Temperatures hit an unseasonably warm 61˚F in Washington D.C. earlier this week. The Middle East is blanketed in record rainfall and rare heavy snowfall, ending a nearly decade-long drought. Australia witnessed its hottest day on record this past week, stoking wildfires. And China is experiencing a bitterly cold winter, where temperatures are the lowestthey’ve been in almost three decades. We’re only two weeks into 2013, and already we are getting a reminder of the extreme year we just emerged from.
2012: A Year of Extreme Weather
How extreme were last year’s weather and climatic events? In the continental United States, 2012 was the hottest year on record and the second most extreme year, according to scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). On top of that, the United States experienced 11 extreme weather events that each caused more than $1 billion in damages. And 2012 did not spare the rest of the world; it brought severe drought to the African Sahel, torrential rains to China, Europe’s worst cold snap in 25 years, and flooding in Manila and Bangladesh, among other devastating events. We took stock of 2012’s extreme events in an interactive timeline. It is by no means comprehensive, but reminds us how climate change is affecting global communities and citizens’ lives, livelihoods, infrastructure, and ecosystems.
The Climate Change Connection
Meanwhile, the science linking extreme events to global warming continues to become more robust. The U.S. National Climate Assessment released its draft report late last week, confirming that there is new and strong evidence that the increase in some extreme events is related to human activities. This comes on the heels of other noteworthy publications linking extreme events to climate change. The IPCC released a Special Report in 2012 finding that climate change has already contributed to changes in extreme weather and climate events—such as heat waves, high temperatures, and heavy precipitation—in many regions over the past half century. In another report released last year, scientists from NOAA, the U.K.’s Met Office, and other institutions found that several extreme events are much more likely to happen now than decades ago due to human-induced climate change. For example, the report showed that the conditions leading to the 2011 Texas drought are 20 times more likely to occur now than in the 1960s as a result of rising greenhouse gas emissions and associated climatic changes. It is too early to tell what 2013 has in store for us. The first couple weeks suggest that we have not returned to stable weather. It is also too late to reverse the devastation of 2012’s extreme events. However, if we want a fighting chance to avert similar – or worse – damage in the years to come, we must act to reverse our carbon-intensive trends and the associated warming that’s making weather and climate more extreme.