“Big” heat across the United States is leading to serious ecological and economic pressures as the nation and the world face unprecedented weather events that are now unquestionably linked to the phenomenon of global warming.
Experts say we are dealing with rapidly escalating and potentially unpredictable consequences of man-made climate change that may soon be too powerful to stop. Not since records have been kept has heat like that which has been the calling card of 2012 in the U.S. been seen, combined with vanishing ice sheets and melting glaciers in other spots across the globe. And many say this is just the start of long-term changes that could make the hottest year of the hottest decade look tame by comparison.
The heat that has set up across most of the lower 48 states throughout much of the year has already been tracked as among the hottest periods ever recorded. Tens of thousands of heat-related records have fallen this year in cities and towns all over the contiguous U.S. Almost forgotten in the headlines generated by the parched farm belt are the deadly wildfires that have ravaged the West, with hundreds of structures already destroyed this year and record acreage consumed in many states.
Now forecasters have formally announced what many had already predicted; there has never been a hotter July in the nation’s recorded history.
Scientists say that the average temperature across the lower 48 for July 2012 obliterated what is typically seen by over 3 degrees. In addition, last month’s intense heat also helped make the past 12 months the hottest ever recorded in the United States. It’s part of what experts contend is a significant trend of long-term warming that goes beyond one sizzling month.
It may come as little surprise to the nation’s corn farmers or resort operators, but the official statistics are in: July was the hottest month in the lower 48 states since the government began keeping temperature records in 1895.
The average temperature last month was 77.6 degrees — 3.3 degrees above the average 20th-century temperature, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported on Wednesday. July thereby dethroned July 1936, which had set the record at 77.4 degrees, the agency said.
Higher-than-average temperatures gripped much of the country last month, with the biggest departures from the 20th-century average reported across most of the Plains, in the Midwest and along the Eastern Seaboard, the agency’s report said. Virginia had its warmest July on record, with the average temperature four degrees above the norm, it added.
A hot July also contributed to the warmest 12-month period ever recorded in the United States, the statistics showed.
Climatologists at the agency noted that by the end of the month, about 63 percent of the nation was experiencing drought conditions, which contributed to the high temperatures.
“July was a pretty interesting month because there were two different things at play,” Jake Crouch, a climatologist at the agency’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., said in an interview. “We saw very warm daytime temperatures over a large part of the country related to the ongoing drought, just as in 1936. When soils are dry, especially during the summer, it drives the daytime temperatures up. But this is a very local effect.”
“On the other side, at the national level, we have also seen very warm nighttime temperatures, and that is part of a long-term trend we’ve seen across the contiguous U.S. over the past several decades,” he said. “The hotter days increase the amount of moisture the lower atmosphere can hold, and this means it doesn’t cool off as much at night anymore.”
“This clearly shows a longer-term warming trend in the U.S., not just one really hot month,” Mr. Crouch said.
What made July, as well as other recent record-setting heat events, particularly remarkable was the extent to which temperatures exceeded both the typical averages as well as some of the most famous heat waves in American history. One expert notes that the old record shattered by last month — from July 1936, the middle of the Dust Bowl — is a very “big” deal.”
The report released by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Wednesday says that July 2012 surpassed the previous record hottest month set in July 1936. That year was during the middle of the very dry and hot Dust Bowl era. Senior Meteorologist Stu Ostro says, “Exceeding July 1936 at the peak of the Dust Bowl heat — is BIG.”
July 2012 was 3.3 degrees above the 20th century average. Ostro puts this in perspective, “While three degrees might not seem like much because temperatures can vary a lot more than that from day to day, it’s significant when averaged over a whole month, and particularly so in the summer when temperatures typically have less variation than at other times of year.”
And just like the Depression-era, 2012′s record-setting heat is compounded by a massive and inexorable drought that has grown to cover nearly three-quarters of the contiguous U.S.
It had once seemed unthinkable that the devastation of the Dust Bowl could happen again in modern America, but climate extremes have come together to produce a weather catastrophe that has the most severe categories of drought covering nearly one-fourth of the mainland U.S. and has generated growing concerns over a global food crisis and food shortages as the American agricultural heartland succumbs to drought and heat.
It’s not just the United States that has seen unusually extreme temperatures and unprecedented changes wrought by global warming.
The ice sheet that normally covers nearly all of Greenland has been melting for years as global temperatures rise, but this July a shocking 4-day melting event saw 97 percent of the ice sheet disappear.
Hot weather that is close to matching the American heat wave in intensity has engulfed southern Europe, with corn and other crops there similarly decimated and left to wilt, putting even greater pressure on world ford supplies.
While the public wonders whether climate change and this year’s record-breaking temperatures can really be connected, scientists have been looking into the issue as unusual weather swamps the globe. Their findings prove a startling and unmistakable link between heat extremes and a warming world.
Leading climate experts, including NASA scientists James Hansen, released a study this week that details the surge in intense heat that now covers much of the globe. Beyond a simple heat wave , the study finds the planet is experiencing hotter temperatures for longer periods than at any time in the last century. These extremes are likely to become even more pronounced as climate change deepens.
