The data is in: 2021 was another no good, very bad year for the planet and the people who live on it. 

According to multiple comprehensive assessments of annual surface temperature data published by three national climate monitoring entities this week, 2021 was the one of the hottest years on record. The reports were published by the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, the Japan Meteorological Agency, and a consortium of American groups including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Each of these organizations uses slightly different methods to calculate global surface temperatures, but all the assessments found that 2021 was hotter than any year before 2015 and among the seventh hottest years ever recorded. That’s especially bad considering that these temperatures were recorded in a year when La Niña conditions developed, which should have contributed to slightly cooler temperatures globally. Scientists say it may have been the hottest La Niña year ever.  

a globe with a blue-to-red temperature scale showing differences between 2021 and 1991-2020
The European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service released its annual land and sea temperature findings which show that, globally, 2021 was among the seven warmest on record. This graphic shows air temperature at a height of two meters for 2021, shown relative to its 1991–2020 average. Copernicus Climate Change Service / ECMWF

For the third year in a row, the world ocean set a record for the hottest temperature ever logged by humans, according to a study published Tuesday in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences. The heat contained by the world ocean was 14 zettajoules (that’s 14 x 1021 joules) higher in 2021 than in 2020 — “the equivalent of seven Hiroshima atomic bombs detonating each second, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” according to Climate Signals, an initiative that tracks climate records.  

On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a report that shows 20 weather and climate disasters individually caused at least $1 billion in damages in the United States in 2021. Together, these 20 disasters killed nearly 700 people and cost the nation $145 billion in damages — helping to make 2021 one of the three costliest years for disasters in U.S. history. 

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

A map of the U.S. plotted with 20 separate billion-dollar disasters that occurred in 2021.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

These impacts are a direct result of what happens when unchecked consumption of fossil fuels heats up the planet. As the years tick by and Earth continues to warm, scientists will continue to clock record-breaking temperatures on land and sea, and countries will continue to experience record-breaking disasters that claim lives and cost billions. 

Ironically, when we look back on 2021 in the future, we’ll remember it as one of the coldest years of the 21st century. That’s the message Andrew Dessler, a professor of geosciences at Texas A&M University, emphasizes when he communicates with the public about record hot temperatures. Here’s Dessler’s template auto-response for the media requests he receives asking him to comment on record-breaking temperatures every year.   

“Thank you for emailing me asking for comment about 20__ being one of the hottest years on record,” it reads. “Here is a comment you can use for your story: ‘Every year for the rest of your life will be one of the hottest in the record. This means that 20__ will end up being among the coolest years of this century. Enjoy it while it lasts.’”

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.