Global hot streak continues: February was Earth’s warmest on record

A man walks along a shorefront with a bridge in the background.
A man walks along a jetty that separates Los Alamitos Bay and the San Gabriel River in Long Beach as a February storm passes through Southern California.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The planet has experienced its ninth consecutive month of record-breaking warmth, with a simmering February rounding out the Northern Hemisphere’s hottest meteorological winter on record, international climate officials announced this week.

The global surface temperature in February was 56.4 degrees — about 0.2 of a degree warmer than the previous February record set in 2016, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.

“February joins the long streak of records of the last few months,” read a statement from Carlo Buontempo, the agency’s director. “As remarkable as this might appear, it is not really surprising as the continuous warming of the climate system inevitably leads to new temperature extremes.”

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Much of the planet’s warmth was attributed to human-caused climate change as fossil fuel emissions continue to trap planet-warming heat.


“The climate responds to the actual concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, so, unless we manage to stabilize those, we will inevitably face new global temperature records and their consequences,” Buontempo said.

But experts say El Niño, a climate pattern in the tropical Pacific associated with warmer global temperatures, has also played a role in the recent warmth.

“It’s not unexepcted at all that we’re having a very warm February shortly after the peak of El Niño conditions,” said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist with the nonprofit Berkeley Earth. He noted that historically, El Niño’s strongest influence arrives about two or three months after its peak.

The latest El Niño advisory from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates that El Niño has been weakening since early January, and there is a 55% chance that its cooler counterpart, La Niña, will develop later this year.

Every bit of planetary warming will have impacts beyond those already occurring, including biodiversity loss, longer heat waves and extreme rainfall.

Feb. 1, 2024

Regardless of El Niño’s influence, February was exceptionally warm.

According to Copernicus, the month was about 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the estimated February average for 1850 to 1900, the designated preindustrial period against which global warming is measured. That’s notably higher than the 2.7-degree limit established under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement — an internationally recognized benchmark for limiting the worst effects of climate change, often referenced as 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The global average temperature for the last 12 months — March 2023 through February — was the highest on record at 2.8 degrees Fahrenheit — 1.56 degrees Celsius — above the preindustrial average, Copernicus said.


What’s more, the daily global temperature was exceptionally high during the first half of February, soaring about 3.6 degrees above preindustrial levels on four consecutive days, Feb. 8-11.

However, a single day, month or year of temperatures above the 2.7-degree limit does not mean the planet has blown past the Paris agreement, which codified that limit, Hausfather said. The guidelines set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change refer to about two decades of warmth above that limit, and it is still likely that there will be some years that fall below it due to natural variability and other factors.

“We’re not quite past 1.5 [degrees Celsius] yet, even though we’re getting dangerously close,” he said. “And to be honest, the ship of the global economy, so to speak, turns so slowly in terms of replacing fossil fuels that it’s almost a foregone conclusion that we are going to pass 1.5 degrees at this point, even if we might not formally pass it until the early 2030s.”

Although global temperatures are likely to fluctuate in the years ahead, the overall trend is clear.

“Every month since June 2023 has set a new monthly temperature record — and 2023 was by far the warmest year on record,” said Celeste Saulo, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, in a report this week. “El Niño has contributed to these record temperatures, but heat-trapping greenhouse gases are unequivocally the main culprit.”


The planet’s oceans are also continuing to experience runaway warmth, with last month marking not only the hottest February on record for sea surface temperatures, but also the highest for any month in the data set, according to Copernicus. The average global sea surface temperature last month was 69.9 degrees Fahrenheit.

Copernicus also noted that Arctic sea ice extent in February was about 2% below average, not as low as in most recent years but “well below the values observed in the 1980s and 1990s.”

Antarctic sea ice reached its annual minimum last month at 28% below average — the third-lowest in the satellite data record and not far from the all-time minimum set in February 2023.

With a global average temperature of 58.96 degrees, the year was nearly one-third of a degree warmer than the previous hottest year on record, according to officials.

Jan. 9, 2024

The causes of the planet’s record warmth remain an active area of scientific research, Hausfather said, with about 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit — or 1.3 degrees Celsius — of warming probably due to human-driven changes.

And although El Niño is believed to have played some role in hot temperatures, there are other potential variables, including the 2022 eruption of the Hunga Tonga volcano, which shot record-breaking amounts of heat-trapping water vapor into the atmosphere.

Some researchers have also noted that recent changes in shipping regulations removed some atmospheric aerosols that were reflecting heat from reaching the planet. A recent uptick in the 11-year solar cycle may also have contributed about a tenth of a degree of warming, Hausfather said.


But of course, “all of this is building off the 1.3 degrees [Celsius] or so that is due to human activity,” he added.

Yet not everywhere on Earth saw simmering temperatures in February.

Although much of the Northern Hemisphere, including the United States, experienced its warmest meteorological winter on record, parts of Southern California and Los Angeles saw temperatures below their historical average, according to a report from AccuWeather. The state ended the month with a major winter blizzard that dumped up to 10 feet of snow across portions of the Sierra Nevada.

Official February data for the U.S. are expected to be released by NOAA later this month. The agency’s latest seasonal temperature outlook indicates that March, April and May will be warmer than average across much of the Northern U.S., including in Northern and Central California.

Should La Niña develop this year as predicted, it could lead to cooler global temperatures in the latter part of the year, but probably will have the biggest influence in 2025, Hausfather said.

As it stands, the simmering start to this year means 2024 probably will be another one for the record books.

“2024 is certainly going to be an exceptionally warm year,” he said. “It might not beat 2023, but if it doesn’t, it’ll be the second warmest year on record.”