2013 Climate Recap

Another year come and gone and with it, a chance to look back on the year past and take stock. Lots of others have done that for pop culture or politics, but now for the 5th year in a row, I get to take a look at the state of the climate in 2013. Hot year or not? Where did we fall in the record books? And what were the major weather events of the year?

According to both NOAA and NASA, 2013, tied with 2003. The only hotter years on record since 1880 were 2010, 2005 and 1998. This marks the 37th consecutive year of annual temperatures above the long-term average. Of the top 10 hottest years ever recorded, all have been since 2000 with the exception of 1998.

While the last 10-15 years has been the hottest period on record, there hasn’t been a strong warming trend throughout this time. This has led to claims that global warming is on pause or hiatus. Before 2013 was accounted for, the warming trend over the last 15 years hasn’t been statistically significant from zero (.04ºC/decade – not much). What’s going on here? While there are lots of devils in the details that could be to blame (heat going into the deep ocean, aerosols, cooler sun, more volcanoes), the bottom line is that even over periods as long as 10-15 years, climate change is variable. There can be times of rapid warming and there can be times of almost no warming. But in the long-term, that warming will still come. It’s just a bumpy path to get there. (The dog walking analogy is a great one.)

With 2013 warmer than 2011 or 2012, it will be interesting to see in the next few years if the plateau is indeed over and we’re back on a warming path. Will we see accelerated warming that makes up for the stagnation of the last decade? Climate models are notoriously bad at predicting temperatures over periods shorter than 15 years, so we’ll have to wait and see.

But a lot more happened this year than just temperature. Our year was full of weather events, as is every year. But for the first time in 2013, imagery from satellites from several nations got stitched together to provide an 8-minute look at the weather of 2013, start to finish. Trust me, it’s amazing. I’m not even a real weather buff and I watched the entire thing.

10840840555_0c4f0bcb48Keep your eye out in the video for Super-typhoon Haiyan in early November. Haiyan was the most powerful tropical cyclone (hurricanes or typhoons) ever to make landfall when it hit the Philippines with wind speeds of 195 mph. Over 6000 people were confirmed dead with 1785 still missing and the damage totaled $1.5 billion. At the same time, the UN climate talks were beginning in Warsaw, Poland. Yeb Saño, the Philippine delegate, proclaimed himself on a fast for the duration of the talks in solidarity with his countrymen. The specific linkages between climate change and tropical cyclones are complex, but known factors such as higher sea levels and warmer oceans will allow those storms to travel over broader ranges, persist over a longer season and do more damage.

Here in the U.S., our weather extremes were a study in contrasts. In the midst of a drought, Colorado was hit with a flood of such magnitude, it was proclaimed a 1000-year event. Up to 11” of rain fell in a single 24-hour period, wiping out roads, bridges and homes, many of which still have yet to be rebuilt. In some areas, the damage was made worse by recent forest fires, also fueled by a warmer world, where trees no longer existed to soak up water runoff.

And now, at home in California, we are in a state of drought emergency. 2013 was the driest year in California on record, with recent snowpack at only 12% of normal. Climate change at work? As always, it’s not a question of IF this drought or that storm was caused by climate change, it’s a question of how much. Warmer winters make California’s ski season shorter and threaten our water supply.

So here in Truckee, California, as well as all over the West, people are saying the same thing: “Snow. Please snow.”

Rebecca Anderson

Rebecca Anderson is ACE’s Director of Education. She came to ACE in its inception in 2008. Rebecca develops ACE's science content, manages the online climate education resource Our Climate Our Future, oversees the ACE Teacher Network, and works with schools in the Reno-Tahoe area. Prior to ACE, she did paleoclimate research in the Arctic and Antarctica.