Now that 2021 is in the rear-view mirror, here’s a look back at six important climate trends, as told in the charts:
Global temperature trends
Not the hottest year, but still warming up: While it may have been “only” the fifth hottest year since 1880, it still extends a warming streak where each of the last seven fears have been the hottest on record. The U.S. and Europe sweltered through their hottest summers ever in 2021 and had to contend with some enormous wildfires that grew to record size and intensity.
Record heat – and cold
They call it climate change for a reason. 2021 featured not only a record number of daily high-temperature records, but also a sizable number of record low-temperature ones as well. With Arctic warming loosening up the circumpolar jet stream, it’s becoming easier for the “polar vortex” to slide down over the United States during cold winter months. (It’s happening again now!)
Regional climate impacts
Record heat and freezing cold where it doesn’t belong. An early summer heatwave shattered temperature records by double-digit margins in the Pacific Northwest. At 116o F, Portland, Ore., now boasts a higher all-time temperature record than Dallas, New Orleans or Los Angeles. Meanwhile, in Texas, where the electric grid isn’t winterized, a plunge of the polar vortex last February caused a massive, dayslong power outage. Bursting water pipes caused more damage to homes than Hurricane Harvey, a storm that struck Texas three years ago and still ranks as the wettest storm in U.S. history.
And the drought goes on: The western United States is now in a megadrought considered to be the worst in a thousand years. Even after November rains doused giant California and Oregon wildfires, more than 80% of the West was still listed as being in severe drought, with more than 50% in extreme drought.
Greenhouse gas emissions
Emissions curve bends upwards: Following the Covid lockdown in 2020, U.S. transportation and electricity emissions rebounded sharply in 2021. While this spike reversed a long-term downward emissions trend, they were still below 2019 levels. Meanwhile, GHG emissions from buildings have been basically flat for the last two decades – not trending up or down.
Climate disasters came in all shapes and sizes (but not to New England): In addition to western wildfires and the crippling Texas cold snap, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and hail storms all contributed to another busy year for climate-related natural disasters. In 2021, 20 such events in the U.S. topped the billion-dollar mark, causing $145 billion in damages overall. (Half of this came at the hands of Hurricane Ida, a powerful Category 4 storm.) While five New England states had one of their five hottest years on record, they were spared the worst from these natural disasters.
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