More than just a hot summer

In this Jan. 20, 2010 file photo, waves pound a wall near buildings in Pacifica, Calif., during a rain storm. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

It’s hot in Charleston right now, and the rest of the world is sweltering, too.

In fact, some scientists say 2015 is likely on track to become the planet’s hottest year on record, beating out 2014, which currently holds that title, according to data from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration released this month.

The numbers are startling.

With just over half the year behind us, four months in 2015 have already broken all-time temperature records. February, March, May and June each were the hottest since 1880, when official documentation began. This June was the hottest ever by nearly one-quarter of a degree Fahrenheit, which is an unusually large margin.

It’s not actually scorching everywhere, of course. The Southern Hemisphere is currently in the middle of winter, and certain parts of the Northern Hemisphere have enjoyed cooler than average summers. Parts of the United States endured a record cold year in 2014, even as the rest of the planet baked.

Some of this year’s heat likely stems from the El Nino weather pattern, currently in effect and likely to strengthen going into next year. El Nino is marked by warmer than average water near the equator in the Pacific Ocean which affects ocean currents and weather trends around the world.

But it’s clearly not the only factor. More than two dozen monthly global heat records have been broken in just the last 15 years. The last record cold month was recorded almost a century ago.

That should particularly concern residents of low-lying coastal cities, like our own. Melting glaciers and polar ice, combined with the volume expansion caused by warmer ocean water, stand to create a potentially disastrous sea-level rise.

To be sure, estimates vary widely regarding the extent and immediacy of the rise, from a few inches over a century to several feet in the next few decades. But in cities like Charleston, several inches could mean the difference between a functioning infrastructure and perpetually flooded streets, for example.

Even at current levels, persistent flooding is a serious enough problem to merit an ongoing multi-million dollar effort to protect streets from the potent combination of high tides and heavy rains.

Beyond snarling traffic, significantly higher sea levels would threaten delicate coastal environments and wildlife. Those ecosystems are key to the quality of life and health of the Lowcountry community.

In a worst-case scenario, much of the area could be mostly uninhabitable within a few generations. That’s more than enough reason to take climate change seriously.

Charlestonians have weathered more than a few scorching, humid afternoons this summer, and there are surely more to come.

But if current climate trends continue unchecked, we will all have a lot more to worry about than the heat and humidity.