Concerns mount as global temperatures keep breaking records

Maulidi Juma pours water on himself to cool off the heat during the day at his workplace in Hola, Tana River County.

Photo credit: Stephen Oduor | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • February 2024 has become a part of a worrying trend of the hottest months in history.
  • The global average temperature for the past 12 months (March 2023–February 2024) is the highest on record.

A recent analysis conducted by the Copernicus Climate Change Service, a programme of the European Union's earth observation, has revealed that February 2024 has become a part of a worrying trend of the hottest months in history.

The analysis indicates that since June 2020, there has been a continuous streak of record-breaking temperatures.

The scientists suggest that the average daily temperature in February was much higher than usual compared to the standard temperature range between 1850 and 1900.

The report by Copernicus shows that the average temperature in February was approximately 1.77 degrees Celsius, significantly warmer than usual and a cause for concern.

"The global-average temperature for the past 12 months (March 2023–February 2024) is the highest on record, at 0.68 degrees Celsius above the 1991-2020 average and 1.56 degrees Celsius above the 1850-1900 pre-industrial average," shows the report.

The Paris Agreement has set an ambitious goal to keep the global temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, in recent months, this record has been broken.

However, according to the agreement, we can only say that we have surpassed this threshold if the temperature remains above 1.5 degrees Celsius for three decades.

"It is not surprising, as the continuous warming of the climate system inevitably leads to new temperature extremes. The climate responds to the actual concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, so unless we manage to stabilise those, we will inevitably face new global temperature records and their consequences," says Carlo Buentempo, Director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S).

According to a recent report, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) has revealed that most Southern African countries experienced intense heat overnight and during the day, surpassing the usual February temperature by about four to five degrees Celsius.

This finding is consistent with another report that highlights the same issue. The National Centres for Environment Information (NCEI) has already predicted a 22 per cent chance that 2024 will be the warmest year on record and a 99 per cent probability that it will rank in the top five warmest years.

Climate scientist Dr Joyce Kimutai explains that 2023 was classified as the hottest on record because of climate change caused by increased greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

UNEP's Emissions gap report, released in November last year, shows a despairing rise in greenhouse gas use in the atmosphere.

"The analysis done last year clearly showed that emissions continue to increase. This, in turn, leads to a rise in temperature," Dr Kimutai says.

"Something else that worsens the conditions is the El Nino phenomenon, which is caused by the warming of the Pacific Ocean. When this happens, it causes different climatic impacts on different parts of the region in a varied way. For instance, in East Africa, it results in enhanced rainfall, and in other parts of the world, it causes drought," she explains.

When the ocean temperatures rise, the warm sea surface heats the atmosphere above it.

"What needs to be understood is that something like El Nino is just a natural climate system variability. This means that the sea surface temperatures might cool down a bit, it might go to a neutral phase or go to a negative phase called La Nina," she says.

La Nina is a weather phenomenon that occurs when the surface temperatures of the Pacific Ocean cool down, leading to different climatic conditions. It causes drier-than-usual conditions, such as droughts, in East Africa. Dr Kimutai explains that the occurrence of La Nina is not automatic, even after an El Nino. She further clarifies that if we continue to warm the planet at the current rate, we might still experience record-breaking events like extreme temperatures, wildfires, and an increase in extreme rainfall and droughts in other parts of the world.

"Climate change is influencing almost every part of the climate system. You can find that La Nina has now become intense. For instance, the drought in East Africa from 2020 to last year was a bit extreme. We are now seeing more of those natural variabilities increasing and affecting weather in an advanced way," she says.

Scientists warn that rising temperatures from climate change will lead to increased health impacts.

"Such impacts are horrible for places like Africa because, for instance, heat wave awareness is quite low. We think that heat waves don't happen on the continent. Yet, we have seen that happening in West Africa this past month," she says.

A study in Kenya linked heat waves in 2016 to increased hospital admissions in Mombasa, Kisumu, and Nairobi.

The study shows that extreme heat will likely trigger thermal discomforts, possibly increasing the incidence of heat-related illnesses or death.