October was a record-breaker, as was December, and so was January. It is easy to become accustomed to regular reports that the month just past was the warmest ever recorded.

Despite all that, February was a shocker. It was the warmest month ever recorded, but it was also the warmest by an extremely large margin.

February was 1.35 degrees Celsius above the long-term (1951-1980) average. October was the first month, any month, since records began in 1880 that had been more than 1.0C above that average.

That now looks rather lame compared with February's whopping margin of 1.35C.

Superheated Arctic

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It is in the Arctic that warming has been most remarkable. Huge swaths of the polar region - including Canada, Alaska, Eastern Europe and Russia - were more than 4C above average during February.

Throughout the winter months the region has been experiencing exceptional weather conditions. In late December, temperatures at the North Pole were close to freezing, 30 to 35C above average.

Jeff Masters of Weather Underground points out that the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has been largely free of ice this winter, despite lying 78 degrees north. This might help explain why the air temperature at Svalbard's Longyearbyen airport has been about 10C above average.

El Nino contribution

Now climate sceptics - and there are plenty in powerful government and policy-formulating positions in the United States and Britain - might justifiably point out the contribution made by the ongoing but weakening El Nino.

For comparison, during the last major El Nino of 1997-98, the February figure was just +0.88C.

In fact, climate scientists generally ascribe just a 0.1 to 0.2C increase in global temperatures as a result of El Nino.

The +1.35 margin was 0.2C above the previous record set in January. These are two huge, successive record-breaking months, out of a record of more than 1,600 months of data.

Averaged on a yearly basis, global temperatures are now 1.0C above where they stood at the end of the 19th century as industrialisation reached its peak.

According to Jerry Meehl of the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research, even an immediate reduction in greenhouse gas production - sufficient to stabilise carbon dioxide levels at their current values - would result in another 0.5C temperature rise as a result of heat from the oceans being released into the atmosphere.

Legislating against catastrophe

This places the signatories of the agreement reached at the Paris Climate Conference in December 2015 under great pressure. The plan is to limit warming during the 21st century to less than 2C.

With the current El Nino expected to all but disappear during the second quarter of 2016, it may be that February will be the outstanding month in the climate records for a few years to come.

That said, March is likely to run February close and there is a high probability that 2016 will, yet again, be the warmest year on record.

What happens if warming is not limited to 2C?

Scientists say drought, flooding, catastrophic sea level rises, more wildfires, and more powerful cyclones can be expected. Positive action can prevent the worst of this, but time is running out.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies