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Hot year a warning for Lowcountry

Climate Change

Flooding on Market Street during an afternoon rain Wednesday, June 19, 2013 in Charleston (Paul Zoeller/postandcourier.com)

No, the spring-like weather Charleston has enjoyed for much of this January isn’t in and of itself a sign of dangerous climate change. But the fact that the world sizzled under temperatures much hotter than average for most of 2016 may very well be.

On Wednesday, both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that 2016 was the hottest year on record, the third year in a row to earn that disturbing distinction.

It’s important to note that an unusually strong El Niño weather pattern affected global temperatures throughout much of 2015 and 2016. That natural, cyclical phenomenon is characterized by warmer than average temperatures in the Pacific Ocean and causes weather disturbances around the world. So what might otherwise have been simply warmer than usual years likely got a record-breaking boost.

But El Niño alone can’t explain the planet’s trend toward higher temperatures. All but one of the past 17 years have ranked among the hottest since record keeping began in the 19th century. The last record-breaking year for cold was 1911.

NASA and NOAA data calculate average temperatures from measurements around the planet, but Charleston set a few records of its own lately.

On Jan. 13, the city broke a record daily high temperature — 79 degrees beat out the previous 75 degree record set in 1954. It was the fifth record-setting day of the year so far.

And last July’s sweltering heat wave earned it the title of Charleston’s hottest month ever. The average temperature of 86.2 degrees edged out the 86.1 degree record set in 1986. July is always a hot month for Charleston, of course, but the rest of the summer was unusually warm as well. And the season was the hottest on record for a whopping 45 major cities nationwide, according to the Southeast Regional Climate Center.

Lowcountry residents might actually enjoy balmier winters and beach friendly summers, but the global trend toward record-breaking heat poses a serious threat to the region we call home.

Melting ice — much of the Arctic averaged 20-30 degrees above normal temperatures this fall, for example — and warming oceans appear to be already contributing to rising sea levels and stronger hurricanes.

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Water levels in Charleston Harbor are roughly a foot higher today than they were a century ago. The city averages some 38 days of tidal flooding each year, and estimates suggest that number could rise as high as 180 in as little as 30 years.

For much of the Charleston area and other coastal communities, higher seas and bigger storms would prove disastrous.

President Donald Trump casually dismissed the reality of global warming during his campaign and nominated well-known climate skeptics to key Cabinet positions.

During his confirmation hearing last week, however, the president’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, acknowledged that humans have an impact on climate change. So did former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has been selected to head the Department of Energy.

Even President Trump has shown willingness to take climate change seriously since winning the election. But the Trump website states that he will work quickly to undo many of President Obama’s sensible environmental protections.

It offers some reassurance that prospective Cabinet officials appear to have shifted course, recognizing a very real threat to the nation’s stability and prosperity.

But now they must turn words into action. And doing so must be a priority.

Some might view warm weather in January as a silver lining to a troubling trend. But record-breaking global temperatures of the past few years ought to demonstrate the need for decisive, cooperative action on climate change — before it’s too late.

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