Depending on what group of scientists you ask, 2020 was either tied or second only to 2016 as the warmest year on record. Measuring against a baseline of mean temperatures between 1951 to 1980, NASA concluded that the average global temperature of the planet was slightly warmer last year than in 2016. But the difference was so small that the agency said the two years are effectively tied for the warmest year on record. Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which employes a different baseline and methodology than the space agency, concluded 2020 was the planet’s second-hottest year.
Two events in the past year played a significant, if somewhat counterintuitive, effect on the planet’s surface temperatures. The wildfires that ravaged approximately 46 million acres of land in Australia sent columns of smoke 18 miles into the atmosphere. According to NASA, those smoke particles likely cooled the atmosphere slightly. However, whatever small reprieve the planet got from that event was later offset when a drop in air pollution caused by a reduction in human activity due to the coronavirus pandemic allowed more sunlight to hit the surface of the planet, thereby creating “a small but potentially significant warming effect.” When it comes to climate change, it seems you lose no matter what.