After a record warm December and 4th warmest calendar year nationally, scientists at NASA and NOAA announced Thursday that 2021 was the 6th warmest year on record globally since instrumental records began in 1880.
Across land and ocean surfaces, the temperature in 2021 was 1.51°F above the full 20th century average. This was the 45th consecutive year with a global temperature above that average, meaning the last colder-than-average year happened when Jimmy Carter was elected president.
Using independent and slightly different methods, two additional organizations came to the same conclusion. Both the Japan Meteorological Agency and Berkeley Earth calculated 2021 as the 6th warmest year on record globally.
The year is not a fluke, as the five warmest years ahead of 2021 have all come since 2015. A brief periodic cooling of the eastern Pacific Ocean, called La Niña, kept the temperature from being even higher. The opposition condition, El Niño, helped make 2016 the hottest year on record. However, the planetary warming signal from greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere overwhelms these Pacific Ocean temperature swings, as La Niña years are now warmer than the El Niño years from only 30 years ago.
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Just like a Hall-of-Fame quarterback still throws interceptions, there will be occasional cold spells and cold locations as the world warms, but over the course of dozens of years, those cold spells and locations become less numerous and the magnitude of the cold becomes less intense.
“Nobody really lives in the global average temperature,” says NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies Director Gavin Schmidt, but ”what we’ve seen is that the changes in that measure are so large now, that we are seeing it in local and regional temperature changes and we are seeing it in local and regional weather events.”
The additional warming means more evaporation into the atmosphere from the global oceans, so droughts can be worse and the heaviest precipitation can get heavier.
While warm weather fans may celebrate, a longer term issue looms, especially for Virginia. Rising water temperatures cause ocean water to expand. Plus, glacial ice, like in Greenland and West Antarctica, continues to melt into the global ocean, forcing sea levels higher and putting large coastal installations at risk, like Naval Station Norfolk.
Old Dominion University Associate Professor of Geography Michael Allen studies the impacts at Virginia’s waterfront.
“While we may feel disconnected from what’s going on in the Arctic, we aren’t," Allen said. "Naval Station Norfolk and Port of Virginia are low-lying, vital assets for both the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States. Military preparedness, economic success, transportation networks, and flood insurance are all connected to a world warming as a result of heat-trapping gases.”
This has led to an increasingly common expression in the scientific community, what happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic.