March 2017: Earth's 2nd Warmest March on Record

April 20, 2017, 10:21 AM EDT

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Above:  Departure of temperature from average for March 2017, the second warmest March for the globe since record keeping began in 1880. Some areas in northern and eastern Russia, central Australia, and the south-central contiguous U.S. had a record warm March. Four of the six continents with good data had at least a top seven warmest March, with Europe and Oceania having their second warmest March on record. Continental records began in 1910. Image credit: National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI).

March 2017 was the planet's second warmest March since record keeping began in 1880, said NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) on Friday; NASA also rated March 2017 as the second warmest March on record. The only warmer March was just last year, in 2016. Remarkably, March 2017 ranked as the fourth warmest month (expressed as the departure of temperature from average) of any month in the global historical record in the NASA database, and was tied for fifth warmest month in NOAA’s database—despite coming just two months after the end of a 5-month long La Niña event, which acted to cool the globe slightly. The extreme warmth of January 2017 (tenth warmest month of any month in NASA’s database), February 2017 (fifth warmest) and March 2017 (fourth warmest) gives 2017 an outside chance of becoming Earth’s fourth consecutive warmest year on record--if a moderate or stronger El Niño event were to develop by summer, as some models are predicting.

The top three warmest months on record since 1880 (expressed as departure from the 1951 - 1980 average) in the NASA database all occurred during the strong El Niño event of 2015 - 2016, which worked to raise global air temperatures by exporting heat from the oceans. Here are the top six warmest months since 1880 (expressed as the departure of temperature from average), in the NASA database:

February 20161.32°C above average
March 20161.28°C above average
January 20161.13°C above average
March 20171.12°C above average
February 20171.10°C above average
December 20151.10°C above average

Global ocean temperatures last month were the second warmest on record for any March, as were global land temperatures. Global satellite-measured temperatures for the lowest 8 km of the atmosphere were the fourth warmest for any March in the 39-year record, according to the University of Alabama Huntsville (UAH).


Graphic showing monthly global temperature anomalies and ENSO phase
Figure 1. March 2017 produced the highest global surface temperature on record for any month in which conditions similar to El Niño (red lines) were not in progress. Image credit: NOAA/NCEI.

Five billion-dollar weather disasters in March 2017

Five billion-dollar weather disasters hit the Earth last month, according to the March 2017 Catastrophe Report from insurance broker Aon Benfield: two severe weather/tornado outbreaks in the U.S., a major freeze/winter storm in the U.S., a drought in East Africa, and a $3.1 billion flooding event in Peru (their costliest natural disaster in recorded history.) Earth has already registered six billion-dollar weather events in 2017, which is an unusually high number for so early in the year. The year that ended with the most billion-dollar weather disasters in records going back to 1990 was 2013, with 41, and that year had just five billion-dollar disasters by the end of March. Last year, there were already seven billion-dollar weather disasters by the end of March, though. Here are this year’s billion-dollar weather disasters through March:

Flooding, Peru, 1/1 – 4/1, $3.1 billion, 120 killed

Drought, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, 1/1 – 3/31, $1.9 billion, 136+ killed

Severe Weather, Midwest, Plains, Southeast U.S., 3/6 – 3/10, $1.7 billion, 0 killed

Severe Weather, South U.S., 1/18 - 1/23, $1.3 billion, 21 killed

Severe Weather, South U.S., 2/27 - 3/2, $1.3 billion, 4 killed

Winter Weather, Plains, Southeast, Midwest, Northeast U.S., 3/13 - 3/15, $1.0 billion, 11 killed

The deadliest weather-related disaster of March was the continuing rainy season flooding in the southern African country of Zimbabwe, which has killed at least 271 people since the beginning of the year. The estimated cost of $200 million would make the floods Zimbabwe’s second most expensive disaster in recorded history, according to figures at EM-DAT, the international disaster database. (Their most expensive disaster was rainy season flooding in February 2003 that cost over $260 million, in 2017 dollars.)

