The Earth saw its warmest year on record in 2016, the third year in a row that the average surface temperature reached a new high, federal officials said Wednesday.
The temperature record, announced jointly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), marks a new era in modern record keeping with three years in a row of new record highs, which last occurred in the 1930s.
Scientists believe that the temperature records such as the one announced Wednesday are almost certainly caused mainly by human-driven climate change, due to greenhouse gas emissions.
The announcement came days before the inauguration of President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSix big off-year elections you might be missing Twitter suspends GOP Rep. Banks for misgendering trans health official Meghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' MORE, who has said that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China and pledged to completely repeal the climate agenda of President Obama, the first president to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to fight climate change.
It also came during the Senate confirmation hearing of Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, and a frequent litigator against Obama’s environmental agenda.
"This was the warmest year of NASA records by about 1.2 degrees Celsius, compared to the last year, which was 2015, which was the record warmest year then, and then 2014, which was the record warmest year then," Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told reporters in a conference call Wednesday.
But federal officials emphasized that a decades-long trend of rising temperatures is the important take-away from the data.
"The main take-home result here is that the trends that we’ve been seeing since the 1970s are continuing and have not paused in any way," Schmidt said.
"It’s actually a multi-decade trend," said Deke Arndt, the top climate monitor at NOAA. "2016 being the warmest year on record is a data point at the end of many data points that indicates several decades of warming that continues."
The El Niño weather pattern helped increase temperatures month-to-month in 2015 and 2016, but Schmidt and Arndt said human activity, mainly through greenhouse gases, is causing the long-term trend.
"Effectively, the natural component over this time period is very close to zero, and pretty much all of the long-term trend that we’re seeing is attributable to human activity," Schmidt said. "The dominant part of that is the increase in greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide.”
The federal data found that average global surface temperature was 1.69 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average for similar periods, which was approximately 57 degrees.
The World Meteorological Organization and the climate monitoring agencies of Europe and Japan and other nations have come to similar conclusions regarding 2016’s record temperature.
—Updated at 12:17 p.m.