2012: Another year of global weirding

By John Parnell

As 2012 comes to a close, the effects of the year’s weather are not yet over.

Drought and heatwaves wreaked havoc with harvests and we will only feel that particular pinch next year.

Typhoon Bopha’s death toll has already passed the 1000 mark and Cyclone Evan has just passed through Samoa and Fiji. By the end of October, 2012 had already yielded the average number of tropical storms expected.

Add this to record lows in Arctic Sea Ice, floods, wildfires, temperature extremes and the fact that November was the 333rd consecutive month that temperatures were higher than the 20th century average and a compelling picture emerges.

“Naturally occurring climate variability due to phenomena such as El Niño and La Niña impact on temperatures and precipitation on a seasonal to annual scale,” says Michel Jarraud, WMO Secretary-General.

“But they do not alter the underlying long-term trend of rising temperatures due to climate change as a result of human activities.”

An estimated 9.2 million acres, an area just smaller than Switzerland, was burned by US wildfires this year. (Source: Flickr/National Guard)

“The extent of Arctic sea ice reached a new record low. The alarming rate of its melt this year highlighted the far-reaching changes taking place on Earth’s oceans and biosphere. Climate change is taking place before our eyes and will continue to do so as a result of the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which have risen constantly and again reached new records,” he adds.

Extreme weather events cannot be singularly attributed to climate change but observations of their regularity and distribution suggest something is changing.

Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund in the US, uses an excellent analogy to explain the relationship between climate change and extreme weather.

“We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”

Science and politics

Despite a year of “global weirding” and some often harrowing physical evidence, the climate politics of 2012 showed no sign of shifting to close the gulf between observed climate impacts and urgent policy action.

“It’s a gap as wide as the Grand Canyon,” says Kelly Rigg, executive director of the Global Campaign for Climate Action, more commonly referred to as tcktcktck. “The science tells us that the longer we wait, the more difficult and expensive it will be to keep temperature rise in check.”

The conclusion of the UN climate change talks in Doha left many unsatisfied that the urgency of the process and the change it is meant to deliver, are not matching up to its founding principles.

“There’s a reason why emissions reductions targets are pegged to 1990 as a base year – that was the year we drew a line in the sand; the year governments acknowledged the science and negotiated a treaty to address it. But sadly, global emissions still have yet to peak,” she told RTCC.

With developing countries bearing the brunt of most of climate changes impacts, it is perhaps no surprise that that is where the greatest urgency can be found.

“Many people in developing countries are very aware of the changing climate, and are directly experiencing the impacts,” says Rigg. “But they don’t necessarily associate it with excessive fossil fuel use in other countries. That said some of the strongest leadership on climate action is being taken by developing country governments.”

WMO State of the climate in 2012

Sea ice: Summer sea ice extent in the Arctic shrunk to a new record low in September. “We are now in uncharted territory,” said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Center (NSIDC) in Colorado, US.

NASA: Data reveals how Arctic sea ice extent, from Sept. 16, 2012, compares to the average minimum over the past 30 years (yellow).

Temperatures: During the first ten months of 2012, above-average temperatures affected most of the globe’s land surface areas, most notably North America (warmest on record for 48 lower US states), southern Europe, western and central Russia and northwestern Asia.

Much of South America and Africa experienced above average temperatures during the first ten months of the year, with the most anomalous warmth across parts of northern Argentina and northern Africa. Most of Asia had above-average temperatures, with cooler-than-average conditions across parts of northern China.

South Asia and the Pacific were also predominantly warmer than normal, except for Australia.

Extremes: Notable extreme events were observed worldwide, but some parts of the Northern Hemisphere were affected by multiple extremes during January–October 2012. Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New York, having already devastated Haiti, attracting global attention on climate change. Concern about the climate in the US shot up to 80% post-Sandy.

Heat waves: Major heat waves impacted the Northern Hemisphere during the year, with the most notable in March–May across the continental United States of America and Europe. Warm spells during March 2012 resulted in many record-breaking temperatures in Europe and nearly 15,000 new daily records across the USA.

Russia witnessed the second warmest summer on record after 2010. Numerous temperature records were broken in Morocco in summer.

Drought: According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, nearly two-thirds of the continental United States (65.5%) was considered to be in moderate to exceptional drought on 25 September, 2012.

Drought conditions impacted parts of western Russia and western Siberia during June and July, and Southeast Europe, the Balkans and some Mediterranean countries during summer.

In China, the Yunnan and southwestern Sichuan province experienced severe drought during winter and spring. Northern Brazil witnessed the worst drought in 50 years. The April–October precipitation total, in Australia was 31% below normal.

Corn and soybean harvests plummeted as a result of the hotter drier condition.

Haiti has suffered a succession of extreme weather events in recent years. (Source: UN/Logan Abbasi)

Floods: Many parts of western Africa and the Sahel, including Niger and Chad, suffered serious flooding between July and September because of a very active monsoon.

Heavy rainfall from the end of July through early October prompted exceptional floods across Nigeria.

Parts of southern China experienced their heaviest rainfall in the last 32 years in April and May.

Devastating monsoonal floods impacted Pakistan during September.

Central and parts of northern Argentina suffered from record rainfall and flooding in August, and parts of Colombia were affected by heavy precipitation for most of the year.

Snow and Extreme Cold: A cold spell on the Eurasian continent from late January to mid-February was notable for its intensity, duration, and impact.

Across eastern Russia, temperatures ranged between -45°C to -50°C during the end of January. Several areas of eastern Europe reported minimum temperatures as low as -30°C, with some areas across northern Europe and central Russia experiencing temperatures below -40°C.

Tropical Cyclones: Global tropical cyclone activity for the first ten months was near the 1981–2010 average of 85 storms, with a total of 81 storms (wind speeds greater or equal than 34 knots, or 63 kilometres per hour).

The Atlantic basin experienced an above-average hurricane season for a third consecutive year with a total of 19 storms, with ten reaching hurricane status, the most notably being Sandy, which wreaked havoc across the Caribbean and the USA East Coast.

Throughout the year, East Asia was severely impacted by powerful typhoons. Typhoon Sanba and Bopha caused severe damage and loss of life with the Philippines particularly badly affected.

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