(WHTM) — The year 2021 is tied with 2018 as the sixth hottest year on record for the planet, according to findings from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that were released last week. In Pennsylvania specifically, 2021 ranked even higher, ending up as the fourth hottest year on record.
Ivona Cetinic, oceanographer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, says the planet has been warming up for the past several years. “The last year (2020) was actually the hottest on record, so if you look at the last eight years, they were the hottest on record,” Cetinic said, “so you have this continuous increase.”
The NASA and NOAA analysis found that global temperatures in 2021 were 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit above the average for NASA’s baseline period, which is 1951-1980, and 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit above the late 1800s average around the Industrial Revolution.
Essentially, NASA’s records show that what may be considered “normal” weather and “normal” temperatures is changing as global temperatures trend upward.
“This ‘new normal,’ this shifting baseline, is tricky because you don’t have that step of everything is great and now these catastrophic events start. Our baseline to which we refer is shifting. In our lifetimes we have seen these changes, but they’re going to become more abundant,” Cetinic said.
Day-to-day weather will continue to fluctuate, Cetinic noted, but overall, warmer global temperatures mean more extreme weather events, such as more intense hurricanes or more droughts, which can have additional impacts on people. For example, Cetinic explained, droughts can facilitate wildfires like the one seen recently in Colorado, and they can impact agriculture.
“You may not care because you’re not in the path of hurricanes, you’re not in a drought season, but you like cherries. For example, cherry trees to need a cold season in the winter to produce really well and that has to fall in the correct time, and if that doesn’t happen, your cherries will not be there anymore,” Cetinic said.
In Pennsylvania specifically, warmer and wetter conditions may become more common as temperatures rise, said Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency state meteorologist Jeff Jumper. Jumper says Pennsylvania’s climate may become more like that of states to its south — think Virginia, the Carolinas, and, a little farther in the future, maybe even Texas.
Last year was the fourth warmest year on record for Pennsylvania, Jumper said. “When you’re looking at climate, you’re looking for trends,” he noted. “We can look at those trends and say, ‘Temperature-wise, we had a pretty warm year, but how were we the past few years?’ And if we plot all that, year by year we’re seeing that temperatures, on average, are going up.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s 2021 Climate Change Impacts Assessment projects that the state’s average temperature will rise 5.9 degrees Fahrenheit by the middle of this century compared to a 1971-2000 baseline.
More hot days can mean more heat stress on people and a greater strain on aging infrastructure. For example, more people may need more air conditioning to stay comfortable when the weather is hot, Jumper said. More warm, muggy days might also mean more mosquito bites because those are the conditions in which the insects thrive, added Jumper.
Jumper reiterated that although the state and the planet are seeing warming climate trends, daily weather may not always reflect those overall trends. Pennsylvania can still get snow, even record-setting amounts of it, but that does not mean that the climate isn’t getting warmer. In fact, Jumper said that mixed precipitation rather than just snow in the winter may become more common in the future.
Temperature trends in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania:
As with the rest of the planet, long-term changes in Pennsylvania’s climate may alter what is seen as “typical” Pennsylvania weather, Jumper said. In addition to warmer weather and heavier rain events, tornadoes may become more frequent in the state, for example.
In 2021, Tropical Storm Ida brought tornado warnings as well as record river crests in the eastern part of the state, some of which broke records set during Agnes, Jumper said. The river crests began and ended more quickly during Ida than they had in the past, too, Jumper noted, which may be related to the heavy rainfall during the storm.
Although not every aspect of 2021’s weather is reflective of larger climate trends, “there’s pieces of it that we can attribute to, hey, this is following that longer trend,” Jumper said.
Pennsylvanians will have to adapt to this changing climate. “When we see these increasing temperatures, increase in rain events, you get more flooding events outside the floodplain, we’re building more homes, we’re relying on infrastructure that’s a little bit older, it really comes down to impacts to people,” Jumper said. “More people are being put into more vulnerable situations, and the risk goes up.”
Scientists and climate experts debate whether the world is locked in to a certain amount of climate change, but according to Cetinic, it is not too late to make a difference. Cetinic says, “I don’t think it’s too late, and there’s always hope. It’s not hopeless. We know where it’s coming from, and we know how to stop it, so we just have to start acting on that information.”