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melting ice warmest month
A drop of water falls from a melting icicle on Feb. 1, 2015 in Marktoberdorf, southern Germany. Karl-Josef Hildenbrand—AFP/Getty Images

February Had the Most Above-Average Temperatures on Record

Mar 17, 2016

Global temperatures in February were the most above average since weather record keeping began nearly 150 years ago, bringing the world the closest it has ever been to what scientists consider dangerous levels of warming, a federal government agency confirmed Thursday.

The average temperature across the globe in February reached 13.3°C (56°F), according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That's 1.2°C (2.2°F) higher than the average global temperature in February during the 20th century. NOAA's findings confirm those released earlier this month by NASA and the Japan Meteorological Agency that both show February as the most unusually hot month on record.

"If you look back in the historical temperature curve, it’s hard to find a monthly spike that was as large as this one," says Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University. "That’s how we will see the effects of climate change: the extremes will become more extreme and bring the world the closest it's ever been to dangerous warming."

Read More: See How Your City May Be Affected By Rising Sea Levels

Most scientists identify a rise of 2°C (3.6°F) above the level global temperatures were at before humans began putting large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the point at which the effects of global warming become essentially irreversible, causing lasting damage. Arctic ice will melt away at an unsustainable rate and some island countries will begin disappearing into the ocean.

The 2°C marker has also been enshrined into public policy and international climate deals—including the Paris Agreement—as a target that should not be exceeded. The February temperature record suggests that it may be harder to meet those targets without a dramatic acceleration in efforts to reduce global carbon emissions

"If we continue to burn fossil fuels and increase the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we will assume that this level of warmth will be perpetual," says Mann. " This is a reminder that we need to need to decarbonize."

Climate scientists are quick to note that ordinary weather variability contributed to February's record high, on top of the effects of long-term global warming. For one, the world still in an El Niño—a periodic climate phenomenon that increases global temperature and precipitation patterns—which played a significant role in driving the extreme heat. And beyond that temperatures are expected to fluctuate from month-to-month.

Read More: How Climate Change May Affect Your Diet

An increase of a couple degrees won't feel like a lot for the average person walking outdoors, but it makes a dramatic difference in the natural world that surrounds us. Higher temperatures confuse plants and insects—leading to early springs and disruptions in ecosystems. Ice also melts at higher rates, driving rising in sea levels and eliminating habitats. And of course that 1.2°C (2.2°F) average temperature increase in February masks far more extreme variations. "Sometimes it’s hard for humans to pick up on it," says Sean Sublette , a meteorologist at Climate Central. "You’ll start to see nature responding to this more and more."

The study comes as new research from the National Academy of Sciences shows that climate change contributes to extreme weather events like drought and flooding. And, while the exact links remain unclear, extremely hot months like February raise the risk that the world will be caught off guard by extreme and unexpected events.

The entire globe was hot in February, but some places were hotter than others. February ranked as the seventh warmest on record in the United States, but that didn't stop the country from experiencing the warmest winter on record as a whole. The average U.S. winter temperature was 2.7°C (36.8°F)—that's 2.6°C (4.6°F) above average, well past the 2°C limit. In parts of Africa, the warmest February since 1910 contributed to ongoing drought that has left millions food insecure. And some areas in the Arctic experienced temperatures up to 16°C (29°F) above average leading to dangerously low levels of sea ice.

And while the year has only just begun, climate scientists have already predicted that 2016 will trump last year as the warmest on record. The warmest months of El Niño tend to fall in the spring following the pattern's high period and the coming months would need to be abnormally cool to make up for the hot winter. They almost certainly won't be.

"There’s a good chance that 2016 will be even warmer that 2015," says Mann. "We would have to see a pretty rapid cool down not to beat the 2015 record."

Philippines: Ground Zero for Climate Disaster

Relief packs are distributed in a flooded district of Taguig, Phillipines on Oct. 12, 2009. Typhoon Ketsana, known in the Philippines as Tropical Storm Ondoy, devastated the region in 2009.
Relief packs are distributed in a flooded district of Taguig, Phillipines on Oct. 12, 2009. Typhoon Ketsana, known in the Philippines as Tropical Storm Ondoy, devastated the region in 2009.Veejay Villafranca
Relief packs are distributed in a flooded district of Taguig, Phillipines on Oct. 12, 2009. Typhoon Ketsana, known in the Philippines as Tropical Storm Ondoy, devastated the region in 2009.
Philippine Army soldiers carry the body of a victim trapped by floodwaters in the eastern part of Metro Manila in September 2009.
Residents salvage what they can after a a strong mudflow caused by Typhoon Ketsana ravaged their town in September 2009.
Pollution is visible on the Pasig River following Typhoon Ketsana on Sept. 28, 2009.
Residents wait for relief packs in Taguig city as floodwaters inundate their access to the town center on Oct. 10, 2009.
The town of Botolan is covered in a cloak of pyroclastic dust on Jan. 15, 2010, in Zambales, Philippines.
Construction workers work on repairs for the damaged dike in Botolan River after torrential rains triggered heavy flooding in the area in January 2010.
Families that have been displaced for several months due to stagnant floodwaters seek temporary shelter in a rundown factory on Oct. 23, 2012 in Laguna, Philippines.
Damaged religious icons are displayed at one of the churches in Eastern Samar, Philippines on Dec. 9, 2013.
The coast of Tanauan in Leyte, Philippines, on Dec. 10, 2013 after Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Typhoon Yolanda, struck the area.
Dolls hanging outside a damaged maternity clinic in Palo in December 2013. DISPLACED EARTH/SIGNOS SERIES 2009 - 2015 Photograph by Veejay Villafranca
Children play in a damaged village in San Joaquin, Leyte on Dec. 10, 2013.a
An aerial view of the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in Eastern Samar, Philippines on Dec. 6, 2013.
Evacuees board a military plane offering free transport from affected areas on Dec. 7, 2013.
Children take a dip along the coast of Leyte on June 30, 2014.
PHILIPPINES - CLIMATE CHANGE - DISPLACEMENT
A fisherman sets his net on April 24, 2014 in Tacloban City.
Protesters from different parts of Visayas cross the San Juanico Bridge on Nov. 7, 2014, to meet with other survivors of disasters converging to mark the first year anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan.
A clock is stopped at the time floodwaters reached the first story of a home in Palo in Leyte, shown on Feb. 10, 2014.
Residents go about their morning routines at a temporary bunkhouse in Tacloban City on April 26, 2014.
A damaged religious icon in Leyte, Philippines on Nov. 8, 2014.
A religious procession in the town where Typhoon Haiyan made first landfall, Feb. 11, 2014.
A call for help is painted on pillars in San Joaquin, Feb. 15, 2014.
A man lights candles on a mass grave on top of a roundabaout in Leyte, Philippines on Feb. 15, 2014.
Commuters wait for public transport heading to Tacloban City, Feb. 16, 2014.
A child sifts through ruble in Tacloban City in February 2014.
Performers wear native attire after entertaining guests on Feb. 10, 2015.
A child takes shelter from the heat with a cardboard panel along the coast of Tanauan on Oct, 7, 2015.
Performers rehearse their performance for the arrival of Pope Francis on Jan. 15, 2015 in Leyte, Philippines.
Relief packs are distributed in a flooded district of Taguig, Phillipines on Oct. 12, 2009. Typhoon Ketsana, known in th
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