It’s official: 2012 was the hottest year on record in the continental U.S. — and it wasn’t even close. Last year beat the previous record holder — 1998, the summer of which I spent broiling to death as a New York intern — by a full 1ºF (0.56ºC). That’s a landslide, by meteorological standards. That’s Alabama beating Notre Dame to a bloody Irish pulp last night for the college football championship. It was really, really hot last year.
I could cite more statistics to prove the point, but I think this map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration does it better than anything else:
As the numbers and colors on that map show, every one of the lower 48 states experienced an annual temperature average last year that was higher than the 20th century average for that state. (The average temperature for the continental U.S. in 2012 was 55.3ºF [12.9ºC], 3.2ºF [1.8ºC] higher than the 20th century average.) Nineteen states — including Texas, New York, Ohio and Oklahoma — had their highest annual average temperatures on record; 26 others had years that ranked in the top-1o hottest ever. Did I say it was hot? It was hot.
And that was just the temperature. Last year was also unusually dry for the continental U.S. The average precipitation total was 26.57 in. (67.49 cm), 2.57 in. (6.53 cm) below average — good for the 15th driest year on record. And that national number hid devastating local extremes, as much of the Midwest was gripped — and remains gripped — in a historic drought. In July, 61% of the country was experiencing some drought conditions — roughly equal to the devastating droughts of the 1950s, if smaller and less extreme than the Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s. The prolonged dry spells and brutally hot weather set the stage for massive wildfires — 9.2 million acres (3.7 million hectares) of forests were charred in 2012, the third most in the 13-year record.
And while 2012 certainly stood out for its high temperatures, it was hardly unusual. The last decade globally has been the hottest in recorded history. (U.S. temperature records go back to 1895.) And the heat has been above average for some time. Want to know the last time the continental U.S. had a record cold month? December 1983.
It should go without saying that the main driver behind these rising temperatures is man-made climate change, as Angela Anderson of the Union of Concerned Scientists said:
Unfortunately, this won’t be the last time we break records like this. The longer we delay reducing emissions, the more climate change we’re going to lock in. The President has promised to make climate change a priority in his second term, but he needs to turn those words into action. The price tag for dealing with unchecked climate change makes the fiscal cliff look like a crack in the sidewalk.
The problem is that we tend to gawk at these temperature extremes, or at multibillion-dollar storms, then shrug and go back to our daily business. That shouldn’t be an option anymore.
Of course, it could always be worse. Right now in balmy Australia, the average-high national temperature is a cool 40.33º. Except … that’s actually in Celsius. Which means Australia is burning through average high temperatures of 104.6ºF (40.3ºC). Those shrimp will be barbie-ing themselves.