Washington It's cold comfort to people shivering in much of the United States right now, but 2003 tied for the world's second-hottest year, according to new federal government data released Thursday.
In what meteorologists say is new evidence that global warming is real and worsening, the world's average temperature last year was 58.03 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. That's 1.03 degrees warmer than the 124-year world average.
Going into December, it looked as though 2003 would rank only third hottest, but a toasty last month tied the year with 2002 for second place since record-keeping began Jan. 1, 1880, said Jay Lawrimore, the global data center's climate monitoring chief.
The hottest year was 1998, with an average temperature of 58.14.
The five hottest years on record all have occurred since 1997, and the 10 hottest since 1990. It has been 221 months since the world recorded a colder-than-normal month.
The consensus of climate scientists is that the world is warming and will continue to get hotter because gases emitted from burning fossil fuels are trapping heat from the sun, causing the atmosphere to get warmer, as happens in a greenhouse.
Global temperatures increased 1 degree in the 20th century and probably will increase 2 to 10 more degrees by 2100, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group that includes many of the world's leading weather experts, predicted in 2001.
"Mother Nature keeps reminding us that (global warming) is going on," said Kevin Trenberth, the head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "The evidence never really comes out to contradict it, even though the man on the street says, 'It's bloody freezing out here.'"
Global warming may be playing a role in Americans' sense that January has been especially cold, Trenberth and Lawrimore said. Because winters have been milder in the 1990s and 2000s, cold snaps feel colder, as people are unaccustomed to them, they said.