2023 is officially the hottest year on record, thanks to climate change and El Niño

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2023 is officially the hottest year on record, thanks to climate change and El Niño
2023 was a year defined by heat. The Earth's surface temperature soared, nearly crossing the critical threshold of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, blazing past several tragic records. According to the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), last year was unlike anything we had seen in the past 100,000 years, leaving us precariously teetering over a narrow edge beyond which unusual extreme weather gradually becomes the unfortunate new norm.
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The repercussions of this relentless warming were felt across the globe. Europe sweltered under unprecedented summer temperatures, while the Horn of Africa endured another year of crippling drought. Even Australia and South America experienced record winter warmth, a grim foreshadowing of a world reshaped by climate change. Many Indian states, such as Andhra Pradesh, also experienced the highest number of heatwave days in 2023.

Perhaps one of the more concerning revelations was the fact that nearly half of 2023 had breached the 1.5°C limit, a point beyond which climate impacts become self-reinforcing and potentially irreversible. Further, two days in November 2023 even exceeded pre-industrial levels by an almost unfathomable 2°C.

In fact, current Copernicus forecasts show that the 12-month period ending in Jan or Feb of the ongoing year will most likely see temperatures spill into the 1.5°C average. While human activity no doubt helped spurred this on, another notable culprit was the naturally occuring El Niño phenomenon, characterised by unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean that pushes a great deal of global temperatures higher. This phase is likely to reach its peak in 2024.

But it wasn't just the El Niño patch, either; exceptional levels of warming affected nearly every ocean on the planet. Earth's oceans absorb over 90% of the excess heat generated by human activity, and this energy inadvertently funnels into unprecedented marine heatwaves that devastate aquatic life, intensify storms, and melt ice shelves that contribute to rising sea levels across the globe.

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UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres termed 2023 "a mere preview of the catastrophic future that awaits us if we don't act now." Fortunately, simply breaching the 1.5°C limit does not mean all is lost yet; the trend needs to continue for a few successive years. Even then, the 2015 Paris Agreement gives us a little breathing room to make amends for such "overshoots".

As climate researcher Ed Hawkins puts it, "Such events will continue to get worse until we transition away from fossil fuels and reach net-zero emissions." The future of our planet, and the well-being of generations to come, hangs in the balance.
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