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NASA and NOAA say 2021 was 6th warmest year on record

The image shows global surface temperature anomalies for 2021. Higher than normal temperatures, shown in red, can be seen in regions such as the Arctic. Lower than normal temperatures are shown in blue.
NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio/Kathryn Mersmann
The image shows global surface temperature anomalies for 2021. Higher than normal temperatures, shown in red, can be seen in regions such as the Arctic. Lower than normal temperatures are shown in blue.

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say 2021 was the sixth-hottest year on record globally, part of a long-term warming trend. The groups released measurements showing how warm last year was. It wasn't record hot, but the year's 58.5 degree average is not much behind the record. WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Lesley Ott, a NASA climate scientist, about the findings.

Ott: So 2021, when clocked in as the sixth warmest year on record, basically tied with 2018. But one of the most important takeaways from that report for most of the scientists is that the past eight years have been the warmest years on record going all the way back 150 years. So this period of very intense extreme warming that we've seen over the past decade, that's continuing through 2021.

Levulis: And now, in the past year there have been a number of extreme weather events, you know, droughts fires, hurricanes, specifically in the Northeast US, there were a number of heavy rains. How do changing global temperatures impact such weather events?

Ott: Yeah, and this is really one of the ways that communities across the country are experiencing climate change. That number of a couple of degrees can seem like you know, not very big or difficult to connect to. But it's really all the energy that's trapped by that heat that provides fuel for all of these storms. You know, in the Western United States, as you mentioned, we're seeing a real strain on water resources, you know, extreme droughts that can dry out the vegetation and lead to these extremely dangerous fire seasons that we're now seeing year after year. In the northeastern United States where you live, I live just outside Washington, DC, you know, we're fortunate enough to miss some of those, you know, really extreme fires, many of the extreme types of storms that are producing tornadoes, or hurricanes and storm surge. But we are seeing a real trend towards more intense storms and more intense rainfall. And that can be dangerous, because it can lead to things like flash floods. So that's something that we keep being concerned about in our area, and perhaps yours as well.

Levulis: And for North America, if I'm looking at the report correctly, 2021 ranked as the seventh warmest year. How should we view those regional temperatures versus the overall global temperatures when it comes to the impacts that we've been discussing?

Ott: Yeah, it's an important thing to know. Some people will look at a global number, and you know, there are very variations in that. So if you look at a map, you do see some areas in the planet that are warming a little more quickly than others. You know, the high latitudes of the United States where there's a lot of ice, you know, we're seeing that actually warm more rapidly than anywhere else on the planet, the high latitudes in the northern hemisphere. But, you know, I think what's really important is, despite his regional differences, we've seen you know, this steady march up in temperature. So year by year, you might have some variation in a year coming in seventh, second, or first. But you know, it's really that steady trend up that we're concerned about that's really fueling so many of these extremes that are damaging our communities.

Levulis: That leads me to my next question…is there you know, sort of a forecast when it comes to what we can expect to see in the next few years in terms of global heat, severe weather events, that sort of thing?

Ott: Yeah, as you mentioned, there's variability, but there's also some things we know, right. We think there's probably a very good likelihood that next year is going to be another warm year. We're probably going to change that number from eight to nine, you know, warmest years on record, there’s a very good chance of that. So we expect to see that warming continue. And, you know, it depends a little bit about natural cycles, like the El Nino, La Nina cycle, whether or not that comes in high on the list or a little bit lower, like the past year, which was a La Nina. But I think that that trend towards, you know, warming, and you know, the period, this most recent decade being the warmest on record, I think you're gonna see that continue, unfortunately. And that does mean a continuation of some of the really damaging effects we're seeing. So changes, you know, in droughts. We tend to say that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer with rainfall. So in the eastern United States, we're probably worried about some, you know, continuation of the extreme storms we've seen. In the west, they're going to continue worrying about droughts and fires. So unfortunately, you know, we sort of know what to expect with climate change. And it's a lot more of the same that we've seen over this past year.

Levulis: And in terms of gathering this data, I understand NASA and the United States Geological Survey recently launched what's called Landsat 9, and in a few weeks, NASA and NOAA will launch another satellite this year. How do these satellites help us understand our climate and the weather?

Ott: These satellites are incredibly important in understanding not just that the climate is changing, but how it's changing and how those effects are distributed throughout the globe. So you know, the satellite perspective is incredibly unique and giving us this very broad vantage point. Landsat 9 is a really important satellite series. It is called nine because it's the ninth in the series that goes back over 50 years. So that we have this 50 year record of really beautiful high quality images of the land surface that allows us to track how our forests, our vegetation, our crops, our cities, how they've changed over the course of decades. So those long records are important. And meanwhile, some of the work we're doing in conjunction with NOAA and trying to improve and, you know, expand the capabilities of weather satellites, you see an example of that with this GOES-T satellite. You know, that's a satellite that's gonna give us way more information than traditional weather satellites have. These recent satellites are helping us track things like lightning, how that can affect fires, fire frequency, air pollution, even water quality. So really, you know, this GOES series is foundational and helping us expand how we track and prepare for events. We can feed that into our weather models, and actually give people actionable information so they can be more prepared for some of the kinds of hazards that are related to climate change.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org