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Second warmest March on record

Matthew Cappucci

THE WASHINGTON POST – March 2023 will go down in the books as tying for the second warmest March on record. That’s according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service of the European Union.

Temperatures globally were several degrees above average in most places outside the western United States (US) where a stagnant weather pattern allowed cooler than typical readings to hang around most of the month. The unusually warm month occurred even before the projected arrival of the El Niño climate pattern, which increases global temperatures.

Still, the relatively warm month is consistent with the expectations of climate scientists amid a swiftly warming environment.

March represents the 529th month in a row with temperatures exceeding the 20th-Century average. That’s more than 44 years straight without a single comparatively cool month.

“These March statistics are not surprising, as we’re breaking monthly records almost (every) year now,” a climate scientist and Professor of Environment and Society at Brown University Kim Cobb, wrote in an e-mail.


Copernicus determined that the March global average temperature was -17 degrees Celsius (°C) above the 1991 to 2020 normal. This warmth helped last month tie with 2017, 2019 and 2020 as the second warmest month on record.

There still exists a substantial gap of about 0.2 degree, between March 2023 and the current first-place record holder, which is March 2016.

A strong El Niño pattern was present in March 2016, boosting temperatures. El Niño begins as a warming of ocean waters in the eastern tropical Pacific, which warms the surrounding air and shuffles weather patterns across the northern hemisphere and beyond. Global temperatures tend to be higher during periods dominated by El Niño.

At present, ENSO, or the El Niño Southern Oscillation – the overarching pattern that oscillates between El Niño and La Niña – is in a neutral state. In other words, we’re at the midpoint between both extremes, without any particularly prominent push in either direction. That’s what makes the current level of warmth stand out.

“What I still find shocking is that the last eight years were the eight warmest years on record,” Cobb said. “That’s truly exceptional, given that year-to-year temperatures are impacted by natural variations associated (with) El Niño’s and La Niña’s.” The extent of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice was also well below average during the month, flirting with record lows in both hemispheres.

“For a while, there were dynamical effects related to El Nino/La Nina, and changing wind patterns, that left Antarctic sea ice relatively unchanged even in the face of record decreases in Arctic sea ice,” a Professor of Climate Science at the University of Pennsylvania Michael Mann, wrote in an e-mail.

“But the effects of a warming planet, and in particular the record ocean warmth we documented earlier this year… is clearly now winning out.”


In the US, March was a mixed bag. The western US experienced temperatures several degrees below average, whereas considerable mildness was present most of the month over the East Boston, for example, was 2.5 degrees above average, New York was 1.8 degrees above average, Washington was 1.5 degrees warmer and Atlanta ran 2.4 degrees on the mild side.

On the West Coast, however, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. San Francisco was 3.3 degrees below normal, Los Angeles ran 3.6 degrees cooler, Denver was 5.7 degrees below average and Albuquerque was 3.5 degrees chilly.

That cross-country clash – characterised by a frigid west and warm, humid east – allowed repeated rounds of violent storms over the central states and South. The month ended with a tornado outbreak that carried into April 1, with 123 tornadoes confirmed thus far. The US has seen around 60 tornado deaths this year, which is more than twice last year’s total.

While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hasn’t yet announced how temperatures over the US compared to historical averages, February, which featured a similarly divisive weather pattern, still averaged out 2.7 degrees above normal, and January was a staggering 5.1 degrees ahead of average.


Worldwide, March came on the heels of the fourth warmest February on record. Before that, January was the seventh warmest on record. Considering a recent La Niña was subduing the expression of underlying warming affecting the atmosphere, it’s likely that the upcoming El Niño pattern will catapult the planet into a reliable spot near the top of the leader board over the coming months. Sea surface temperature differences from normal worldwide in the tropics and subtropics, between 15°C north and 15°C south of the equator, are at a record for April, according to the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer.

In mid-March, average ocean water temperatures surpassed 21°C for the first time on record.

With El Niño expected to take the reigns soon, there’s a majority chance that 2023 ends up as one of the top five warmest years on record.

“If even a moderate El Niño materialises in 2023, it could very well usher in a new global temperature record, beating out 2016, which was a very strong El Niño event,” Cobb said.

Since preindustrial times, Earth has warmed 1.9 degrees, and there’s no sign of that slowing anytime soon. Copernicus projects the Earth will eclipse 1.5°C of global warming by August of 2034.

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