:text=Instead%20a%20strict%20procedure%20has,is%20repeated%20every%20sixth%20year." target="_blank">names storms</a> from an annual list of 21 selected names—one for each letter of the alphabet, minus Q, U, X, Y, and Z. For only <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/18/914453403/so-2020-new-storm-forms-named-alpha-because-weve-run-out-of-letters" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the second time in history</a>, the Organization had to resort to naming storms after Greek letters because they ran out of alphabet.</p>
For the record, there's a consensus about the record<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9bb94f5d5a58d40f03e1515f3c2e467c"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/gzksqQDI_kE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Such records are a dramatic reminder of climate change's ongoing effect on our planet. They make for an eye-catching headline, sure. But those headlines can sometimes mask the fact that these years are part of decade-long trends, trends providing a preview of what a climate-changed world will be like. </p><p>And in case there was any question as to whether these trends were the result of natural processes or man-made conditions, Schmidt and Vose did not mince words. </p><p>As Schmidt said in the briefing: "Many, many things have caused the climate to change in the past: asteroids, wobbles in the Earth's orbit, moving continents. But when we look at the 20<sup>th</sup> century, we can see very clearly what has been happening. We know the continents have not moved very much, we know the orbit has not changed very much, we know when there were volcanoes, we know what the sun is doing, and we know what we've been doing."</p><p>He continued, "When we do an attribution by driver of climate change over the 20<sup>th</sup> century, what we find is that the overwhelming cause of the warming is the increase of greenhouse gases. When you add in all of the things humans have done, all of the trends over this period are attributable to human activity."</p><p>The data are in; the consensus is in. The only thing left is to figure out how to prevent the worst of climate change before it's too late. As bad as 2020 was, it was only a preview of what could come.<strong></strong></p>
Take a journey through the maze of interpretations of one of the most famous paintings in history.
A tale of silence, an icon of human solitude in the face of the forces of nature, or perhaps a memento of the great artist?
Perspective twisting books on biology, social science, medical science, cosmology, and tech.
- The best science books push us to think, feel, and behave differently.
- This list includes new releases by authors Merlin Sheldrake, Isabel Wilkerson, James Nestor, David Attenborough, and others.
- Besides making us more knowledgeable, these books inspire curiosity, passion, and empathy for the universe in and around us.
Notable mentions<p>There were so many brilliant books released in 2020, and these picks are just the tip of the iceberg. Here are several other books that almost made our top ten list.</p><ul><li>"<a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/0593237064?tag=bigthink00-20&linkCode=ogi&th=1&psc=1" target="_blank">All We Can Save</a>" edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson</li><li><i>"</i><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/0374228485?tag=bigthink00-20&linkCode=ogi&th=1&psc=1" target="_blank">Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl</a>" by Jonathan C. Slaght</li><li>"<a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/0241409608?tag=bigthink00-20&linkCode=ogi&th=1&psc=1" target="_blank">Explaining Humans</a>" by Dr. Camilla Pang </li><li>"<a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/0465096980?tag=bigthink00-20&linkCode=ogi&th=1&psc=1" target="_blank">Children of Ash and Elm: A History of Vikings</a>" by Neil Price</li></ul>
Researchers from Norway discover that the Moon's tides influence the release of methane from the ocean floor.
- Sensitive instruments reveal methane beneath the Arctic Ocean for the first time.
- The gas is released in cycles that correspond to the tides.
- Rising warming oceans may help to contain the greenhouse gas.
Tidal methane<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDk4NDU4OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MzMxNTkwNX0.dbRoA5swH03DwULPTFLuq15OBPcsrjShpyj_9vI9c6k/img.jpg?width=980" id="f0ff9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="81ddbfa5e3fca1229593d48478bd1223" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2048" data-height="1159" />
Screenshot of visualization from researchers' data
Credit: Andreia Plaza Faverola<p> <a href="https://www.edf.org/climate/methane-other-important-greenhouse-gas" target="_blank">Methane</a> often takes second billing to carbon dioxide in discussions of climate change, likely because it dissipates much more quickly. However, its warming effect is actually far more intense that CO<sup>2</sup>'s — it is 84 times more potent. Methane makes up about 25 percent of our greenhouse gases. </p><p> <a href="https://cage.uit.no/2020/12/11/the-moon-controls-the-release-of-methane-in-arctic-ocean/" target="_blank">Says</a> co-author of the study <a href="https://cage.uit.no/employee/andreia-plaza-faverola/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Andreia Plaza Faverola</a>, "We noticed that gas accumulations, which are in the sediments within a meter from the seafloor, are vulnerable to even slight pressure changes in the water column. Low tide means less of such hydrostatic pressure and higher intensity of methane release. High tide equals high pressure and lower intensity of the release." </p><p> This phenomenon has not been previously observed. While significant gas hydrate concentrations have been sampled in the area, no methane release had been documented. "It is the first time that this observation has been made in the Arctic Ocean," says co-author <a href="https://cage.uit.no/employee/jochen-knies/" target="_blank">Jochen Knies</a>. "It means that slight pressure changes can release significant amounts of methane. This is a game-changer and the highest impact of the study." </p>
Detecting the tidal story<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDk4NDYwMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2ODI5OTI0OH0.vfKQ8xqksfRHMaE9FqemZc3s-mZ-kBCHkltGBRT8V_E/img.png?width=980" id="8a168" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a6c69a000368a89bce0ca7b11bab3b77" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2048" data-height="1251" />
Screenshot from video of piezometer out of the water
Credit: Przemyslaw Domel<p>The researchers buried a tool called a piezometer in the sediment on the ocean floor, and left it in place for four days. During that time, the instrument made hourly measurements of pressure and temperature in the sediments, and these indicated the presence of methane close to the sea floor, increasing at low tide and decreasing at high tide.</p><p>Their first notable observation was, of course, the presence of the gas on the Arctic Ocean floor despite a lack of other more visible indicators of its presence. "This tells us that gas release from the seafloor is more widespread than we can see using traditional sonar surveys," says Plaza Faverola. "We saw no bubbles or columns of gas in the water." She credits the watchful presence of the piezometer for making the discovery: "Gas burps that have a periodicity of several hours won't be identified unless there is a permanent monitoring tool in place, such as the piezometer."</p><p>Enthuses Knies, "What we found was unexpected and the implications are big. This is a deep-water site. Small changes in pressure can increase the gas emissions but the methane will still stay in the ocean due to the water depth."</p><p>Of course, not all the Earth's waters are equally deep, and there may not be enough water weight in some places to contain the methane below. "But what happens in shallower sites?" asks Knies. "This approach needs to be done in shallow Arctic waters as well, over a longer period. In shallow water, the possibility that methane will reach the atmosphere is greater."</p>