Extreme weather: here, there, everywhere

by Bill Chameides | July 10th, 2012
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Wildfires like this one just west of Fort Collins, Colorado, ravaged parts of the West in June while elsewhere heat waves gripped communities and storms caused power outages. What does such extreme weather here and elsewhere mean? (U.S. Forest Service)

Update added July 12.

Extreme weather around the globe. A weird statistical fluke or the “new normal”?

A hot time in the United States in 2012

This May and June in these here United States were pretty spectacular months on the weather front. And July is shaping up to be a zinger as well, with forecasts of more brutal heat to come.

On Sunday, in Duke’s home of Durham, North Carolina, the mercury climbed to 105 Fahrenheit, a record for July 8 and a tie with the all-time high for the area. Sunday also marked the sixth day in a row with temps in the triple digits.

But record-high temperatures here were kind of … well, normal for the country, as extreme heat set in across much of the United States in late June. And it’s not just daily records that are being set, but all-time highs as well. (Check your locality for weather extremes here.)

To get a feel for just how hot it’s been, check out these preliminary stats for the week of June 24 to June 30 from the National Climatic Data Center, which compiles U.S. temperature data:

  • 1,924 daily high temperature records, including:
    • 565 temperatures that set or tied monthly high temperature records and
    • 155 all-time record high temperatures;
  • 634 warm overnight low temperature records, including:
    • 67 temperatures that set or tied monthly warm overnight low temperature records and
    • nine all-time record warm overnight lows.

Overall, a total of 173 all-time highest maximum temperature records were set or tied in June. (See interactive map below.)

U.S. all-time highest max temperature records set in June 2012 (Source: NCDC)

Setting that many records is unusual, but it’s also unusual for such heat to occur so early in the summer. But then this whole year has been a hot one for the United States — with the first six months being the warmest on record dating back to 1895. So far this year, record highs have outpaced record lows by a rate of two to one.

Globally it’s been warm too. May 2012 ranks as the warmest May on record for land temperatures, and the second warmest for land and ocean temperatures. More on the global front in a moment.

Stormy weather

A time-lapse video showing the June 29th derecho travel from Davenport, Iowa, to Richmond, Virginia, over the course of 14 hours. (youtube/akrherz)

Of course the hot temperatures have meant more than just heat for Americans.

We’ve seen a sequence of wildly intense thunderstorms, known as derechos (see video), march across the mid-Atlantic states, leaving millions without power and causing at least a dozen deaths.

(Read more on the storms here and here, and more  here on the record-breaking heat in the contiguous United States.)

Thirst so thirsty

Drought has been another hallmark of 2012. About 56 percent of the United States is experiencing moderate drought or worse.

Poised to be some of the biggest victims of the dry spell are farmers and by
extension we consumers, as the extreme weather conditions are causing
yield projections for corn and soybean production in the United States to fall. It’s a potential worldwide problem, as corn grown in America  supplies a good deal of the world’s total crop and feeds a lot of the world’s livestock, poultry and fish. A low harvest could mean higher food costs.

With the country’s largest planted corn crop in 75 years now wilting in fields throughout the Midwest, a would-be bountiful harvest seems in doubt, and now U.S. corn stockpiles are predicted to be the lowest they’ve been in 16 years. Look for the Agriculture Department’s report due out tomorrow, which could have revised numbers for corn.

They’re crying wildfire

While the central and eastern parts of the United States have baked from the heat, the West has burned.

Wildfires have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah.

While recent rain and cooler temps have helped firefighters gain the upper hand in some places like Colorado, elsewhere, wildfires have continued to rage on.

Strange weather over there

While hardly exhaustive, that’s a startling list of strange weather happenings across the United States. Many of you have no doubt had to live through some of that stuff and most others have heard about at least some of it in the news. Getting less coverage on the home front is the extreme and unusual weather outside the states.

What does it all mean?

All this extreme weather has clearly played havoc with a lot of people’s lives. Over the long haul, it also threatens to play havoc with the world food market, with projections of weaker corn and soy yields from the United States; lower-than-expected wheat yields from Russia, China, and Australia; a less-than-stellar comeback for sugarcane crops in Brazil and Australia; and questionable rice (et al commodities) yields from India should the monsoon continue to underperform.

While much of America and a good deal of the rest of the world is baking, global warming has fallen in the rankings of environmental priorities among Americans, according to a recent poll by the Washington Post and Stanford University. Previously number one on America’s environmental worry list, it has now, according to this poll, fallen to second behind air and water pollution — an interesting distinction. That shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that Americans don’t think it’s happening — in fact some 78 percent of the respondents to the poll opine that global warming is a serious problem.

Which all begs the question: What are the long-term implications? Are we seeing the beginning of a steady decline in concern over global warming in the United States? That probably depends to a significant extent on what happens with the climate. And so we must ask: Is this spate of extremes yet more evidence that we’ve reached a new greenhouse gas-driven normal in weather, one in which the extremes are more extreme? It’s hard to answer that one with a definitive yes. It’s virtually impossible to answer with a definitive no.

Update: 7/12/2012, 12:05 p.m.

A timely report published Tuesday by an international group of researchers takes a closer look at the existence of a new greenhouse gas-driven normal. Appearing in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, the report takes a stab at assessing just how much of last year’s extreme weather can be attributed to climate change. Specifically, the authors looked at six events, finding that some, like the flooding in Thailand, were the result of natural variability while others, like the heatwaves in Texas and the United Kingdom, were made much more likely by climate change. The quick turnaround on the studies (six months) as well as the newness of the field have led some to be skeptical of the work, but as a tentative finding, the results suggest we are moving closer to being able to see our hand not just in climate but in weather. (Read full report [pdf].)

Additional resources

Learn more about derechos: “About derechos” (NOAA) and “NASA satellites examine a powerful summer storm” (NASA)

filed under: agriculture, Australia, climate change, drought, Europe, faculty, food, global warming, heat waves, rainfall, temperatures, water, weather
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