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2016 Was the Hottest Year Ever Recorded

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Man, it’s a hot one. And by “it” we mean 2016. Reports issued this week by NASA [PDF], NOAA, and the UK Met Office have all concluded that 2016 was the hottest year on record, beating out the sweltering temperatures of the prior two years—which were also record breakers. 

Experts have been taking our planet’s temperature every day since the late 1880s. Longer-term models and projections suggest that the last time Earth got this hot was about 115,000 years ago [PDF].

Last year saw an eight-month stretch of record-high global temperatures from January to August, and all low temperatures met or exceeded the 20th-century average. Sea ice shrank and water levels rose.

Climate scientists like Michael Mann of Penn State University say there can be no doubt about the cause. “The effect of human activity on our climate is no longer subtle,” he told The Guardian. “It’s plain as day, as are the impacts—in the form of record floods, droughts, superstorms, and wildfires—that it is having on us and our planet."

Participants in 2015's Paris accord agreed on the importance of limiting further climate change, and set a maximum cap of a 1.5°C increase in average temperature. We’re currently at 1.1°C.

The time to act is now, says NOAA’s Kevin Trenberth, who says that those who oppose environmental protections for financial reasons would be wise to reconsider. “While there may be some cost in mitigating climate change,” he told The Guardian, “there are already major costs in damages.”

Appealing directly to lawmakers’ wallets, Trenberth argues that “sensible approaches” to cutting emissions and boosting climate resilience “can actually make it a net gain, not only for the planet [but] for everyone.”

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Britain Is in the Midst of a Rare ‘Wind Drought’
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Generating renewable energy in Britain is a little less than a breeze these days: A “wind drought” is halting the country’s wind turbines.

This month’s wind energy output is down 40 percent from the same time last year, New Scientist reports. On average, about 15 percent of Britain’s electricity comes from wind power. Data starting from July 1 of this year put the monthly average closer to 6.9 percent. Last month, turbines were producing less than 2 percent of Britain’s electricity—the lowest output in two years.

That’s with even more wind turbines being installed over the course of the past year, New Scientist says. The data aren’t entirely surprising, though. The jet stream tends to make the UK’s weather drier and calmer during the summer and wetter and stormier during the winter. But the high pressure the jet stream has brought with it this year has been unusually prolonged, scientists say.

“It’s like a lid, it keeps everything still,” UK Met Office spokesperson Grahame Madge told New Scientist. “From the forecast looking out over the next couple of weeks, there doesn’t seem to be any significant change on the way.”

The wind drought shouldn’t cause too many problems in the short term. Electricity demand is low during the summer (very few British homes have air conditioning), and the country’s been able to compensate for the lack of wind by burning more natural gas. If the wind drought continues to persist, though, UK residents may begin to see an increase in utility fees. Natural gas prices have already risen with the increased demand.

“As we continue to transition to a low-carbon energy system, managing the intermittency of renewable power an important role in balancing supply and demand,” a National Grid spokesperson told New Scientist. “However, we have planned for these changes and [are] ready to play our part.”

The wind drought comes about eight years after British politicians vowed to reduce the UK's dependence on fossil fuels. Last year was the first year that electricity generated from low-carbon energy sources like solar power, wind power, and nuclear power outpaced high-carbon energy sources like coal and natural gas. This summer’s wind drought may make it difficult to improve on last year’s numbers.

[h/t New Scientist]

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Why Does the Sky Look Green Before a Tornado?
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A common bit of folklore from tornado-prone parts of the U.S. says that when the skies start taking on an emerald hue, it's time to run inside. But why do tornadoes tend to spawn green skies in the first place? As SciShow's Michael Aranda explains, the answer has to do with the way water droplets reflect the colors of the light spectrum.

During the day, the sky is usually blue because the shorter, bluer end of the light spectrum bounces off air molecules better than than redder, longer-wavelength light. Conditions change during the sunset (and sunrise), when sunlight has to travel through more air, and when storms are forming, which means there are more water droplets around.

Tornadoes forming later in the day, around sunset, do a great job of reflecting the green part of the light spectrum that's usually hidden in a sunset because of the water droplets in the clouds, which bounce green light into our eyes. But that doesn't necessarily mean a twister is coming—it could just mean a lot of rain is in the forecast. Either way, heading inside is probably a good idea.

For the full details on how water and light conspire to turn the sky green before a storm, check out the SciShow video below.

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