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2021 was Earth’s fifth-hottest year on record, and that’s even worse than it sounds

Earth’s last seven years have also been Earth’s seven hottest years.

2021 was Earth’s fifth-hottest year on record, and that’s even worse than it sounds
[Source Images: milehightraveler/Getty; Marco Bottigelli/Getty]

Last year was the planet’s fifth hottest ever recorded, a group of scientists in Europe announced on Monday. Fifth hottest beats 2021 being the hottest ever—but that’s essentially where the good news stops. The annual findings, by the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, still clock the planet’s average temperature at 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit above its 30-year average, and about 2.2 degrees hotter than before the Industrial Revolution, when factories began filling the atmosphere with pollution. By Copernicus’s ranking, 2021 just edged out 2015 and 2018; it says the hottest years on record were 2016 and 2020.

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What this all means is that Earth’s last seven years have also been Earth’s seven hottest years. This upward arc, the Copernicus scientists warned, is “a stark reminder of the need to change our ways, take decisive and effective steps toward a sustainable society, and work toward reducing net carbon emissions.” Director Carlo Buontempo summarized 2021 as “yet another year of extreme temperatures with the hottest summer in Europe, heatwaves in the Mediterranean, not to mention the unprecedented high temperatures in North America.”

The reason why temperatures fell from 2020 isn’t because humans successfully lowered them. It’s because 2021 was a freak year in which La Niña conditions were present—the climate pattern that tends to lower surface temperatures over the Pacific once or twice per decade.

And while temperature gauges continue their slow and steady rise across the globe, today’s direst problems have to do more with sudden, unexpected climate extremes—not solely heat, per se, as much as intense storms and even record low temperatures.

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Over 400 weather stations worldwide set temperature records last year, according to climatologist Maximiliano Herrera. Herrera’s website devotes a page to tracking all the temperature records, highs or lows, broken during the previous year. By his country-by-country tabulation:

  • 10 countries either set or tied a record high temperature in 2021: Canada, Dominica, Morocco, Oman, Turkey, Taiwan, Italy, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and America. (For two years running, California’s Death Valley posted the world’s hottest, at 130 degrees.)
  • 107 countries recorded their highest temperature for one particular month, and five set a monthly record low.
  • Italy posted a scorching 119.8-degree day over the summer, a new record in Europe.
  • Africa had its hottest Junes and Septembers on record. Alaska had a December heatwave that broke statewide records by wide margins.
  • Crazy-high temperatures in the Arctic caused it to rain, for the first time, at the top of Greenland.

Urban dwellers in the Continental U.S. were hardly spared, though: An analysis of federal disaster declarations just published by the Washington Post found 40% of Americans reside in a county that was hit by extreme weather in 2021. Double that number—more than 80%—suffered through an official heatwave. All told, throughout 2021, climate disasters that included everything from fires to floods, mudslides, and hurricanes impacted 820 different U.S. counties, among them the ones containing New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and other major urban areas.

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