Top five weather and climate stories of 2012

Matt Daniel picks his top five weather and climate stories that affected the globe in 2012.

Last year at this time, I wrote up a list of the top five natural disasters of 2011. There were so many negative and depressing things that occurred in 2011, that it was hard to narrow down the list.

I decided to look at 2012 with a different perspective: How about an overall look at the top five weather and climate stories that shaped the year 2012? This list includes not just disasters, but also technological changes, scientific advances, and alarming things that do not necessarily make an immediate impact on our society. As we reflect on the year 2012, do you have an idea of what would make your top five weather and climate stories? Here is my list of the top five weather/climate stories of 2012:

5) Decline in weather satellites

When GOES-13 went on standby, it prevented us from looking at satellite images across the eastern U.S. and across the Atlantic ocean. Image via CIMSS Satellite Blog

On April 2, 2012, the National Research Council released a report that suggests the number and capability of weather satellites are beginning to hit a steep decline. The number of orbiting satellites from NASA and NOAA is expected to drop significantly from 23 this year to only six by 2020, given today’s budget figures. The projected number of satellites that monitor Earth’s activity is expected to decline from a peak of 110 last year to fewer than 30 by the end of the decade.

The primary reason that this decline in satellites may occur is lack of funding. Less money is going into NASA and NOAA’s satellite programs, and tight budgets are pushing back or eliminating missions to replace older satellites.

Satellites are vital for providing us real time information and helps us determine weather conditions across the globe. They can sample various parts of the atmosphere and receive data that can ultimately be assimilated into our weather models, which in the end, can help us determine how the weather will change over time. In September 2012, the GOES-13 satellite was experiencing an excessive amount of noise which influenced NOAA to make the satellite go offline until they could make repairs to it. The GOES-13 satellite provides regular images every 15 minutes for the eastern U.S. and Atlantic Ocean. Without this satellite, we would not have any meteorological information from this part of the Earth. Since GOES-13 went offline, NOAA decided to use other satellites to replace GOES-13 while it was down during the month of October. GOES-14 was the temporary satellite that replaced GOES-13. In fact, since GOES-13 was offline for such a long time, NOAA decided to provide GOES-14 an East Drift Start Maneuver that would simply drift the satellite to the east to where GOES-13 is located. By October 20, GOES-13 was finally fixed and went back to its original spot.

The bottom line is that we really need to increase funding to ensure that we have properly working satellites in the future. Without these satellites, we will have less data going into our weather models that could help us predict the next severe weather event, hurricane, or nor’easter that could affect a large population.

4) Arctic/Greenland melting

Sea Ice extent shrinks significantly in 2012. Image Credit: Scientific Visualization Studio, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

I feel like this subject could actually be ranked #1 on this list because the overall effect of the Arctic is what could be influencing the weather extremes across the Northern Hemisphere. For instance, ridging in Greenland could influence a wet weather pattern across the U.K. or bring about extremes in other parts of the Northern Hemisphere.

In 2012, we saw the largest decline in sea ice extent in the Arctic. The rate of loss of June snow cover extent between 1979 and 2012 (the period of satellite observation) set a new record of -17.6 percent per decade, relative to the 1979-2000 mean. The Arctic does go through cycles where ice grows during the fall and winter months and melts in the spring and summer months. However, the rate of change of melting has been increasing, and 2012 allowed us to see unprecedented melting since we started monitoring the Arctic ice back in 1979.

Extent of surface melt over Greenland’s ice sheet on July 8 (left) and July 12 (right). Within four days, 97 percent of the ice sheet surface had thawed by July 12, 2012. Image Credit: Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI/NASA GSFC, and Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory

The other large story that was unprecedented was the unusual amount of surface ice melting across Greenland in the summer of 2012. In July 2012, 97% of Greenland’s surface thawed thanks to incredible ridging that persisted across the region. Throughout late May and through July 2012, the North Atlantic Oscillation, also called the NAO, has been in a negative state. When the NAO is negative, it typically means increased ridging across Greenland. When ridging occurs, pressures rise and thus provides more sunshine and warmer temperatures across the region. This process – which resulted in what climatologists call a heat dome – greatly influenced the melting across Greenland. A series of strong ridges over the region brought weather conducive for ice to melt.

Overall, the rate of melting at the surface was the largest ever recorded in the past 30 years, the time period during which satellites have observed Greenland ice. Scientists have called 2012 as a “Goliath” year for Greenland melting because by August 8, 2012, Greenland had experienced more melting than in the entire melting season of 2010, which previously held the record for the greatest amount of Greenland melting in one year. The overall rate of melting is alarming, and if this trend continues for years to come, it makes you wonder how it will affect the general oscillations that influence our weather across the Northern Hemisphere.

3) Drought/Wildfires in the U.S.

Wildfire near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Image Credit: Shanell Marie Erps via KOAA 5

One of the biggest stories that still continues today is the ongoing drought across the United States. The drought was responsible for so many things. First of all, ridging/high pressure over a region influenced drier weather conditions. Because of this, it was difficult for weather systems to bring much needed rain across the country. Many of the significant storm systems stayed further north, and did not push south to provide the country much needed rain.

The dry conditions brought upon large and massive wildfires that developed across the country. Wildfires burned over 9.1 million acres across the U.S. in 2012. This is the 2nd-highest annual total since the year 2000, only exceeded by 2006 when 9.4 million acres burned. With very little moisture in the ground and unusually warm conditions across the country in January through March, summertime temperatures were simply brutal across the country.

