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If you took a walk in Phoenix, Arizona, in late July 2023 and tripped—perhaps over a buckling concrete sidewalk—the tumble could have landed you in the hospital at the local burn unit. Pavement temperatures sizzled over 80 °C, and local news outlets reported hospitals full of burn patients who had fallen on the skillet-hot streets.
Around the same time, Floridians were soaking in an ocean as steamy as a hot tub. In early August, the Persian Gulf reached similar extremes, hovering around 37 °C. Meanwhile, people in Chile, Argentina, and Paraguay were sweltering in 30 °C heat. That wouldn’t be so unusual, except it was the middle of winter. Temperatures soared 20 °C above average.
According to a new report from Berkeley Earth, August 2023 was the planet’s hottest August since written records began in 1850, with temperatures hovering 1.7 °C above the historical baseline. August was also 0.3 °C warmer than the previous high set in 2016. That’s a huge margin, states the report. July was also the hottest month ever recorded on the planet; an analysis from Climate Central found more than 3.8 billion people were exposed to extreme heat from June through August.
The searing heat was a result of human-caused climate change combined with El Niño. While humans are raising the Earth’s temperature by about 0.2 °C per decade, during El Niño, trade winds that keep the eastern Pacific Ocean cool weaken, impacting weather patterns around the world. Most heat records occur in El Niño years.
This kind of extreme heat is also hurtling us toward the 1.5 °C warming limit set in the 2016 Paris Agreement, aimed at staving off the worst effects of climate change. While the summer highs don’t necessarily mean we’ve missed the target, they’re evidence that the planet is warming faster than expected. According to the report, we’re on track to exceed the 1.5 °C threshold in the 2030s unless countries significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions soon.
In the meantime, 2023 will almost certainly go down as the hottest year on record—at least so far. We’ll be watching out for extreme temperatures in 2024 and keep you updated.