Hottest on record: 2012 drought, disaster took toll on U.S.

Posted at 3:16 PM, Jan 08, 2013
and last updated 2013-01-08 17:16:12-05

By Matt Smith

(CNN) — The past year saw a mild winter gave way to a balmier-than-normal spring, followed by a sweltering summer and high temperatures that lingered into the fall, all punctuated by extreme drought and intense storms.

Now 2012 is officially in the books as the hottest year on record for the continental United States, the U.S. government announced Tuesday. The year’s average temperature of 55.3 degrees Fahrenheit across the Lower 48 was more than 3.2 degrees warmer than the average for the 20th century, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reported.

That topped the previous record, set in 1998, by a full degree. Every state in the contiguous United States saw above-average temperatures in 2012, with 19 of them setting annual records of their own, NOAA said.

And the year’s widespread drought, tropical storms and tornado outbreaks racked up a heavy toll around the country, pushing 2012 to the No. 2 ranking on the agency’s Climate Extremes Index.

The United States saw a total of 11 disasters that topped $1 billion in losses, including a lingering drought covered 61% of the country at one point, NOAA said.

That drought shriveled crops across the American farm belt and turned the forests of the Mountain West into stands of tinder that exploded into catastrophic wildfires over the summer, scorching millions of acres.

Though parts of the country like the Pacific Northwest and the Gulf Coast had wetter-than-average years, average precipitation was nearly 2.6 inches below normal — the 15th driest since records started being kept in the late 19th century, according to NOAA.

The two remaining U.S. states, remote Alaska and Hawaii, saw a mixed picture in 2012.

Alaska was slightly cooler and wetter than normal, while nearly two-thirds of Hawaii’s island chain faced moderate to exceptional drought conditions by December, NOAA said.

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