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It Just Keeps Getting Hotter: 2012 Hottest Year on Record

J. Mijin Cha

Back in the spring, we pointed out that the previous 12 months from May 2011 - April 2012 was the hottest on record. Then, in July, we highlighted how over 3,000 temperature records had been broken within the first 10 days of the month. Now, it turns out that 2012 was the hottest year on record by a wide margin. The average temperature, 55.3 degrees, was a full degree higher than the previous record in 1998. For the first time since record keeping began in 1895, temperatures were above normal in every month between June 2011 and September 2012.

It’s not just the U.S. that is experiencing rising temperatures. Australia’s temperature rise is requiring new colors on its meteorological maps. Central and Eastern Europe experienced record heat last spring. Worldwide, 2012 was the ninth warmest year on record and every year from 2001-2011 was among the warmest on record. The continually increasing temperatures are resulting in an alarming rate of Arctic melt and the level of Arctic sea ice is at a new record low. The consequences of decreasing sea ice range from losing Arctic wildlife to major weather and climate changes for the rest of the planet. For one, without sea ice to reflect the sun’s rays, global temperatures are likely to rise.

In fact, we are rapidly approaching the point where if immediate action isn't taken, limiting warming to a 2-degree increase in temperature cannot be achieved, regardless of what we do in the future. While a one or two degree increase in temperature may not seem like much, each degree of temperature increase will cause:

• 5-10% changes in precipitation across many regions

• 5-10% changes in streamflow across many river basins

• 15% decreases in the annually averaged extent of sea ice across the Arctic Ocean, with 25% decreases in the yearly minimum extent in September

• 5-15% reductions in the yields of crops as currently grown

• 200-400% increases in the area burned by wildfire in parts of the western United States

So, if global temperatures increase two degrees, we can expect up to a 30 percent decrease in crop yields and up to an 800 percent increase in acres burned by wildfires. Adapting to a low carbon lifestyle may be difficult, but it will be nothing compared to adapting to a food supply that is decreased by almost a third.

The only thing stopping meaningful action is political will. These numbers underscore the urgency in making climate change a priority not only among decisionmakers but also among the electorate. Transitioning to a low-carbon economy, implementing a carbon tax, and reducing energy consumption are all steps that would help stave off the worst impacts.

To say time is running out is a huge understatement.