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Setting and smashing extreme temperature records over the coming century

Abstract

Changes in the intensity or frequency of extreme climate events can profoundly increase the disruption caused by climate change1,2,3,4. The more extreme these events, the greater the potential to push ecosystems and communities beyond their ability to cope3,5. The rate at which existing high temperature records have been broken has increased in response to rising global greenhouse gas emissions (GGHGEs)2,6,7,8, and the rate at which historical records are surpassed is projected to increase further over the coming century1,2,9,10. Here we examine future events that will be so extreme that they will not have been experienced previously. Record setting in 22 climate models11 indicates that, by the end of the twenty-first century, under business-as-usual increases in GGHGEs (representative concentration pathway (RCP) 8.5 (ref. 12)), high monthly mean temperature records will be set in approximately 58% of the world every year, and in 67% of least developed countries and 68% of small island developing states. These figures all drop to 14% under a scenario with much lower GHG concentrations (RCP2.6 (ref. 12)). In any given year, the likelihood of ‘smashing’ at least one monthly record by more than 1.0 °C is much less likely under RCP2.6 than it is under RCP8.5 (1.1 versus 8.9%).

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Data availability

The model output and observational data are publicly available from https://cmip.llnl.gov/cmip5/data_portal.html and https://crudata.uea.ac.uk/cru/data/temperature/.

Code availability

Code is available upon request from S.P.

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Acknowledgements

This research was partially inspired by a presentation given by M. Crosweller, the former Director-General of Emergency Management Australia, in which he highlighted major challenges faced by firefighting agencies arising from the occurrence of unprecedented and extreme bushfires in Australia. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP), and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP, the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. This research was undertaken with the support of the Australian National Environmental Science Programme’s Earth Systems and Climate Change Science Hub, and with the assistance of resources from the Australian National Computational Infrastructure. We also wish to thank I. Grant for constructive comments on previous drafts.

Author information

S.P devised the hypotheses. S.P. and F.D. designed the methods used. F.D. implemented the complex code required for all of the climate model analysis. S.P. and F.D. designed and implemented the Monte Carlo analyses. S.P. wrote the paper with critical input from F.D. F.D. produced nearly all the figures.

Correspondence to Scott B. Power or François P. D. Delage.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information: Nature Climate Change thanks Alexander Robinson, Yangyang Xu and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Tables 1–4 and Supplementary Figures 1–12.

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Fig. 1: Time series showing the percentage area of the world in which at least one monthly record was broken, by year.
Fig. 2: Maps indicating the number of high monthly records set per decade during the period 2070–2099.
Fig. 3: Scatter plots of the number of high records set (per decade) during the period 2070–2099 versus the change in standardized mean.
Fig. 4: The magnitude of monthly record breaks.
Fig. 5: Impact of restricting global warming on Nrecs, and the location of countries in three UNFCCC Parties; the proportion of countries in each party breaking the number of records indicated, under the scenarios considered; and the magnitude of record breaks for each UNFCCC party.