GENEVA: All major global climate records were broken last year and 2024 could be even worse, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Tuesday (March 19), with its chief expressing particular concern about ocean heat and shrinking sea ice.

The UN weather agency said in its annual report on the state of the global climate that average temperatures had reached their highest level in 174 years by a significant margin and were 1.45 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Ocean temperatures also reached their warmest levels in 65 years, as over 90 percent of the seas experienced heat waves during the year, damaging food systems, the WMO said.

“The WMO community is sounding a red alert for the world,” said WMO Secretary-General Celeste Saulo, who took office in January.

“What we have experienced in 2023, particularly the unprecedented ocean warming, glacier retreat and sea ice loss in Antarctica, is of particular concern.”

She later told reporters that ocean warming was particularly worrisome because it was “almost irreversible” and may take millennia to reverse.

“The trend is really very worrying, and that’s because of the properties of water that hold heat content longer than the atmosphere,” she said.

Climate change driven by the burning of fossil fuels, coupled with the emergence of the natural El Nino climate pattern, has pushed the world to record levels in 2023.

The WMO’s head of climate monitoring, Omar Baddour, told reporters there was a “high probability” that new heat records would be set in 2024, saying the year after an El Niño would usually be even warmer.

Tuesday’s report showed a sharp decline in Antarctic sea ice, with the peak falling 1 million km2 below the previous record – an area roughly the size of Egypt.

This trend, along with warming oceans causing water to expand, has contributed to the rate of sea level rise more than doubling in the last decade compared to the period 1993-2002, it said.

Ocean heat was concentrated in the North Atlantic, with temperatures averaging 3 degrees Celsius above average at the end of 2023, the report said. Higher sea temperatures are affecting delicate marine ecosystems and many fish species have fled this area north in search of cooler temperatures.

Saulo, a meteorologist from Argentina who has pledged to strengthen global warning systems for climate disasters, said she hoped the report would raise awareness of the “vital need to increase the urgency and ambition of climate action.”

“That’s why we talked about red alert, because we need to care about people and how they will suffer from these more frequent, more extreme events,” she told reporters. “If we don’t do something, it will get worse and that is our responsibility.”

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