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Visualized: Historical Trends in Global Monthly Surface Temperatures (1851-2020)

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Global Temperature Graph (1851-2020)

Global Temperature Graph (1851-2020)

View the high-resolution of the infographic by clicking here.

Since 1880, the Earth’s average surface temperature has risen by 0.07°C (0.13°F) every decade. That number alone may seem negligible, but over time, it adds up.

In addition, the rate of temperature change has grown significantly more dramatic over time—more than doubling to 0.18°C (0.32°F) since 1981. As a result of this global warming process, environmental crises have become the most prominent risks of our time.

In this global temperature graph, climate data scientist Neil R. Kaye breaks down how monthly average temperatures have changed over nearly 170 years. Temperature values have been benchmarked against pre-industrial averages (1850–1900).

What is Causing Global Warming?

The data visualization can be thought of in two halves, each reflecting significant trigger points in global warming trends:

  • 1851-1935
    Overlaps with the Second Industrial Revolution
    Low-High range in global temperature increase: -0.4°C to +0.6°C
  • 1936-2020
    Overlaps with the Third Industrial Revolution
    Low-High range in global temperature increase: +0.6°C to +1.5°C and up

The global temperature graph makes it clear that for several years now, average surface temperatures have consistently surpassed 1.5°C above their pre-industrial values. Let’s dig into these time periods a bit more closely to uncover more context around this phenomenon.

Industrial Revolutions and Advances, 1851–1935

An obvious, early anomaly on the visual worth exploring occurs between 1877–1878. During this time, the world experienced numerous unprecedented climate events, from a strong El Niño to widespread droughts. The resulting Great Famine caused the deaths of between 19–50 million people, even surpassing some of the deadliest pandemics in history.

In the first five rows of the global temperature graph, several economies progressed into the Second Industrial Revolution (~1870–1914), followed by World War I (1914-1918). Overall, there was a focus on steel production and mass-produced consumer goods over these 80+ years.

Although these technological advances brought immense improvements, they came at the cost of burning fossil fuels—releasing significant amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It would take several more decades before scientists realized the full extent of their accumulation in the atmosphere, and their resulting relation to global warming.

The Modern World In the Red Zone, 1936–2020

The second half of the global temperature graph is marked by World War II (1939-1945) and its aftermath. As the dust settled, nations began to build themselves back up, and things really kicked into hyperdrive with the Third Industrial Revolution.

As globalization and trade progressed following the 1950s, people and goods began moving around more than ever before. In addition, population growth peaked at 2.1% per year between 1965 and 1970. Industrialization patterns began to intensify further to meet the demands of a rising global population and our modern world.

The Importance of Historical Temperature Trends

The history of human development is intricately linked with global warming. While part of the rise in Earth’s surface temperature can be attributed to natural patterns of climate change, these historical trends shed some light on how much human activities are behind the rapid increase in global average temperatures in the last 85 years.

The following video from Reddit user bgregory98, which leverages an extensive data set published in Nature Geoscience provides a more dramatic demonstration. It looks at the escalation of global temperatures over two thousand years. In this expansive time frame, eight of the top ten hottest years on record have occurred in the last decade alone.

Global warming and climate change are some of the most pressing megatrends shaping our future. However, with the U.S. rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, and the reduction of global carbon emissions highlighted as a key item at the World Economic Forum’s Davos Summit 2021, promising steps are being taken.

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The Rise in America’s Billion-Dollar Extreme Weather Disasters

From tropical cyclones to severe storms, the number of extreme weather disasters with losses exceeding $1 billion has climbed over time.

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A bar chart showing rising U.S. extreme weather disasters for each decade since the 1980s, with the view cut off part way through the 2010s.

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The following content is sponsored by National Public Utilities Council

The Rise in U.S. Billion-Dollar Extreme Weather Disasters

Since 1980, there have been 383 extreme weather or climate disasters where the damages reached at least $1 billion. In total, these disasters have cost more than $2.7 trillion.

Created in partnership with the National Public Utilities Council, this chart shows how these disasters have been increasing with each passing decade.

A Growing Concern

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tracks each disaster and estimates the cost based on factors like physical damages and time losses such as business interruption. They adjust all costs by the Consumer Price Index to account for inflation.

DecadeTotal No. of EventsTotal Inflation-Adjusted Cost
1980s33$216B
1990s57$330B
2000s67$611B
2010s131$978B
2020s*95$568B

* Data is as of May 8, 2024.

Both the number and cost of extreme weather disasters has grown over time. In fact, not even halfway through the 2020s the number of disasters is over 70% of those seen during the entire 2010s. 

Severe storms have been the most common, accounting for half of all billion-dollar disasters since 1980. In terms of costs, tropical cyclones have caused the lion’s share—more than 50% of the total. Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in 2005, remains the most expensive single event with $199 billion in inflation-adjusted costs.

Electricity and Extreme Weather Disasters

With severe storms and other disasters rising, the electricity people rely on is significantly impacted. For instance, droughts have been associated with a decline in hydropower, which is an important source of U.S. renewable electricity generation

Disasters can also lead to significant costs for utility companies. Hawaii Electric faces $5 billion in potential damages claims for the 2023 wildfire, which is nearly eight times its insurance coverage. Lawsuits accuse the company of negligence in maintaining its infrastructure, such as failing to strengthen power poles to withstand high winds. 

Given that the utilities industry is facing the highest risk from extreme weather and climate disasters, some companies have begun to prepare for such events. This means taking steps like burying power lines, increasing insurance coverage, and upgrading infrastructure. 

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Learn how the National Public Utilities Council is working toward the future of sustainable electricity.

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