Weather Disasters in 2021 Reinforce Need for Ag’s Role in Mitigating Climate Change

January 13, 2022

Evidence continues to grow of the fundamental changes our climate is continuing to experience – in some cases, at an unsustainable rate – and the need for pragmatic, actionable, science-based solutions. Two reports issued just this week underscores this challenge and the need to address it now.

The National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), which hosts and provides public access to one of the most significant archives for environmental data on the planet, released on Monday its annual assessment of the U.S. climate. The report found that in 2021, the contiguous United States experienced the fourth warmest year in its history. Of even greater concern is that more than $20 billion in damages was sustained as the result of climate-related disasters experienced over the year. Much of that destruction and loss occurred in rural America.

On a global scale, 2021 ranked as fifth hottest year on record, according to another report issued on Monday, this one from European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, an intergovernmental agency that supports European climate policy. Showing a continuing upward trend in temperatures as fossil fuel emissions trap more heat in the atmosphere, the Copernicus report shows the last seven years have been the world’s hottest.

What might be of even greater concern is the Copernicus finding that carbon dioxide (CO2), the leading cause of climate change, and methane, which is more than 25 times as potent as CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere and makes up some 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), both continued to increase last year. The jump comes even as nations have pledged in recent years to take steps to stem the rise in emissions.

Back in the United States, the report from NCEI, which is an agency within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says the average contiguous U.S. temperature was 54.5 degrees Fahrenheit, 2.5 degrees above the 20th-century average and ranked as the fourth-warmest year in the 127-year period of record. In fact, the six warmest years on record have all occurred since 2012. The December contiguous U.S. temperature was 39.3 degrees Fahrenheit, an astonishing 6.7 degrees above average, exceeding the previous record set in December 2015.

There were 20 separate, billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in 2021, just two events shy of the record set in 2020. These events caused at least 688 fatalities and scores more injured. Two disasters occurred in December — the Southeast, Central Tornado Outbreak and the Midwest Derecho and Tornado Outbreak.

The annual precipitation total for the contiguous United States was 30.48 inches, 0.54 inch above average, ranking in the middle third of the historical record. Despite this near-normal precipitation at the national scale, 2021 brought with it several significant events at the regional scale, including an above-average monsoon season across the Southwest. Several atmospheric river events – massive streams of water vapor up to 375 miles wide and often more than 1,000 miles long that travel through the sky and can condense into heavy precipitation – plagued Pacific coastal areas.

Drought was extensive across much of the western U.S. throughout 2021. Large, widespread pockets of “extreme drought” conditions remain across much of the regions and east into the High Plains. A lack of precipitation over the first five months of the year and snowmelt diminished by thirsty soils resulted in more than 151 million acres of crops and more than 13 million beef cattle in nearly 1,350 counties across the region experiencing anywhere from “abnormally dry” to blisteringly “exceptional” drought conditions.

Despite these conditions, on Wednesday USDA released its annual crop production summary reports confirming record production across commodities in 2021. You can thank public and private sector investments in research and innovation for these outcomes. This litany of catastrophic weather events in just the past year alone – harsh climate events of the past decade notwithstanding – affirms the need to act now to scale up investments in climate smart agriculture (CSA) systems and practices. This includes the CSA provisions adopted by the House last fall and others under consideration in the Senate. SfL encourages stakeholders to talk to federal policy makers about the value of CSA investments and the need to find a way to get them adopted. Doing so will enable farmers, ranchers and forestland owners to sustainably intensify production to meet ever expanding demand, improve resilience and deliver climate mitigation and other high value ecosystem services that benefit producers, the public and the planet.

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