Federal Scientists Confirm Virtual Tie For Hottest Year On Record


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Blue tarps cover houses with damaged roofs in Lake Charles, La., after Hurricane Delta hit the city in October 2020.

Bill Feig/AP


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North America is heating up slightly faster than the global average. The average annual temperature on the continent has increased by about half a degree Fahrenheit per decade since 1981.

«The steady march up decade after decade is the thing that really matters,» says Lesley Ott, a climate scientist at NASA.

Ott studies global concentrations of greenhouse gases — the higher the concentration, the more heat is trapped. She says 2020 was notable because the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased slightly despite economic disruptions caused by the global pandemic.

«While we saw a slight dip in emissions, we know that, in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide concentrations continued to rise,» Ott says. «We think [concentrations] just rose at a slightly lower rate than they would have, had there not been the pandemic.»

But Ott says it’s not particularly surprising that the pandemic didn’t reduce greenhouse gas concentrations more. Although the global economy took a big hit, people still burned a lot of fossil fuels.


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«It’s not really a great analog to how we would reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in the future,» Ott says. «We would never want to do something that affected people’s lives, that affected their ability to get out of their house, go to work, see their families.»

Addressing climate change doesn’t require lockdowns, she explains. It requires a transition to cleaner transportation, electricity and manufacturing.

The extra heat fueled record-breaking disasters in the U.S. 2020 smashed the previous record for the number of climate-driven disasters, including hurricanes, floods, droughts and wildfires, that caused more than $1 billion in damage. The previous record set in both 2011 and 2017 was 16 such large-scale catastrophes. The new record is 22, including 7 hurricanes, a wildfire and a drought.

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