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Climate change and energy

Last summer was the hottest in 2,000 years. Here’s how we know.

Researchers rely on tree rings, glaciers, and fossil records to put our current climate in context.

top view closeup of brown slice of freshly cut wood showing dense concentric growth rings
Ion Barbu/Envato

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I’m ready for summer, but if this year is anything like last year, it’s going to be a doozy. In fact, the summer of 2023 in the Northern Hemisphere was the hottest in over 2,000 years, according to a new study released this week. 

If you’ve been following the headlines, you probably already know that last year was a hot one. But I was gobsmacked by this paper’s title when it came across my desk. The warmest in 2,000 years—how do we even know that?

There weren’t exactly thermometers around in the year 1, so scientists have to get creative when it comes to comparing our climate today with that of centuries, or even millennia, ago. Here’s how our world stacks up against the climate of the past, how we know, and why it matters for our future. 

Today, there are thousands and thousands of weather stations around the globe, tracking the temperature from Death Valley to Mount Everest. So there’s plenty of data to show that 2023 was, in a word, a scorcher. 

Daily global ocean temperatures were the warmest ever recorded for over a year straight. Levels of sea ice hit new lows. And of course, the year saw the highest global average temperatures since record-keeping began in 1850.  

But scientists decided to look even further back into the past for a year that could compare to our current temperatures. To do so, they turned to trees, which can act as low-tech weather stations.

The concentric rings inside a tree are evidence of the plant’s yearly growth cycles. Lighter colors correspond to quick growth over the spring and summer, while the darker rings correspond to the fall and winter. Count the pairs of light and dark rings, and you can tell how many years a tree has lived. 

Trees tend to grow faster during warm, wet years and slower during colder ones. So scientists can not only count the rings but measure their thickness, and use that as a gauge for how warm any particular year was. They also look at factors like density and track different chemical signatures found inside the wood. You don’t even need to cut down a tree to get its help with climatic studies—you can just drill out a small cylinder from the tree’s center, called a core, and study the patterns.

The oldest living trees allow us to peek a few centuries into the past. Beyond that, it’s a matter of cross-referencing the patterns on dead trees with living ones, extending the record back in time like putting a puzzle together. 

It’s taken several decades of work and hundreds of scientists to develop the records that researchers used for this new paper, said Max Torbenson, one of the authors of the study, on a press call. There are over 10,000 trees from nine regions across the Northern Hemisphere represented, allowing the researchers to draw conclusions about individual years over the past two millennia. The year 246 CE once held the crown for the warmest summer in the Northern Hemisphere in the last 2,000 years. But 25 of the last 28 years have beat that record, Torbenson says, and 2023’s summer tops them all. 

These conclusions are limited to the Northern Hemisphere, since there are only a few tree ring records from the Southern Hemisphere, says Jan Esper, lead author of the new study. And using tree rings doesn’t work very well for the tropics because seasons look different there, he adds. Since there’s no winter, there’s usually not as reliable an alternating pattern in tropical tree rings, though some trees do have annual rings that track the wet and dry periods of the year. 

Paleoclimatologists, who study ancient climates, can use other methods to get a general idea of what the climate looked like even earlier—tens of thousands to millions of years ago. 

The biggest difference between the new study using tree rings and methods of looking back further into the past is the precision. Scientists can, with reasonable certainty, use tree rings to draw conclusions about individual years in the Northern Hemisphere (536 CE was the coldest, for instance, likely because of volcanic activity). Any information from further back than the past couple of thousand years will be more of a general trend than a specific data point representing a single year. But those records can still be very useful. 

The oldest glaciers on the planet are at least a million years old, and scientists can drill down into the ice for samples. By examining the ratio of gases like oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen inside these ice cores, researchers can figure out the temperature of the time corresponding to the layers in the glacier. The oldest continuous ice-core record, which was collected in Antarctica, goes back about 800,000 years. 

Researchers can use fossils to look even further back into Earth’s temperature record. For one 2020 study, researchers drilled into the seabed and looked at the sediment and tiny preserved shells of ancient organisms. From the chemical signatures in those samples, they found that the temperatures we might be on track to record may be hotter than anything the planet has experienced on a global scale in tens of millions of years. 

It’s a bit sobering to know that we’re changing the planet in such a dramatic way. 

The good news is, we know what we need to do to turn things around: cut emissions of planet-warming gases like carbon dioxide and methane. The longer we wait, the more expensive and difficult it will be to stop warming and reverse it, as Esper said on the press call: “We should do as much as possible, as soon as possible.” 

Now read the rest of The Spark

Related reading

Last year broke all sorts of climate records, from emissions to ocean temperatures. For more on the data, check out this story from December.

How hot is too hot for the human body? I tackled that very question in a 2021 story.  

Two engineers in lab coats monitor the thermal battery powering a conveyor belt of bottles

Another thing

Readers chose thermal batteries as the 11th Breakthrough Technology of 2024. If you want to hear more about what thermal batteries are, how they work, and why this all matters, join us for the latest in our Roundtables series of online events, where I’ll be getting into the nitty-gritty details and answering some audience questions.

This event is exclusively for subscribers, so subscribe if you haven’t already, and then register here to join us tomorrow, May 16, at noon Eastern time. Hope to see you there! 

Keeping up with climate  

Scientists just recorded the largest ever annual leap in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The concentration of the planet-warming gas in March 2024 was 4.7 parts per million higher than it was a year before. (The Guardian)

Tesla has reportedly begun rehiring some of the workers who were laid off from its charging team in recent weeks. (Bloomberg)

→ To catch up on what’s going on at Tesla, and what it means for the future of EV charging and climate tech more broadly, check out the newsletter from last week if you missed it. (MIT Technology Review)

A new rule could spur thousands of miles of new power lines, making it easier to add renewables to the grid in the US. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will require grid operators to plan 20 years ahead, considering things like the speed of wind and solar installations. (New York Times)

Where does carbon dioxide go after it’s been vacuumed out of the atmosphere? Here are 10 options. (Latitude Media)

Ocean temperatures have been extremely high, shattering records over the past year. All that heat could help fuel a particularly busy upcoming hurricane season. (E&E News)

New tariffs in the US will tack on additional costs to a wide range of Chinese imports, including batteries and solar cells. The tariff on EVs will take a particularly drastic jump, going from 27.5% to 102.5%. (Associated Press)

A reporter took a trip to the Beijing Auto Show and drove dozens of EVs. His conclusion? Chinese EVs are advancing much faster than Western automakers can keep up with. (InsideEVs)

Harnessing solar power via satellites in space and beaming it down to Earth is a tempting dream. But the reality, as you might expect, is probably not so rosy. (IEEE Spectrum)

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