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Sandy Tops List of 2012 Extreme Weather & Climate Events

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No. 2  Tenacious and Punishing Drought Engulfs Much of U.S.

Despite a severe drought that afflicted Texas and several nearby states in 2011, forecasters had no inkling that a far greater disaster was in store for 2012 — the worst drought to strike the U.S. since the 1950s, and one that would show little sign of relenting even as 2012 came to a close.

Climate-related disasters usually have multiple causes, and the 2012 drought was no exception. The natural, periodic La Niña climate oscillation played a role, as did the pattern of sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean, but so did manmade global warming, and plain old bad luck. As the century progresses, however, the atmosphere’s growing concentration of greenhouse gases will very likely make severe droughts more common, more intense and longer lasting.

That’s bad news considering how the 2012 drought devastated America’s agricultural sector, with withering effects on corn, soybeans, winter wheat and cattle. Formal numbers won’t be available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture until February, 2013, but estimates of damage from crop losses alone could total more than $35 billion, according to the reinsurance company Aon Benfield. In fact, it’s quite possible that damage from the drought will eclipse the total bill from Hurricane Sandy, which some estimates place at more than $100 billion. Overall, the drought could end up robbing the limping U.S. economy’s GDP of a full percentage point, said Deutsche Bank Securities.

Back in the spring, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was predicting a record corn yield for the upcoming season. Then, an unprecedented March heat wave was followed by a record warm spring, and the combination of low precipitation and record high temperatures spiked the drought footprint of the lower 48 states from a worrisome 38 percent to a devastating 64 percent — an expansion so blazingly fast that experts called it a “flash drought.”

Credit: USDAgov/flickr

This was no mere garden-variety dry spell: parched conditions would linger in many parts of the country for months, at times covering more than 70 percent of the land area of the continental U.S, and only rarely and all-too-briefly dipping below 60 percent, even after the cooler temperatures of autumn took hold. The drenching downpours brought on by Hurricane Isaac, in August and Superstorm Sandy in late October never made it to the heart of the drought area in the High Plains and West, so they didn’t do much to alleviate the dryness, either.

The crisis was most acute in Kansas and Nebraska, where significant parts of both states were still suffering in early December from what scientists who produce the U.S. Drought Monitor call “exceptional drought” — the very worst category. Parts of Alabama and Georgia were also hard hit.

Of course, Earth’s climate system doesn’t take notice of the calendar year, so while the 2012 drought technically ends on December 31, forecasters expect the dryness to continue at least through the coming winter.
 
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Ongoing Coverage of Historic Drought in U.S.
Drought Has Ties to La Niña, with Global Warming Assist
Lack of Warning on Drought Reflects Forecasting Flaws

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