Exceedingly high summer temperatures, longer summers and related catastrophes, such as wildfire and drought, are poised to be the norm, and they are driven by climate change, according to a new research paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In an opinion article over the weekend in the Washington Post that previewed the findings, the paper’s lead author, James E. Hansen wrote: “It is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.”
The researchers showed the chances of temperatures spiking past their normal variability are much greater now than during the base period. “They found that prior to the onset of human-caused global warming, there were very few of these [anomalous] events,” said John Abraham, professor of thermal sciences at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and co-founder of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, an information clearinghouse. “However, with each decade, the number of these very rare events has increased significantly. Not only have the average temperatures increased around the world but so too has the variability.”
Hansen and his team also showed that while all extreme “hot events” have increased globally, “the occurrence of cold events has virtually disappeared,” Abraham wrote.
Alarmingly, the driving force of the drought, extreme temperatures, and long-term changes in our climate — carbon dioxide emissions — is spiking at a similarly record pace.
Despite a global economic slowdown that many expected would temper its rise, carbon emissions spiked to a new record amount in 2011. Experts say the current pace of emission increases will correspond with as much as a six-degree rise in global temperatures within 40 years, a figure which is far beyond the temperature scientists say will a be a catastrophic tipping point.
CO2 emissions rose by 3.2 percent last year to 31.6 billion metric tons (34.83 billion tons), preliminary estimates from the Paris-based IEA showed.
China, the world’s biggest emitter of CO2, made the largest contribution to the global rise, its emissions increasing by 9.3 percent, the body said, driven mainly by higher coal use.
“When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius (by 2050), which would have devastating consequences for the planet,” Fatih Birol, IEA’s chief economist told Reuters.
Scientists say ensuring global average temperatures this century do not rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is needed to limit devastating climate effects like crop failure and melting glaciers.
They believe that is only possible if emission levels are kept to around 44 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2020.
While the climate news is bleak and its consequences making headlines across the country, political pressure on politicians and lawmakers to act is virtually non-existent. Despite being in the middle of a close election, lawmakers and the two presidential candidates have shown no interest in tackling climate change; indeed, the issue is essentially off limits for both President Obama and his Republican opponent.
While Mitt Romney found it necessary to distance himself from “green” positions due to the conservative nature of a tough Republican primary in 2012, the president had promised to make climate change a major theme of his reelection bid.
Environmental groups and activists are still supporting his campaign, but Obama has abandoned most chances to act on ways to combat global warming or to offer a contrast with his GOP rival, even as drought and record heat begin to hurt voters in the pocketbook and Mitt Romney openly questions whether climate change is real.
Barack Obama promised to tackle climate change when he first ran for the White House four years ago, but – battling this summer for a second term – he speaks little of the issue even as the United States suffers through a drought of historic proportions, wild storms and punishing heat that topples temperature records almost daily.
As late as April, Obama told Rolling Stone magazine climate change would be a central campaign issue.
“I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way,” he said.
But as the campaign against Republican challenger Mitt Romney reaches an early boil, even before the parties hold their nominating conventions, climate change is little spoken of by incumbent candidate Obama, who four years ago foresaw millions of new jobs through investments in “renewable sources of energy like solar power, wind power and advanced biofuels.”
Instead Obama is fighting a Romney challenge in a tight race over the struggling American economy and stubbornly high unemployment. Gallup polling repeatedly shows the economy as the chief concern among American voters at 65 percent, while environmental and pollution issues were mentioned by less than 1 percent of those polled.
Romney has been accused of changing positions on the issue to curry favor with the most conservative Republicans, many of whom deny that climate change exists. As governor of the liberal-leaning state of Massachusetts, Romney imposed restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions on power plants in the state. But as a presidential candidate, he has said the “idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.” He acknowledges that the globe is warming, but says “we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet.”
Obama has matched his Republican challenger in achievements related to listening to the scientific community and working to produce a substantive plan to reduce carbon emissions and prevent the worst effects of a warming planet; namely, nothing.
The president’s last three State of the Union addresses to Congress have mentioned the phrase “climate change” just a handful of times as the White House works to allay conservative critics with an “all of the above” energy strategy dependent on fossil fuels and efforts to pass even a business-friendly policy to cap some CO2 emissions is scrapped.
What happened to “climate change” and “global warming”?
The Earth is still getting hotter, but those terms have nearly disappeared from political vocabulary. Instead, they have been replaced by less charged and more consumer-friendly expressions for the warming planet.
President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday was a prime example of this shift. The president said “climate change” just once — compared with zero mentions in the 2011 address and two in 2010. When he did utter the phrase, it was merely to acknowledge the polarized atmosphere in Washington, saying, “The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change.” By contrast, Obama used the terms “energy” and “clean energy” nearly two dozen times.
That tally reflects a broader change in how the president talks about the planet. A recent Brown University study looked specifically at the Obama administration’s language and found that mentions of “climate change” have been replaced by calls for “clean energy” and “energy independence.” Graciela Kincaid, a co-author of the study, wrote: “The phrases ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ have become all but taboo on Capitol Hill. These terms are stunningly absent from the political arena.”