Now, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has just released an updated animation that allows viewers to understand those numbers more intuitively.
The animated video, which shows a map of the planet, documents global changes in temperature between 1880, when a wide enough network of weather stations was available to record temperatures on a global scale, and 2011.
And while the trend toward higher temperatures is apparent, there are parts of the globe that vary from year to year, with colder-than-normal or average temperatures.
The coast of California, for instance, seemed about average in 2010 and 2011.
According to the California Nevada Applications Program, a branch of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, a La Niña weather pattern has been keeping the Pacific Ocean, and therefore coastal California, cool for much of the last year.
"Studies suggest that the air in inland areas would warm at a faster rate than the air over the ocean," said Guido Franco, program director of Scripps' California Climate Change Center. "This would induce more coastal upwelling, bringing cold water to the surface of the ocean close to the coast. This would tend to mitigate some of the warming due to climate change very close to the coast in California."
Franco is also the program lead for environmental research with the California Energy Commission.
The application program anticipates lower temperatures from the La Niña event to last into spring.
But California's coast stands in stark contrast with much of the rest of the world, where temperatures climbed to the ninth-warmest year on record. Indeed, nine of the 10 highest records have occurred since 2000.
"We know the planet is absorbing more energy than it is emitting," James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in a press statement. "So we are continuing to see a trend toward higher temperatures. Even with the cooling effects of a strong La Niña influence and low solar activity for the past several years, 2011 was one of the 10 warmest years on record."
The administration could not be reached for comment.
Hansen and others expect that an El Niño, a general warming trend in the tropical Pacific, likely will follow the current La Niña event in the next few years.
And if that happens, he said, we'll likely see some more record-breakers.
"It's always dangerous to make predictions about El Niño, but it's safe to say we'll see one in the next three years," Hansen said. "It won't take a very strong El Niño to push temperatures above 2010."
Hansen and other scientists stress that while temperatures can vary regionally from year to year, the trend toward higher temperatures is everywhere.
Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)