The year 2021 saw an exceptional amount of extreme weather in the United States, causing more hardship during an already difficult year. Weather disasters are becoming more common as the climate warms.
The past year will be remembered for many reasons, but one of the most significant may be the weather. An analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows 2021 was another year of extremes.
With an average temperature of 54.5 degrees, 2021 was the fourth-warmest year in the contiguous United States since official records began in 1895. It adds to a streak of exceptionally warm years.
Six of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2012. In 2021 the country experienced its warmest recorded June, warmest summer (June to August), third-warmest fall (September to November) and the warmest December on record.
The average precipitation total for 2021 in the contiguous United States was 30.48 inches, about normal. However there was considerable variation by region. As has been the case in recent years, it was generally wetter than normal in the eastern United States and drier than normal in the western United States. The Gulf Coast in particular saw conditions that were much wetter than usual, while the northern Rockies saw reduced precipitation.
Twenty-one named storms formed in the Atlantic, making it the third-most active hurricane season on record behind 2020 and 2005. Of those named storms, eight storms made landfall in the United States. The strongest was Hurricane Ida, which made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 4 hurricane. It caused $75 billion in damage and killed 96 people.
There were 1,376 tornadoes in the United States during 2021, including 193 in December. That’s the greatest number of December tornadoes ever, easily breaking the old record of 97 in 2002. The strongest was an EF4 tornado that devastated Mayfield, Kentucky, with 190-mph winds.
In total the United States experienced 20 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters during 2021, according to NOAA data. That’s the second-most since records began in 1980, with only 2020 having more billion-dollar disasters.
The total cost of the disasters exceeded $145 billion, the third-most cost on record, including inflation. Those disasters also claimed 688 lives, the biggest weather-related death toll since 2011.
Weather disasters that cause a billion dollars or more in damage are becoming more common. While the average number of disasters since 1980 is seven, 2021 marked the seventh-consecutive year there have been 10 or more. The average time between billion-dollar weather disasters was 82 days in the 1980s, but that number has now tightened to just 18 days between disasters in the past five years.