Climate models can’t explain 2023’s huge heat anomaly — we could be in uncharted territory

by G. Schmidt, Mar 19, 2024 in Nature

Taking into account all known factors, the planet warmed 0.2 °C more last year than climate scientists expected. More and better data are urgently needed.

When I took over as the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, I inherited a project that tracks temperature changes since 1880. Using this trove of data, I’ve made climate predictions at the start of every year since 2016. It’s humbling, and a bit worrying, to admit that no year has confounded climate scientists’ predictive capabilities more than 2023 has.

For the past nine months, mean land and sea surface temperatures have overshot previous records each month by up to 0.2 °C — a huge margin at the planetary scale. A general warming trend is expected because of rising greenhouse-gas emissions, but this sudden heat spike greatly exceeds predictions made by statistical climate models that rely on past observations. Many reasons for this discrepancy have been proposed but, as yet, no combination of them has been able to reconcile our theories with what has happened.

For a start, prevalent global climate conditions one year ago would have suggested that a spell of record-setting warmth was unlikely. Early last year, the tropical Pacific Ocean was coming out of a three-year period of La Niña, a climate phenomenon associated with the relative cooling of the central and eastern Pacific Ocean. Drawing on precedents when similar conditions prevailed at the beginning of a year, several climate scientists, including me, put the odds of 2023 turning out to be a record warm year at just one in five.