The earth's average surface temperature climbed to a record high last year, according to preliminary figures, bolstering scientists' sense that the burning of fossil fuels is warming the climate.
Spells of cold, snow and ice like the ones this winter in the northeastern United States come and go in one region or another, as do periods of unusual warmth. But the net result of these local variations was to make 1995 the warmest year globally since records first were kept in 1856, says a provisional report issued by the British Meteorological Office and the University of East Anglia.
The average temperature was 58.7 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the data, seven-hundredths of a degree higher than the previous record, established in 1990.
The figures, based on land and sea measurements around the world, are one of two sets of long-term data by which surface temperature trends are being tracked.
The other, maintained by the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, shows the average 1995 temperature at 59.7 degrees, slightly ahead of 1990 as the warmest year since 1856. But the difference is within the margin of sampling error, and the two years essentially finished neck and neck.
The preliminary Goddard figures differ from the British ones because they are based on a somewhat different combination of surface temperature observations around the world.
One year does not a trend make, but the British figures reveal the years 1991 through 1995 to be warmer than any similar five-year period, including the two half-decades of the 1980s, the warmest decade in the record to date. This is so even though a sun-reflecting haze cast aloft by the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines cooled the earth substantially for about two years.
The Goddard data show the early 1990s, despite the post-Pinatubo cooling, to have been nearly as warm as the late 1980s, which according to Goddard was the warmest half-decade on record.
Dr. James Hansen, the director of the Goddard center, predicted last year that a new global record would be reached before 2000, and yesterday he said he now expects "we will still get at least a couple more" by then. Dr. Hansen has been one of only a few scientists to maintain steadfastly that a century-long global warming trend is being caused mostly by human influence, a belief he reiterated yesterday.
Other experts would go no further than the recent findings of a United Nations panel of scientists in attributing the continuing and accelerating warming trend to human activity -- specifically the emission of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide, which is released by the burning of coal, petroleum products and wood.
The U.N. panel concluded, for the first time, that the observed warming is "unlikely to be entirely natural in origin" and that the weight of evidence "suggests a discernible human influence on climate."