Below are the five billion-dollar weather disasters of March 2017 in more detail:

Flooding in Peru
Disaster 1. The world’s costliest disaster of 2017 was in coastal Peru, where extreme rainfall atop normally dry terrain, particularly in March, has caused multiple rounds of major flooding since the beginning of the year. The death toll of 120 makes this year’s floods Peru’s deadliest floods since 2009 - 2010, when 158 people died in flooding between December and March. Preliminary damages from the 2017 rains and flooding in Peru are estimated at $3.1 billion (1.3% of Peru’s GDP), according to insurance broker Aon Benfield. Peru’s president said that the total costs of reconstruction over a five-year period could hit $9 billion. Significant damage has been done to Peru’s infrastructure, with over 6000 miles of roads and 194 bridges destroyed. According to EM-DAT, the international disaster database, the previous most expensive natural disaster in Peruvian history occurred during the El Niño rains of 1983, which unleashed a landslide that killed 596 people and cost $2.4 billion in 2017 dollars (8.1% of Peru’s GDP.) The El Niño rains of 1997 -1998 also exacted a heavy toll; the GFDRR estimated that Peru suffered nearly $2 billion in losses (5.9% of GDP). Above: the Huachipa district, east of Lima, Peru, on March 19, 2017. Flash floods and landslides hit parts of Lima, where most of the water distribution systems collapsed and caused severe drinking water shortages. Photo credit: ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images.
Drought in Somali
Disaster 2. A multi-year drought that has gripped Eastern Africa since the second half of 2015 intensified in March 2017. After the “long rains” of the main March - June rainy season were deficient in 2016, the important “short” rains of October - November 2016 essentially failed, causing crop failures and severe food shortages. Based on the levels of U.N. appeals for aid, insurance broker Aon Benfield estimated damages from the drought at $1.9 billion, with $825 million of that total for Somalia, and $945 million for Ethiopia. During March, at least 136 people died of hunger in Somalia due to the drought, according to the International Business Times, and hundreds more have died in a cholera outbreak this year. In this image, we see a boy looking at dead goats in a dry land close to Dhahar in Puntland, northeastern Somalia, on December 15, 2016. Drought in the region has severely affected livestock for local herdsmen. Image credit: ABDIWAHAB/AFP/Getty Images.
March 7 tornado
Disaster 3. An outbreak of severe weather swept across central sections of the United States on March 6 - 10, with significant tornado, wind, and hail damage in Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Illinois. Strong gusty winds in the aftermath of the storm led to widespread damage in parts of the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast, causing the largest power outage in Michigan’s history--more than one million customers. Above, we see Ashley Strother, left, hugging her aunt Brenda Johnson among the wreckage of Johnson's house in Oak Grove, Missouri, on Tuesday, March 7, 2017, after an EF3 tornado moved through the area. Image credit; Allison Long /The Kansas City Star via AP.
February 28 tornado
Disaster 4. A severe weather outbreak hit the U.S. Midwest, Ohio Valley and Tennessee Valley on February 27 – March 2, killing four and causing $1.3 billion in damage. The outbreak spawned three EF3 tornadoes and one EF4—the only EF4 so far in 2017. Above: this large EF3 tornado was photographed at 5:36 pm CST Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, by associate meteorology professor Walker Ashley (Northern Illinois University) as it passed just northwest of Washburn, IL. Image credit: (c) Walker Ashley.
Winter Storm Stella in Boston
Disaster 5. A powerful late season Nor’easter (“Stella”) brought blizzard conditions to the Northeast United States from March 13 - 15, killing at least 11 people. Heavy snow and sub-freezing temperatures hit the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, and the Deep South, causing more than 7,000 flight cancellations and numerous school and business closures. Preliminary reports in South Carolina and Georgia indicated that crop losses due to the freeze alone would reach $1 billion. Above: people struggle to walk in the blowing snow during Winter Storm Stella on Tuesday, March 14, 2017, in Boston (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer.)

El Niño on its way this summer?

In its April 13 monthly advisory, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC) stated that neither El Niño nor La Niña conditions were present in the Eastern Pacific, though atmospheric conditions over the western Pacific still reflected a lingering influence of the La Niña event that ended in January. Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the benchmark Niño 3.4 region (in the equatorial Pacific) were about 0.2°C above average over the past week; SSTs of 0.5°C or more above average in this region are required to be classified as weak El Niño conditions (and there must also be an El Niño-like atmospheric response.) NOAA forecasters estimate an approximately 60 - 65% chance of neutral conditions lasting through the spring, with a 50% chance of an El Niño event occurring during August - December. The latest Australian Bureau of Meteorology models are more aggressive about predicting El Niño, with all eight showing El Niño conditions later this year. However, predictions made in April of El Niño are of low skill, due to the so-called “spring predictability barrier”, and we should have lower-than-usual confidence in these forecasts. The GFS model is currently not predicting any significant “westerly wind bursts” of surface winds in the Western Pacific that would help along the development of El Niño during the next two weeks. El Niño conditions tend to suppress Atlantic hurricane activity by bringing strong upper-level winds to the tropical Atlantic, creating high wind shear that tears storms apart.

