2021 sets records for heat, greenhouse gas concentrations and sea level rise

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A new report from NOAA and the American Meteorological Society presents a clear picture of the state of the planet: The climate crisis is not a future threat, but it is already here.

The annual State of the Climate report found 2021 was among the hottest years on record as the world saw high concentrations of greenhouse gases, warming oceans and rising sea levels, suggesting the effects of climate change are only getting worse.

The report, based on research by more than 530 scientists in more than 60 countries, is the “most comprehensive update” on Earth’s climate and environment, according to NOAA.

And their findings were terrifying. As climate scientist Zack Labe, who contributed to the report, said, “not surprisingly, it was another worrisome year for extremes.”

A chart from the report shows the wide range of regions affected by the climate crisis in 2021: Canada set a new record high of over 121 degrees Fahrenheit. Brazil’s Rio Negro river hit record flood levels that exceeded damage from the “once in a century” flood that hit in 2012. New Zealand had its warmest year on record in 113 years. East Africa has had its worst food security in decades amid ongoing drought; and the sea ice tried to maintain its size.

Here are some of the report’s most notable findings.

Record greenhouse gas concentrations

Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are the three most notable greenhouse gases that, once emitted, create a kind of mantle over the atmosphere that traps the sun’s radiation, warming the planet. Last year, concentrations of each of these gases reached record highs.

Carbon dioxide, which is responsible for most of the global warming associated with human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels, had a concentration of 414.7 parts per million – the highest in at least the last million years based on the paleoclimate record. Methane rose 18 parts per billion as its concentrations continued their steep rise since 2014. And nitrous oxide saw its third-highest annual rise since 2001, up 1.3 parts per billion.

Earth continues to set new heat records

Regional temperatures soared around the world last year, with many countries facing devastating, and in some cases, all-time heat waves record heat. Canada, for example, reached an unprecedented 121 degrees Fahrenheit, as China recorded its hottest year in its 71-year record and Sicily broke Europe’s highest temperature ever recorded at just under 120 degrees.

The dozen or so researchers involved in the report found that the past seven years, from 2015 to 2021, were the seven warmest on record. The global average surface temperature of the Earth has risen between 0.14 and 0.16 degrees Fahrenheit on average every 10 years since 1880. This has only accelerated since 1981 – averaging more than twice as much.

However, these high records were not seen everywhere.

A “double dip” of La Niña, a pattern in which unusually strong trade winds push warm water toward Asia and bring cooler water to the surface closer to the Americas, helped spark Australia’s coolest year since 2012. Antarctica also saw its coldest winter on record at the South Pole as a polar vortex emerged.

These cases do not mean that warming was not occurring, but rather that it was the result of weather events and patterns.

The Arcticfor example, which was recently discovered to be heated almost four times faster from the rest of the planet, it had the coldest year since 2013. But even that brief cold snap was still the region’s 13th warmest year on record, as the amount of Arctic sea ice that can survive multiple melt periods reached at the second lowest rate.

Warming and rising oceans

The decline of sea ice, which is able to reflect the sun’s radiation and prevent it from entering the ocean depths, puts a strain on the oceans. The oceans hold 90% of the planet’s warming, and when there is less protection but more assault from increased greenhouse gas concentrations and higher temperatures, the oceans will warm and melting ice will cause rise.

Last year, the global ocean heat content, which measures temperatures from the surface to more than 6,000 feet below, hit a record high. Global mean sea level also hit a record high, rising just under 4 inches from the 1993 average when satellite records began.

And rising seas will continue to do so. A new study published this week found that Greenland “zombie ice” – Ice still attached in thicker areas but not fed by larger glaciers – alone will raise global sea level by at least 10 inches.

This will happen regardless of what the world does to address climate change, meaning that, at the very least, many coastal areas face a disastrous, if not deadly, future. The global average means some areas will see an even greater increase and experience extreme tides and storm surges. The researchers don’t know when that will happen, but they say it could happen within the next 80 years, making climate resilience strategies more important than ever.

Information on mitigation and adaptation

While the report paints a bleak picture of the state of the planet, researchers said that if taken seriously, it can help governments better plan to deal with climate change and better prepare their nations for what’s sure to come.

“The 2021 AMS State of the Climate provides the most recent synthesis of scientific understanding of the climate system and the impact humans have on it,” said Paul Higgins, associate executive director of the American Meteorological Society. “If we take it seriously and use it wisely, it can help us thrive on a planet that is increasingly small compared to the impact of our activities.”

Many of the existing effects of climate change – prolonged droughts, warmer temperatures and more intense storms – cannot be reversed. As researcher and professor of ecology at the UCLA Institute for the Environment and Sustainability, Dan Blumstein, told CBS News, the changes that need to be made today will ensure that the current state of affairs it doesn’t get drastically worse.

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” he said. “The devil with climate change is that we can stop burning coal tomorrow, all the coal tomorrow, and we’d still be burning the carbon that’s in the atmosphere.”

NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said the data presented in the report is “clear”: “We continue to see more compelling scientific evidence that climate change has global impacts and shows no signs of slowing.”

“With many communities affected by 1,000-year floods, exceptional drought and historic heat this year,” he said, “it shows that the climate crisis is not a future threat, but something we must face today as we work to build a Climate Ready Nation—and world—that is resilient to climate-induced extremes.”

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