Hot on the heels of the hottest year on record globally, NASA reported Saturday last month was the hottest January on record — by far. January 2016 blew out the previous record for hottest January (2007) by nearly 0.3°F.

In January the Arctic averaged a staggering 13.5°F (7.5°C) above average, leading to a new record low of Arctic sea ice extent for the month.

There has never been as hot a 12-month period in NASA’s database as the previous 12 months (February 2015–January 2016). This is using a 12-month moving average, so we can “see the march of temperature change over time,” rather than just once every calendar year.


CREDIT: NASA via Greg Laden

Significantly, January had the single biggest recorded monthly temperature anomaly (deviation from the 1951-1980 average temperature) — a whopping 2°F above the average January temperature. This means it’s even more likely that 2016 will not just be one of the hottest years on record, but very possibly even hotter than 2015, which itself was the hottest year on record since … 2014.

If you detect a pattern here of human-caused global warming, you are in the company of more than 97 percent of climate scientists. True, every year is not going to be warmer than the next — but we do appear to be in the long-awaited global warming speed up. And a recent analysis of 2015’s record warming by Climate Central makes clear that virtually all of the warming — some 95 percent — is due to human activity.

Climate graph

A graph showing how much greenhouse gases dominate global temperatures compared to natural factors like El Niño. Almost all of 2015’s record heat is due to human activity.

Finally, it isn’t just how remarkably warm January was, but where it was warm. As the NASA temperature map on top shows, parts of the Arctic, northern Greenland, and the Siberian permafrost were simply off the charts warm — up to a staggering 12.9°C (23°F!) warmer than normal. That is worrisome for several reasons.

First, the permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the atmosphere, and as it defrosts, it releases that carbon in the form of either CO2 or methane (CH4), which is 84 more times more potent at trapping heat than CO2 over a 20-year period. Second, the Greenland Ice Sheet, which contains enough landlocked ice to raise sea levels some 20 feet, is already disintegrating at an accelerating rate.

Finally, the faster the Arctic warms, the faster the sea ice melts. The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reports that January saw its smallest Arctic sea ice extent last month.


A great deal of recent research suggests that rapid Arctic warming, driven in part by sea ice loss, is already worsening extreme weather.

As devastating as climate change-driven extreme weather has been in recent years, the worst is yet to come.