Arctic sea ice has its sixth consecutive month of lowest extent on record

Arctic sea ice extent during March 2017 was the lowest March extent in the 39-year satellite record, beating the record set in March 2016. Sea ice reached its annual wintertime maximum extent on March 7, and this maximum extent was the lowest maximum on record, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). The record low ice extent was due to a combination of very warm air temperatures in the Arctic, plus unusually warm waters invading the Arctic from the south beneath the ice.

Antarctic sea ice reaches an all-time low, and fifth consecutive month of lowest extent on record

Sea ice surrounding Antarctica has also been at unprecedented lows in recent months, and sea ice there set an all-time record for minimum extent for any day in the satellite record on March 3, 2017. Monthly Antarctic sea ice extent in March 2017 was the lowest on record, continuing a string of five consecutive months with the lowest monthly sea ice extent ever recorded.

Notable global heat and cold marks set for March 2017

Hottest temperature in the Northern Hemisphere: 46.0°C (114.8°F) at Matam, Senegal, 29 March
Coldest temperature in the Northern Hemisphere: -57.5°C (-71.5°F) at Summit, Greenland, 21 March
Hottest temperature in the Southern Hemisphere: 44.6°C (112.3°F) at Mandora, Australia, 5 March
Coldest temperature in the Southern Hemisphere: -72.3°C (-98.1°F) at Concordia, Antarctica, 31 March
(Courtesy of Maximiliano Herrera.)

Major weather stations that set (not tied) new all-time heat or cold records in March 2017

Mangalore (India) max. 39.6°C,  1 March
Mould Bay (Canada) min. -54.7°C,  4 March
Bundaberg (Australia) max. 38.5°C,  6 March
Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) max. 36.3°C,  7 March
Curug (Indonesia) max. 38.8°C,  9 March
Navrongo (Ghana) max. 43.8°C,  26 March:  New national record high for Ghana
Yendi (Ghana) max. 42.3°C,  31 March


On 27 March, Kayes, Mali recorded a minimum temperature of 34.6°C, beating the world record of highest minimum temperature ever
recorded in March.

On 31 March, Yelimane, Mali beat the world record of highest minimum temperature ever recorded in March, with 35.6°C

On 29 March, Koundara with 45.0°C tied the record of highest temperature
ever recorded in Guinea.
(Courtesy of Maximiliano Herrera.)

Two all-time national heat records set in March 2017

Two nations set or tied all-time records for hottest temperature in recorded history in March 2017: Guinea and Ghana. So far in 2017, four nations have set or tied all-time national heat records, and two have set or tied all-time cold records. Most nations do not maintain official databases of extreme temperature records, so the national temperature records reported here are in many cases not official. I use as my source for international weather records researcher Maximiliano Herrera, one of the world's top climatologists, who maintains a comprehensive list of extreme temperature records for every nation in the world on his website. If you reproduce this list of extremes, please cite Maximiliano Herrera as the primary source of the weather records. So far in 2017, we have four all-time national heat records and two all-time national cold records.

All-time national heat records set in 2017:

Guinea: 113°F (45.0°C) at Koundara, 29 March (tie)
Ghana: 110.8°F (43.8°C) at Navrongo, 26 March
Chile: 113°F (45.0°C) at Cauquenes, 26 January
Cocos Islands: (Australia): 91.2°F (32.9°C) at Cocos Island Airport, 23 February

All-time national cold records set in 2017:
United Arab Emirates: 22.3°F (-5.4°C) at Jabel Jais, 3 February
Qatar: 34.7°F (1.5°C) at Abu Samra, 5 February

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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Dr. Jeff Masters

Dr. Jeff Masters co-founded Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. in air pollution meteorology at the University of Michigan. He worked for the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990 as a flight meteorologist.

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