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The hottest seven years on record were the last seven

People watch a wildfire raging in the town of Rafina, near Athens, Greece.
REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
The number of billion-dollar natural disasters is rising along with atmospheric and ocean temperatures.
  • Tim McDonnell
By Tim McDonnell

Climate reporter


In the new Netflix hit “Don’t Look Up,” a planet-killing comet is a clunky metaphor for climate change, with scientists aghast at society’s inability to manage an obvious existential threat.

Well, don’t look now, but the comet is here, according to assessments this week from top European and US meteorologists.

Record-breaking temperatures

On Jan. 10, the European Union’s Copernicus satellite agency reported that the planet’s hottest seven years on record (since 1950) were the last seven, “by a clear margin,” with 2021 ranking fifth.

For the US, 2021 was the fourth warmest in records going back to 1894, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported the same day. NOAA also said there were 20 natural disasters costing more than $1 billion each in the US in 2021, two short of the 2020 record, with Hurricane Ida leading the pack at a cost of $75 billion. More data will be available in NOAA’s full annual climate report on Jan. 13.

The ocean is hotter than ever

Finally, in a peer-reviewed paper published Jan. 11, US scientists found that the ocean is now hotter than ever, breaking an annual temperature record for the sixth consecutive year. The ocean soaks up about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, and also absorbs a great deal of heat trapped in the atmosphere. Higher ocean temperatures are dangerous for many species of marine life, threaten fisheries and other marine economic sectors, and are a primary cause of stronger hurricanes.

Still, there’s a key difference between a comet and climate change. A comet is a single, terminal impact: one-and-done. But with climate change, every fraction of a degree matters—so it’s never too late to make the future a little less scary.

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