International Study Finds Record-High Greenhouse Gases, Sea Levels and Ocean Heat in 2021

September 13, 2022

A new international report signals that historic U.S. legislation seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may have come in the nick of time, as the main drivers of climate change and some of its most widespread effects have reached record highs.

The 32nd American Meteorological Society State of the Climate Report, an international annual review of the world’s climate authored by 530 scientists from over 60 countries, found that worldwide greenhouse gas levels, sea levels and ocean temperatures have reached the highest levels ever recorded. The review was led by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information.

The global annual average of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 414.7 parts per million in 2021, the highest recorded in the last million years, according to paleoclimatic records. The annual average of methane was the highest since measurements began at 18 parts per billion. Nitrous oxide concentrations were the third highest since 2001.

This graph depicts the relative contributions of the major greenhouse gas pollutants to global warming, in watts per square meter along the left axis. The NOAA Annual Greenhouse Gas Index is shown on the right axis. Credit- NOAA Global Monitoring Laboratory

Carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, making the earth hotter. The increased heat causes widespread, dangerous and expensive changes in the earth’s climate, like rainfall amounts and patterns, heatwaves and other extreme weather events.

The last seven years have been the seven warmest on record globally, with the earth warming at twice the rate it has since 1981. Global ocean heat continued to increase and reached record highs in 2021, potentially fueling the year’s above-average tropical cyclone activity.

“The data presented in this report are clear – we continue to see more compelling scientific evidence that climate change has global impacts and shows no sign of slowing,” said NOAA administrator Rick Spinrad. “With many communities hit with 1,000-year floods, exceptional drought and historic heat this year, it shows that the climate crisis is not a future threat but something we must address today as we work to build a climate-ready nation and world that is resilient to climate-driven extremes.”

In 2022 alone, the world has experienced several large-scale historic and deadly flooding events.

More than 1,400 people have died in Pakistan and more than a third of the country is underwater due to flooding caused by rainfall 10 times heavier than usual.

Parts of the American Midwest and the South this summer have also faced major flooding events caused by rainfall that has broken century-long records.

This July, eastern Kentucky received a month’s worth of rain in a few hours, causing historic crests. Waterways like the North Fork Kentucky River, which is between 1 to 2 feet deep most of the year, rose 18 feet in 10 hours. At least 39 people died in the flooding, and many residents are still struggling to recover a month after. Only 2% of residents in the 10 affected counties had flood insurance, further complicating recovery.

In Jackson, Mississippi, record flooding along the Pearl River damaged the city’s water plant, resulting in a state of emergency. More than 150,000 residents, mostly Black and many poor, were left without safe drinking water.

The plant had been underfunded for decades, due to changes in the city’s demographics. A large portion of the city’s majority white population moved away beginning in the 1970s after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered desegregation in public schools and facilities. Wealthier Black residents followed, further gutting the city’s tax base.

Tragic flooding experiences also happen close to home and could increase in number as chronically underfunded and low-income communities face a mounting flood risk due to climate change.

A Jefferson County woman was killed when her home and several others were washed away by severe flash flooding over the Labor Day weekend. The Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency said flooding destroyed two homes, damaged more than 20 buildings and two bridges, and washed away several roads.

The Indiana Department of Homeland Security announced emergency disaster declarations for Ohio, Jefferson and Switzerland counties.

According to projections from the Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment, flooding will increasingly affect Hoosiers as climate change worsens.

The average amount of precipitation that falls in the state per year has increased by 5.6 inches since 1895, when records were first kept. The increase in precipitation accelerated in the mid 20th century. The rain is falling in shorter, more intense periods, increasing the likelihood for flooding.

In southern Indiana, average annual precipitation has increased even more, with the southwestern region of the state seeing an increase of 6.2 inches, 6.9 inches in the central southern region and 6.7 inches in the southeastern region.

More heavy rainfall and flooding has proven costly to Hoosier communities.

Data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information indicates the cost of damage caused by storm events has skyrocketed over the past decade.

Between 2011 and 2021, 1,822 storm events impacted the state of Indiana. The highest number of storm events happened in 2015, when 273 storm events occurred in the state and caused $982,000 in damages. In 2021, 112 storm events caused about $49 million in damages.

Most of the damage happened on a single night, June 18, when a long-lasting storm system moved through central Indiana. A 31-year-old man was killed after being swept away by floodwaters. The flooding caused extensive damage to many businesses near downtown Bloomington and damaged bridges and washed away roads in other parts of Monroe and Owen counties.

The increased precipitation is also costing taxpayers millions of dollars in water system upgrades and upkeep. Nationwide, the cost to utilities to keep up with climate change effects is estimated to be between $448 to $944 billion.

Hundreds of Indiana communities are relying on federal funds disbursed through the Indiana Finance Authority for grants and low interest loans to afford infrastructure upgrades. A recent infusion of federal money through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will allow the IFA to triple the amount of money disbursed to communities for drinking water or wastewater infrastructure.

Despite the current and looming costs of climate change, Indiana legislators have done little to stop the state’s contribution to climate change.

Fossil fuels make up a vast majority of the energy consumed in the state. The state ranks third in the nation in total coal consumption and coal consumption for electricity generation.

The Indiana General Assembly this year introduced bills that would prevent the state from doing business with companies that choose to become fossil fuel-free; prevent state agencies from adopting rules that are more strict than bare-minimum federal regulations; and make it more costly and time consuming for state agencies to defend their actions. The bills failed to become laws, but legislators could resurrect the bills in a matter of months.

The lawmakers did pass legislation that supported unproven “clean energy” projects in the state that would provide financial incentives for the companies that undertake them but would most likely not help wean the state from fossil fuels. Bills propping up nascent carbon capture and sequestration, small modular nuclear reactors and underground pumped storage hydropower easily passed through both houses of the state Legislature.

But lawmakers refused to hear a resolution that would formally acknowledge climate change and its causes, a bill that would establish a task force to develop a state climate action plan and a bill that would prolong the life of net metering.

International Study Finds Record-High Greenhouse Gases, Sea Levels and Ocean Heat in 2021