Earth's global average surface temperature in 2020 tied with 2016.
Sunset at the Beach
Credit: Vicki Smith/Getty Images

2020 was certainly the strangest year many of us have ever lived through. Now, NASA scientists are releasing another staggering statistic about the past 12 months: Earth's global average surface temperature in 2020 tied with 2016 as the warmest year on record. For NASA and environmental scientists, this statistic should come as no surprise. "The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record, typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend," said GISS Director Gavin Schmidt. "Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important—the important things are long-term trends. With these trends, and as the human impact on the climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken."

The average land and ocean surface temperature across the globe in 2020 was 1.76 degrees Fahrenheit (0.98 of a degree C) above average—just 0.04 of a degree Fahrenheit (0.02 of a degree C) cooler than the 2016 record. According to scientists at NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information, it was also the 44th consecutive year with global land and ocean temperatures, at least nominally, above the 20th-century average.

Schmidt says that until we can curb greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities, we will continue to see rising temperatures worldwide year after year. One of the hottest places in the world in 2020 was Siberia, which has been exceptionally hot since last January. "Records like this further reinforce the need to reduce our emissions sooner rather than later," said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at Berkeley Earth.

Although this year was still one of the warmest on record, two factors prevented the Earth from warming even more drastically. During the first half of the year, the Australian bush fires, which burned 46 million acres of land, released smoke and other particles more than 18 miles high in the atmosphere, blocking sunlight and ultimately cooling the atmosphere ever so slightly. Global shutdowns related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic appear to have reduced the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions last year as well. "This year has been a very striking example of what it's like to live under some of the most severe effects of climate change that we've been predicting," said Lesley Ott, a research meteorologist at NASA.


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