Hot planet: January 2020 was warmest January in 141 years of records, NOAA says

PHOENIX – Last month was Earth’s warmest January on record, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports, and that was true in Arizona, where January 2020’s average temperature was 3.2 degrees above the historic average.

Across the United States, it was the fifth warmest January in 141 years of climate records, NOAA reported Feb. 13. Temperatures were above average in the Southwest, it said, and almost the entire East Coast experienced “much above average” temperatures.

The four warmest Januaries documented in the climate record have occurred since 2016, NOAA said, and the 10 warmest all have occurred since 2002.

Although Arizona’s 2020 January temperature rose 3.2 degrees above the historic average temperature, the increases in Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff were less than 1 degree.

“We try to look at the longer term,” said Nancy Selover, the state’s climatologist. “And it’s (the temperature) been rising.”

Selover said last month’s temperature rise can be attributed to lower than average precipitation this winter.

“It’s not been a really, really dry winter that we’ve seen in the past, but it’s been a little drier than normal,” Selover said. “We haven’t seen the winter storms come down and dip into the state as much as we would normally see.”

Summer monsoon storms can turn around a dry winter, Selover said, but if the spring ends up being dry, too, Arizona could be looking at a busy wildfire season.

Tracking these trends can be tricky because of spikes in the short term, she said.

“You can always cut up a graph into a bunch of tiny, little pieces and, of course, the temperatures will fluctuate up and down. We try not to do that. We try to look at the long term,” which gives a better understanding of the changes taking place, Selover said.

Average January temperatures in Arizona have been rising since the early 1950s.

NOAA – a Commerce Department agency whose mission is “to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others” – said January 2020 marked the 44th consecutive January and the 421st consecutive month with temperatures at least nominally above the 20th-century average. No records for low temperatures were set anywhere, it said.

Asia had the most dramatic increase in temperatures in January, NOAA said, and in Russia, temperature departures were at least 9 degrees. South America recorded its second highest monthly January temperature.

The Northern Hemisphere’s ocean and land temperature rose 2.7 degrees above the historic average, NOAA said. In addition, Arctic sea ice declined 5.3% below the 1981-2010 average and snow cover across the Northern Hemisphere fell below the 1981-2010 average.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

SoCal has Officially Sloshed its Way out of Drought Conditions

LOS ANGELES – Here’s some feel-good SoCal water news: We’re finally free of drought conditions.

Even though former Gov. Jerry Brown declared the drought emergency over in 2017, things had still been exceptionally dry, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska.

Per its latest map, released this Thursday, that’s finally changed.

U.S. Drought Monitor map, released on March 6, 2019 (Graphic courtesy University of Nebraska)

“The big story out west is the seemingly never ending parade of Pacific storms that are certainly erasing the drought and dryness concerns in the short term,” said Eric Luebehusen, meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and author of this week’s drought map.

Snowpack, the wetness of the snow and the moisture levels in vegetation and (sometimes) soil are all considered when drawing it up.

The series of atmospheric rivers delivered a major respite from the dryness. And unlike a few years ago, the precipitation we’ve been getting has been enough to make a serious difference in our water picture.

Southern California has received 122 percent of its average rainfall since Oct. 1, good news for gardeners and groundwater supplies.

If you want to feel extra good, take a look at the Sierra Nevadas, where we get a large portion of our water.

Sierra snowpack as of March 6, 2019. (Graphic courtesy California Department of Water Resources)

The latest snowpack measurement shows that 113 inches of snow have fallen (153 percent of average), and most importantly, it’s very wet.

Reservoirs statewide are doing well, too.

“It looks like overall the water picture is looking pretty good,” said Michael Anderson, climatologist with the California Department of Water Resources.

California’s reservoir levels as of March 6, 2019. (Graphic courtesy California Department of Water Resources)

But is anything ever really forever?

“Our seasonal and long range forecasting skill is pretty weak,” he said, so “given the wild year-to-year variability that California sees, there just really isn’t any way to know what comes next.”

Scientists have been saying for years that climate change could bring increased variability between extreme dry and extreme wet periods. For all we know, next year could be the start of a long term drought.

In addition, the past five years have been California’s hottest on record, and according to the latest climate assessment we could see temperatures rise between 5.6 and 8.8 degrees across the state by 2100. More heat means a greater loss of soil moisture and rising snow lines, something we’re already seeing.

-Video Report by Jodi Guerrero/Cronkite News