During the hottest month that humans have ever recorded, a local television station in the Netherlands aired non-stop images of wintry landscapes to help viewers momentarily forget the heatwave outside.
Officials in Switzerland and elsewhere painted stretches of rail tracks white, hoping to keep them from buckling in the extreme heat. At the port of Antwerp, two alleged drug dealers called the police for help after they got stuck inside a shipping container filled with cocaine and feared they would suffocate in the heat. In Paris, people piled into movie theaters – some of the only air-conditioned places in town.
Wildfires raged across millions of acres in the Arctic. A massive ice melt event in Greenland sent hundreds of billions of tons of water pouring into the Atlantic Ocean, raising sea levels. And temperature records evaporated, one after another: 101.7 in Cambridge, England. 108.7 degrees in Paris. The same in Lingen, Germany.
“We have always lived through hot summers. But this is not the summer of our youth. This is not your grandfather’s summer,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters as July gave way to August.
On Monday, data from a European climate agency made official what Guterres and others warned was likely: July was the warmest month the world has experienced since record-keeping began more than a century ago.
The Copernicus Climate Change Service, a program of the European Union, calculated that last month narrowly edged out July 2016 for the dubious distinction of hottest month on record. The month was 1.01 degrees (0.56 Celsius) above the 1981 to 2010 average, “Which is close to 1.2 Celsius above the pre-industrial level as defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),” the agency said in a statement. The month beat July 2016 by about 0.07 degrees (0.04 Celsius).
Scientists found that the planet is on pace for one of its hottest years, and the data all but guarantee that the period from 2015 to 2019 will go down as the warmest five-year period on record.
“July has re-written climate history, with dozens of new temperature records at [the] local, national and global level,” Petteri Taalas, the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization, said in announcing the month’s historic implications. “This is not science fiction. It is the reality of climate change. It is happening now and it will worsen in the future without urgent climate action.”
Copernicus reports its monthly temperature rankings earlier than other temperature-tracking agencies such as NASA, and its rankings may differ slightly because it uses a different source for its data. The monthly ranking was generated by taking millions of readings from weather balloons, satellites, buoys and other sources on an hourly basis and feeding them into a computer model.
The results still must be checked against observational records gathered from networks of thousands of temperature measuring sites around the world. Those readings ultimately will be reported by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies in the coming weeks. But the final results are not likely to differ significantly from Copernicus, according to scientists.
Notably, July’s monthly temperature record comes without the added influence of a strong “El Niño” event in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Such natural climate events, which typically occur about every five to seven years, add heat to the oceans and atmosphere and help boost planetary temperatures. The 2016 record, for example, occurred during a year with an extremely strong El Niño.
“While we don’t expect every year to set a new record, the fact that it’s happening every few years is a clear sign of a warming climate,” said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist with Berkeley Earth.
A study released Friday by a group of researchers who study climate change’s role in extreme weather found that climate change made July’s heat wave at least 10 times more likely.
The report from World Weather Attribution, which has not been peer-reviewed by an academic journal, also found that by raising global average surface temperatures, climate change boosted the heat wave’s intensity by as much as 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 Celsius).
From scorching heat in Europe to gargantuan wildfires in Siberia and Alaska, the record heat of July 2019 left its mark on people and the ecosystems they depend on.
The monthly temperature spike was driven largely by record warmth in Western Europe, including the searing heatwave that made its way to the Arctic and culminated in one of the most significant melt events ever recorded in Greenland. The Greenland ice sheet poured 197 billion tons of water into the North Atlantic in July alone – enough to raise global sea levels by 0.5 millimeters, or 0.02 inches.
Alaska also saw its warmest month on record. There and elsewhere across the Arctic, simultaneous and massive wildfires erupted, consuming millions of acres and emitting startling amounts of greenhouse gases. Arctic sea ice was at a record low for the month.
In Canada, a military installation in Alert, Nunavut – the northernmost permanently inhabited place on Earth – recorded an all-time high temperature of 69.8 degrees on July 14, breaking a record set in 1956. The average July high for the outpost, some 600 miles from the North Pole, is 44.6 degrees.
In Belgium, one zoo fed its tigers with chickens frozen into blocks of ice. The Kleine Brogel airbase briefly held the all-time national heat record, prompting nervous joking after a NATO body accidentally published a document noting that U.S. nuclear weapons are stored there.
In Paris, local officials set up impromptu “cooling rooms” in each neighborhood where people could find air conditioning and cold water.
In parts of Germany, authorities saw themselves forced to lower autobahn speed limits over concerns that the German high-speed motorways might suffer heat damages. Undeterred, one motor scooter rider took to the roads of eastern Germany, but was stopped after officers spotted him wearing nothing aside from a helmet.
In the German capital of Berlin, residents took matters into their own hands and circulated maps on social media that showed the locations of air-conditioned public spaces. Portable air conditioners and fans quickly sold out, and one Berlin-based installer suspended its phone service. A recorded voice message cited a flood of calls the company was no longer able to handle.
Damodhar Ughade, a cotton farmer in the village of Seeras in western India’s Vidarbha region, felt like he was re-living a nightmare in July after a devastating heatwave in June.
While droughts due to delayed monsoons are not infrequent, he says this year was the worst since 1972, when scores of arid villagers migrated to cities. As temperatures soared to 102 degrees – not as bad as the 118 degrees in June, but still brutal – his fields lay parched and his livestock starved, and the village ran out of drinking water.
“There were 2-feet cracks in my field. It was impossible to even walk on it,” he said by phone. He said the lack of reliable water led women to walk two hours to other villages, carrying earthen pots on their heads in search of water. Men rented small vehicles and carried tankers to nearby cities to buy water.
The scarcity was so severe that there was not enough water to share with the oxen. About 15 died in the village, he said.
In England, 22-year-old Andrea D’Aleo had the unenviable job of shuttling passengers down the River Cam – the main river that flows through Cambridge, a scenic university town about 60 miles north of London. He was standing at the back of a long, flat-bottomed boat, digging a long pole against the river bed. Normally, he said, umbrellas are used to fend off rain showers, but on Thursday tourists used them as as parasols.
“It was challenging,” D’Aleo said of working as a tour guide in the intense heat. “I was talking to a bunch of umbrellas while dying in the sun.”
Four years ago in Paris, world leaders committed to doing all they could to prevent the globe from warming more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 Celsius), with the goal of keeping warming to no more than 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 Celsius), compared to preindustrial levels.
But the commitments that countries made in Paris are far too modest to meet those targets. Last week, as the head of the United Nations recognized the likelihood that the world had just experienced its hottest month on record, he pleaded with national leaders to summon the will to take the kind of aggressive action that could put the globe on a more sustainable trajectory.
“This year alone, we have seen temperature records shattered from New Delhi to Anchorage, from Paris to Santiago, from Adelaide and to the Arctic Circle,” Guterres said. “If we do not take action on climate change now, these extreme weather events are just the tip of the iceberg. And, indeed, the iceberg is also rapidly melting.”
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The Washington Post’s Amanda Coletta in Toronto, Michael Birnbaum in Prague, Niha Masih in New Delhi, Karla Adam in London, Rick Noack in Berlin and James McAuley in Paris contributed to this report.