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February shatters heat records, becomes hottest month for planet

Temperature departures from normal for the month of February 2016

Story highlights

  • El Niño is not the only factor in the rising temperatures, scientists say
  • Average global temperatures are reaching the ominous 2 degree C threshold

(CNN)The month of February broke another heat record for the planet -- the latest in a string of broken monthly records that bring the Earth closer to the symbolic 2 degree Celsius temperature hike predicted to spark catastrophic consequences.

February smashed the previous record for the warmest February and even became the warmest month ever compared to average, according to NOAA, which released the data Thursday.
    February temperatures over land and ocean averaged a scorching 2.18 F/1.21 C above the 20th century average. With records going back to 1880, that makes 1,646 months of data, and February tops them all. But what's even more remarkable is that the top three months in terms of heat are the past three, going back to December 2015, and they all top 1 C warmer than the 20th century average.
    The planet is rapidly on its way to that 2 degree mark, possibly faster than anyone imagined. In fact, average temperatures over land in February were a mind-boggling 4.16 F/2.31 C above normal, the first time the significant and symbolic 2 degree Celsius bar has been topped.
    During the climate talks of COP21, world leaders pledged to make efforts to keep global warming at an ambitious 1.5 C, which is seen as "dangerous climate change that they want to prevent," according to Imperial College London climate scientist Heather Graven. The fact that these recent monthly deviations are of that scale suggest to Graven that "we're very near that dangerous level of climate change."
    February also marks the 10th consecutive month that ranks as the hottest one of that particular month in the 135-year record -- so for the past 10 months, we've had the hottest January on record, the hottest December ever, the hottest November, etc. This means by May we may have completed the 12-month sweep. That's like a boxer holding all of the championship belts in all of the different weight classes at once!

    What's causing all the heat?

    El Niño is a major driver of the recent uptick in global temperatures. The cycle brings warmer ocean temperatures to large portions of the Pacific Ocean, which provide extra heat to warm the planet. So El Niño years tend to be hotter than neutral or La Niña years. But El Niño alone cannot account for all the extra heat the planet has seen recently.
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    More recent El Niño years are rapidly outpacing El Niño years of the past, and while a switch to La Niña will likely bring global temperatures down a bit, they will still probably be hotter than even past El Niños.
    Many scientists say climate change due to manmade issues is also to blame.
    "We know that atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gases are continuing to increase, so that's contributing to climate change and the rising temperatures overall," said Graven.
    Another clue that is it not simply El Niño causing the recent high temps: studying the map of temperatures from February shows that some of the warmest temperatures compared to average were found in the far northern latitudes. This is not a signal from El Niño -- which primarily impacts tropical and mid-latitude regions. Arctic sea ice, as a result, set a record for the lowest February extent on record -- making another record low Arctic sea ice minimum a real possibility this summer.