NOAA’s ‘State of the Climate’: A Litany of 2012 Weather Records

Those instinctual and personal (and often entirely unscientific) fears of 2012′s having been a weather bummer turn out to be largely on-target, as NOAA data point to a year of uncomfortable records.


Think 2012 across the contiguous U.S. was hellishly hot and, all in all, a hellacious weather year?

The data, compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center (NOAA/NCDC) bear you out.

Put it down as “a historic year for extreme weather” involving most everything other than tornado activity, and, from the temperature standpoint, the “the warmest year on record” for the 48 mainland states. Average temperatures across the country didn’t just exceed the 20th Century average or the previous warmest year of 1998: they shattered them, besting (or is it “worsting”?) the 20th Century average by 3.2 degrees F and coming in at an average temperature of 55.3 degrees F. Compared with the previous warmest year of 1998, 2012 was a full 1 degree F warmer.

For good measure, data junkies can throw in that the average precipitation total of 26.57 inches for the contiguous U.S. — 2.57 inches below average — made for the 15th driest year on record for the nation. With more than three-fifths of the nation in drought in July, wildfires in the West charred 9.2 million acres, the third highest on record. The “Breadbasket” region of the Mountain West, Great Plains, and Midwest took the hardest hit from the prolonged, widespread and — and this is important even if it’s slipped off the nation’s newspaper front pages — continuing drought.

The numbers say it all:

  • All 48 contiguous states had above-average annual temperatures in 2012, and 19 set their own statewide records while another 26 placed in the top 10.
  • It was the fourth warmest winter — December 2011-February 2012 — on record, with “many locations experiencing near-record low snowfall totals.” Pity the would-be skiers yearning to schuss in the Central and Southern Rockies: their snowpack totaled less than half of normal.
  • The warmest March on record, followed by the fourth warmest April and the second warmest May, led to the warmest spring on record — 2 degrees F warmer than the previous record spring. The resulting early growing season was dealt a setback by the increased loss of water from soils resulting from lower snowpacks and dryness carrying forward from 2011.
  • With July average temperatures of 76.9 degrees F across the contiguous states, the month became the hottest month ever observed, 3.6 degrees F above the average for the 48 states. On the heels of June’s being the eighth warmest, the 73.8 degrees F made for the second hottest summer on record. Some 99 million people sweltered in 10 or more days of summer temperatures exceeding 100 degrees.
  • Things let up somewhat in fall and December, with warmth in the western U.S. offsetting cooler temperatures in the eastern half of the country. Even with the somewhat more normal warmth in the last four months of 2012, the year as a whole across the 48 states made 2012 “the record warmest year by a wide margin.”
  • Above-average wildfire activity during 2012 burned about 9.2 million acres, the third most in the 13 years such activity has been tracked. The Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs destroyed some 350 homes, making it the most destructive fire on record for Colorado. New Mexico’s Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire burned 300,000 acres, making it the largest on record for that state.

Alaska’s 2012 was cooler and slightly wetter than normal for the state, ending up about 2.3 degrees F cooler than average, and with annual precipitation 9.2 percent above average.

For Hawaii, 2012 was basically a year of continued drought. About 47.4 percent of the Aloha State had moderate-to-exceptional drought early in the year, and by the end of 2012, those drought levels had expanded to 63.3 percent of the state.

And now for a little good news: 2012 tornado activity was below the average of about 1,200 for the years 1991 to 2010. The total of fewer than 1,000 tornadoes is likely to give 2012 the fewest since 2002. A little something to be thankful for in thinking back to the 2012 weather year that was.

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