WASHINGTON — As 2012 began, winter in the U.S. went AWOL. Spring and summer arrived early with wildfires, blistering heat and drought. And fall hit the eastern third of the country with the ferocity of Superstorm Sandy.
This past year's weather was deadly, costly and record-breaking everywhere — but especially in the United States.
If that sounds familiar, it should. The previous year also was one for the record books.
"We've had two years now of some angry events," said Deke Arndt, U.S. National Climatic Data Center monitoring chief. "I'm hoping that 2013 is really boring."
In 2012 many of the warnings scientists have made about global warming went from dry studies in scientific journals to real-life video played before our eyes: Record melting of the ice in the Arctic Ocean. U.S. cities baking at 95 degrees or hotter. Widespread drought. Flooding. Storm surge inundating swaths of New York City.
All of that was predicted years ago by climate scientists and all of that happened in 2012.
"What was predicted was there would be more of these things," said Michel Jarraud, secretary general for the World Meteorological Organization.
Globally, five countries this year set heat records, but none set cold records. 2012 is on track to be the warmest year on record in the United States. Worldwide, the average through November suggests it will be the eighth warmest since global record-keeping began in 1880.
July was the hottest month in record-keeping U.S. history, averaging 77.6 degrees. Over the year, more than 69,000 local heat records were set — including 356 locations in 34 states that hit their highest-ever temperature mark.
America's heartland lurched from one extreme to the other without stopping at "normal." Historic flooding in 2011 gave way to devastating drought in 2012.
"The normal has changed, I guess," said U.S. National Weather Service acting director Laura Furgione. "The normal is extreme."
While much of the U.S. struggled with drought that conjured memories of the Dust Bowl, parts of Africa, Russia, Pakistan, Colombia, Australia and China dealt with the other extreme: deadly and expensive flooding.
But the most troubling climate development this year was the melting at the top of the world, Jarraud said. Summer sea ice in the Arctic shrank to 18 percent below the previous record low. The normally ice-packed Arctic passages were open to shipping much of the summer, more than ever before, and a giant Russian tanker carrying liquefied natural gas made a delivery that way to prove how valuable this route has become, said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
Also in Greenland, 97 percent of the surface ice sheet had some melting. Changes in the Arctic alter the rest of the world's weather and "melting of the ice means an amplifying of the warming," Jarraud said.
There were other weather extremes no one predicted: A European winter cold snap that killed more than 800 people. A bizarre summer windstorm called a derecho in the U.S. mid-Atlantic that left millions without power. Antarctic sea ice that inched to a record high. More than a foot of post-Thanksgiving rain in the western U.S. Super Typhoon Bopha, which killed hundreds of people in the Philippines and was the southernmost storm of its kind.
The United States has had "some quiet years while the rest of the world was quite wild," but that's not the case this year, Arndt said. Insurance giant Munich Re in a report this fall concluded: "Nowhere in the world is the rising number of annual natural catastrophes more evident than in North America."
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