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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.
 
Related Content
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

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

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Comments

By Emma H. (Rockwood, Ontario, Canada)
on December 31st, 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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