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Sandy Tops List of 2012 Extreme Weather & Climate Events

By Andrew Freedman, Michael Lemonick, and Dan Yawitz

From unprecedented heat waves that shattered "Dust Bowl" era records from the 1930s, to Hurricane Sandy, which devastated coastal New Jersey and New York, 2012 was the year Mother Nature had it out for the U.S. No country on Earth rivaled the U.S. in 2012 in terms of extreme weather and climate events, as one rare episode after another rocked the country.

Many served to highlight the growing role that global warming may be playing in tipping the odds in favor of high-impact weather events.

     2012's Top 10 Weather & Climate Events
     No. 1: Sandy Alters Climate Conversation
     No. 2: Tenacious Drought Punishes U.S.
     No. 3: Hottest Year on Record in Lower 48
     No. 4: Steamy Arctic Events Alarm Scientists
     No. 5: Hot and Dry Conditions Fuel Wildfires
     No. 6: Hottest March on Record for U.S.
     No. 7: July Is Hottest U.S. Month on Record
     No. 8: Hurricane Isaac Creeps Ashore
     No. 9: Derecho Blows Into Lexicon
     No. 10: 333 Straight Months & Counting
(Click on above links to go straight to each story)

The statistics are staggering: The first half of the year was so warm that by early August, the U.S. had already exceeded the number of record-high temperatures set or tied during all of 2011. July 2012 was the hottest month on record in the U.S., as a desiccating drought enveloped the majority of the lower 48 states, stretching its misery from California to Delaware.

The drought has been the most extensive this country has seen since the 1930s. Ranchers were forced to sell off their herds as their fields turned to dust and the price of feed rose steeply; the Mississippi River neared a record-low level, threatening to curtail commerce; and drought-fueled wildfires consumed tens of thousands of acres across the West and threatened a large population center in Colorado Springs.

More than any other event this year, though, Hurricane Sandy brought the subject of climate change to the forefront, with politicians of all stripes expressing new-found interest in taking action after seeing the impacts of the storm.

By the end of 2012 a scientific, and more importantly, a public consensus had emerged that global warming was making its presence felt. This landmark shift in the conversation revolved around the now hard-to-refute recognition that a warming planet means certain types of extreme events are more likely to occur and are more damaging when they do. It also kick-started a discussion about what action is needed to make the country more resilient to extreme weather and climate events, and how to reduce long-term global warming.

Here is our list of the top 10 extreme weather and climate events of 2012, our third annual year-end review. Our ranking system takes into account each event's severity, societal impact, unusualness (was it a relatively routine occurrence or something that stands alone in recorded history?), and the potential ramifications the event suggests for the climate system as a whole.

(Read each of the Top 10 events by following the page links below)

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By Emma H. (Rockwood, Ontario, Canada)
on December 30th, 2012

If the first step to survive climate change is interest, the second is knowledge. Which makes it worth considering that the place where we gain much of our common knowledge is school.  Unfortunately for the issue of climate change, school is focused on the economy, on creating good participants in the global marketplace, as well as good consumers who measure their success by their material gains.  And who are encouraged to spend more than they earn through easy credit and resulting debt.

What would it take for Americans to demand that education contribute to creating a sustainable future? It’s not a simple or easy change from our current educational aspirations.  But it’s one that might make it possible to work together and make the profound changes that will be needed to, first of all, lessen fossil fuel use, and then live well with less of the energy and petroleum products we’re addicted to.

We can create more local economies, regain lost skills, build local renewable energy systems, build local businesses, improve batteries needed to store power from intermittent wind and solar sources, begin a transition to a less lethal kind of culture.  We need to do it ourselves because our leaders are far too swayed by powerful fossil fuel and financial industries who invest hugely in maintaining the status quo.  But every decision we make, individually and collectively, can move the future to a new place.  Every product we buy comes from a company with policies we can support or reject.  Every mile we drive generates carbon dioxide - every mile we walk or bike - or don’t travel - doesn’t.  Local food and good insulation save energy, organic food doesn’t use fossil-fuel based chemicals (pesticides, fertilizers, hericides).  Growing food and making things and playing music are highly satisfying skills that we have been educated to give up so we need to buy them “in the marketplace.”  But we could take them back. 

If we don’t begin to think more self-sufficiently, and with more awareness of the connections betwween fossil fuels and climate change, we’ll continue to see the weather become more violent, food prices rise, the cost of living soar, and “homeland security” come to mean the degree of climate stability we need. 

We were only able to become an agricultural society because of the last ten thousand years of stable climate.  If we continue to exacerbate climate change, we risk losing nothing less than the basis of civilization.  Education may be our only chance to bring about a large-scale turnaround. It can only happen if we work - hard - to make it happen.

We need to make our schools places of learning how to become a sustainable civilization.  If this is a new idea to you, do some browsing on “sustainability education.”

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