2012 Hottest Year in Record for US

By on January 15, 2013

Did this past year seem unusually warm? Remember how flowers began blooming in March? Remember the scorching heat of summer? Or, in much recent memory, remember how December was warm enough for t-shirts and shorts?

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2012 did not just seem warm. It was warm. Period. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released the State of the Climate, a summary of the climate of the past year. For the lower 48 states, 2012 was the hottest year on record. Every state recorded above-average temperature, with 19 of them seeing a record warmth. The national average was 55.3 °F, a full degree above the previous record of 1998 and 3.2 °F above the 20th century average.

Not only did the temperature reach a new extreme, but so did extreme weather patterns.

Rainfall was 2.57 inches below average, making 2012 the fifteenth driest year on records that stretch back to 1850 and the driest since 1988. The drought severely affected farmer’s crops, driving up soybean and corn prices. About 61 percent of the country experienced drought conditions. However, this past year was not as bad as the nationwide droughts of the 1950s and the 1930s. The Dustbowl of the 1930s remained the most severe recorded drought, which was exacerbated by poor farming practices that destroyed the topsoil.

Storms and hurricanes were also more extreme than usual. The Atlantic saw an above average number of storms, with nineteen named storms; ten of which became hurricanes and one exceeded category 3. Over eleven storms managed to individually collect over $1 billion in damages. The cost of Hurricane Sandy alone is estimated to be over $60 billion. On a measure known as the Climate Extremes Index, 2012 was the second most extreme year, surpassed by only 1998.

In the West, above-average wildfires ravaged the landscape, burning over 9.2 million acres. In June, Colorado experienced its most costly wildfire, with cost estimates over $450 million. New Mexico, on the other hand, saw the Whitewater-Baldy wildfire, the state’s largest ever. Satellite imagery showed smoke from the Whitewater-Baldy fire stretching across the length of New Mexico, casting a shadow over one-eighth of the state.

However, despite the record heat in the US, scientists do not expect it to translate to the globe. In 2012, the planet saw the La Niña weather pattern, a counterpart to El Niño that cools the Pacific Ocean. Still, scientists expect 2012 to be about the eighth or ninth warmest year on the global record. Nevertheless, La Niña did not help the melting ice caps. In September, the Arctic ice cap reached a record low, covering only 1.32 million square miles, a mere 24 percent of the total area of the Arctic Ocean.

Of course, natural variations in the weather most definitely contributed to the record heat. The human effect, though, cannot be neglected. The release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by human activities have had an undeniable effect in driving temperatures upwards. The 2012 record will surely soon be broken as global temperatures, spurred by our careless stewardship of the planet, spiral upwards at a rate surpassing all predictions by climate models.

Tianjiao Zhang
Staff writer
tzhang@uab.edu

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