WASHINGTON – Last year marked the warmest year on record for the United States and was also the second most extreme ever, the U.S. government agency charged with monitoring weather events said Tuesday.
A brutal combination of a widespread drought and a mostly absent winter pushed the average annual U.S. temperature last year up to 13 degrees Celsius, the government announced. That’s a full 0.6 degree warmer than the old record set in 1998.
Breaking temperature records by such an extent is unprecedented, scientists say. Normally, records are broken by just a tenth of a degree or so.
The hot weather contributed to a record drought that, at its peak, parched 61 percent of the nation, destroyed crops worth billions and slowed shipping on the mighty Mississippi River as water levels reached historic lows.
Those dry conditions helped spark massive wildfires that charred 3.6 million hectares, the third highest annual figure on record, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said.
The nation suffered through 11 weather disasters that each caused $1 billion in damage or more, including hurricanes Sandy and Isaac and deadly tornado outbreaks that hit the Great Plains, Texas and the Ohio Valley.
Scientists have warned that such conditions are just a taste of what is to come as a result of climate change and advocates urged swift action to limit the impacts.
Sandy proved the most destructive disaster of 2012 after it made landfall near New York, killing 131 people, knocking out power to 8 million and destroying tens of thousands of homes and businesses.
Every one of the 48 states in the continental United States had an above-average annual temperature last year — and 19 of those shattered records.
The warm temperatures meant that the winter season “was nearly nonexistent for much of the eastern half of the nation,” NOAA said.
The December 2011 to February 2012 period was marked by near-record warmth across the U.S.-Canadian border, the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast.
Many locations across the country recorded near-record low total snowfall for the winter, which left soil parched and contributed to the drought.