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2021 was a hot year in a concerningly hot decade, report finds

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

2021 was the sixth hottest year on Earth since record-keeping began. That is according to a new federal report out today. But climate scientists say the bigger concern is that it's part of an extremely hot decade. NPR's Lauren Sommer has more.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Christmas Day in Texas last month was less about festive sweaters and more about flip-flops. Temperatures were in the balmy 80s - not exactly on-brand for the holiday.

JOHN NIELSEN-GAMMON: That's when it's supposed to be cold and snowy or at least when you think about it being cold snowy

SOMMER: John Nielsen-Gammon is a state climatologist in Texas. He says the entire month was warm - 12 degrees hotter on average. That's the hottest December recorded in more than a century.

NIELSEN-GAMMON: Over 90% of all the long-term weather stations in Texas set the record for warmest December.

SOMMER: To Russell Vose, chief of climate monitoring at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, those numbers are off the charts.

RUSSELL VOSE: It looks so extreme, you almost assume there's something wrong with the data.

SOMMER: Nine other central U.S. states had their warmest Decembers as well. And it ended what globally was another hot year in a string of hot years, according to a NOAA report out today. Nine of the 10 hottest years on record have all happened since 2013.

VOSE: And that's all - it's really an extension of what's been going on for some decades now. Each of the past four decades has been warmer than the decade that preceded it.

SOMMER: Climate scientists with the nonprofit research group Berkeley Earth released similar findings today. Two dozen countries, including China, experienced their hottest years on record. 2021 also saw extreme weather, including 20 disasters in the U.S. with losses more than a billion dollars. Hundreds of people died, including in the record-breaking heat wave in the Pacific Northwest and flooding from Hurricane Ida in the Northeast.

VOSE: It's getting hard, it seems, to find somebody who doesn't know somebody who hasn't been impacted by one of these things anymore.

SOMMER: Climate scientists can now do rapid studies to find the role climate change plays in extreme weather. The extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest would have been virtually impossible without it, one study found. But in general, a warmer climate is expected to make storms and heat more intense.

VOSE: You expect to see more extremes like this in a world that's warming up. So I'd like to tell you that, like, this is just an unusual year. But I'm afraid we're going to have more of these unusual years in the years and decades to come.

SOMMER: In 2021, the planet was 1.2 degrees Celsius hotter than pre-industrial times, according to Berkeley Earth. That means it's marching closer to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the threshold that world governments have agreed to limit climate change to. To avoid hitting that in the next decade, Vose says swift action is needed.

VOSE: I feel like Netflix, and there's a comet that slams into the Earth. Not that anyone will probably care at that point, but that'll certainly change the trajectory of things.

SOMMER: The option, apart from a giant asteroid, is to cut back on burning fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas.

Lauren Sommer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUPLA'S "ROSE GARDEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Sommer
Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.
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