2017 beat the odds to be the second hottest year on record


It was so hot in 2017 that a computer program threw out an entire year’s worth of Alaskan weather data because it seemed like a statistical anomaly. It was so hot, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration now predicts that Arctic ice might not reliably freeze every year anymore, and the region’s tundras are increasingly green as permafrost thaws.

But surprisingly, 2017 wasn’t the hottest year on record, according to NASA. It came in second, thanks to an exceptionally warm El Nino year in 2016.

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2016 El Nino effect on Los Angeles
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2016 El Nino effect on Los Angeles
LOS ANGELES, CA. -- TUESDAY, JANUARY 5, 2015 -- The reflection of a pigeon is seen along with clearing skies in a flooded playground in Hollenbeck Park as rainy weather from the first big El Nino storm moved out of the area late Tuesday afternoon. ( Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images )
VENTURA, CA - JANUARY 06: Homes at Mondo's Beach between the Solimar and Faria Beach communities west of Ventura have their sea walls tested Wednesday morning, January 06, 2016, as the second of the El Nino storms moves in with more rain and heavy surf. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - JAN. 5, 2016. Visitors to Angels Gate Park in San Pedro are framed between the sea and sun-tinged clouds as the first storm of El Nino blows ashore on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
LOS ANGELES, CA. -- TUESDAY, JANUARY 5, 2015 -- Jason Chiang, 31, is reflected in a puddle while walking his dogs Clementine and Emma in Hollenbeck Park as rainy weather from the first big El Nino storm moved out of the area late Tuesday afternoon. ( Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images )
LONG BEACH, CA. -- TUESDAY, JANUARY 5, 2015 -- A kite surfer makes use to the windy conditions during the rainy weather brought by the first big storm in what is predicted to be a strong El Nino event in Southern California January 5, 2016. ( Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 5: Homeless outreach workers talk to homeless people gathered outside the Venice Beach Public Library about seeking shelter indoors and out of the rain on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. The first of several El Nino storms hit Southern California on Tuesday, with heavy downpours throughout the day in the L.A. Basin. Shelters have opened up across the city in an effort to bring homeless people indoors and out of the wet, cold weather forecast for the days ahead. (Photo by Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 5: A homeless man sleeps out of the rain by sheltering under the 405 Freeway in Venice on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. The first of several El Nino storms hit Southern California on Tuesday, with heavy downpours throughout the day in the L.A. Basin. Shelters have opened up across the city in an effort to bring homeless people indoors and out of the wet, cold weather forecast for the days ahead. (Photo by Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA. -- TUESDAY, JANUARY 5, 2015 -- Traffic has been snarled across the area as the big storm hits in what is predicted to be a strong El Nino event in Southern California January 5, 2016. The 57 south through Orange County was flowing better than a lot of other areas. ( Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - JAN. 5, 2016. The first storm of the El Nino season blows ashore at Angels Gate Park in San Pedro on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016.
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Nevertheless, the slight blip in ever-increasing annual global temperature is consistent with an overall warming trend. The planet’s temperature has risen by about two degrees Fahrenheit in the past century, largely due to human activities that emit greenhouse gases. All five of the warmest years on record since 1880 have occurred since 2010.

NASA scientists calculated that if the effects of La Nina (an air circulation pattern which tends to cause cooler weather) and El Nino (which tends to cause warmer weather) were removed from the equation, 2017 would have ranked as the number one hottest year on record. By smoothing over the data from shorter-term La Nina and El Nino cycles, climate scientists can get a better picture of long-term trends in climate change, Gavin Schmidt, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies says. “The key issue is, what causes the planet to warm up on an annual basis, one year to the next, is not the same as what’s making the planet warm up over the last 50 years.”

Volcanic activity is also smoothed over in the analysis since the sulfur particles spewed into the atmosphere along with ash and dust temporarily cool the earth’s surface by blocking the sun’s warming rays.

But 2017 was so hot that even the cooling effects of La Nina and a few volcanic eruptions didn’t drag it down further in the annual rankings. And more record-breaking years are likely ahead.

Even though parts of the U.S. experienced record cold this January, global warming is far from over. That’s the difference between weather, which is short-term and relatively unpredictable, and climate. It can be unusually cold across the continental U.S. while Alaska experiences unusually warm winter days. Meanwhile, the global average temperature crawls upwards.

“Barring a massive volcano,” Schmidt says, “2018 will be similar to 2017, and another top three year.”

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