From the Great Plains and points east, we saw incredible triple digit heat that lasted for weeks in late June and July. 4,420 daily highest max temperature records were tied and broken for the month of July alone, making July 2012 not only the warmest July ever recorded, but the warmest month ever recorded since record-keeping began in 1895. The ongoing drought across the United States was just as extreme – if not worse – than the drought that brought on the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Over half the U.S. experienced drought conditions in 2012, with the hardest-hit areas including the U.S. Great Plains, across the Rocky Mountains, and across the U.S. Southeast.

As of today, at least 61% of the country is experiencing some type of drought. The drought conditions are responsible for killing at least 123 people, and the costs for this drought are still unknown and will likely grow over time. Estimated costs for this extreme drought will likely be above $40 billion in damages. The drought is responsible for enhancing our heatwaves, which could have been responsible in making some severe weather events like the June 29, 2012 derecho become more extreme. If there is one good news story about the drought, is that we saw a below average number for tornadoes across the United States in 2012. In fact, 2012 was the complete opposite of 2011, which was one of the most active tornado seasons to occur in the United States. There is no doubt in my mind that the drought in the United States is one of the top weather stories of 2012.

2) Super Typhoon Bopha

Super Typhoon Bopha approaching the Philippines on December 3, 2012. via visible satellite image from the Suomi NPP – VIIRS. Image Credit: NOAA

Number one and two on this list were hard to determine. I really wanted to make Super Typhoon Bopha my number one weather and climate story of 2012. This is a storm that never really got a lot of attention through news and social media, which is very strange to me. How could a storm like Bopha not make the national news headlines after it has killed over 1,000 people in the Philippines?

According to CNN, Super Typhoon Bopha has killed 1,020 people in the Philippines. Bopha, also known as “Pablo” in the Philippines, made landfall on December 4, 2012 as a Category 5 super typhoon near parts of the Davao Oriental province and Compostela Valley which includes the heavily damaged area of New Bataan. Bopha destroyed 90% of three coastal towns in Davao Oriental province, according to BBC News. The hardest hit area – considered the ground zero of this storm – is New Bataan. The town was nearly wiped out. Over 5.4 million people were affected by this deadly storm, which produced 160 mile per hour winds as it struck the southern Philippines. If you had to choose one of three top weather stories of 2012, you have to choose Super Typhoon Bopha. It really devastated portions of the Philippines with massive landslides/mudslides and flooding.

schools were damaged by the extremely strong winds that destroyed thousands of homes both along the coast and further inland. The European Commission has provided €33 million of humanitarian aid to the Philippines in response to natural disasters since 1997. EC/ECHO/Bernard Jaspers Faijer Image Credit: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection

1) Superstorm Sandy

NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite captured this visible image of Hurricane Sandy battering the U.S. East coast on Monday, Oct. 29 at 9:10 a.m. EDT. Sandy’s center was about 310 miles south-southeast of New York City. Tropical Storm force winds are about 1,000 miles in diameter. Image Credit: NASA GOES Project

Hurricane Sandy has to top the list for 2012 in regards to societal impacts, advancements in meteorology, meteorological statistics, and so much more. It did not kill as many people as Super Typhoon Bopha, but the effects from this storm were far reaching.

Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the Mid-Atlantic and New England on October 28-29, 2012. Sandy made landfall in New Jersey on October 29 as a post-tropical storm with winds estimated around 90 miles per hour and a pressure of 946 millibars (mb.) Sandy caused more than 8.2 million people to lose power, the largest number of people without power in the United States since the Storm of the Century in 1993.

The size of Sandy was unique and large, expanding 943 miles of tropical storm force winds across the eastern United States. According to Jeff Masters of Weather Underground, the total energy of Sandy’s winds of tropical storm-force and higher peaked at 329 terajoules – the highest value for any Atlantic hurricane since at least 1969, and equivalent to five Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.

Sandy was rare in the fact that it took an immediate left turn into southern New Jersey. Not one single historical storm on record has done that in the United States. Sandy is responsible for killing 131 people in the United States and across the Caribbean. Sandy is ranked as the #11 billion dollar disaster to strike the United States, and will likely be ranked as the second-costliest natural disaster ever to hit the United States, right behind 2005’s Hurricane Katrina ($108 billion dollars in damage that killed 1,833 people). Estimated costs for Sandy are currently over $62 billion, and this number could go up.

Our weather models did an excellent job in forecasting the track and intensity of this storm, and we knew it would cause significant impacts across the Northeast a week before the event occurred. Sandy also sparks major controversy among meteorologists regarding its transition from hurricane to an post-tropical cyclone. Hurricane warnings were NOT issued in New Jersey or New York prior to landfall because the National Hurricane Center thought it would “lose” the characteristics that would help classify it as a warm core low pressure system, or tropical system. This call could have affected people’s insurance that could have been covered if the storm was classified as a “hurricane”. There is question as to whether or not people took this storm seriously since Irene in 2011 was more hype across New Jersey and New York.

Damage at Union Beach in New Jersey from Sandy. Image Credit: Devin Matthew Toperek

Who can forget this image:

This house was destroyed in Jersey Shore, New Jersey. Image Credit: Shayna Marie Meyer

So overall, I ranked Sandy as the number one weather/climate story of 2012 because:

1) Size of the storm
2) Impact was large and affected those who lived in the Caribbean and east of the Mississippi River.
3) Debate and conflict on not issuing hurricane warnings across the Northeast.
4) Advancements in science allowed our weather models to nail this storm’s track and intensity down seven days before the event.
5) The unusual track of the storm made Sandy make a direct left turn thanks to ridging to the north.
6) It produced blizzard conditions across West Virginia, and heavy surf across the Great Lakes.

Bottom line: The top five weather and climate stories of 2012 includes the decline in weather satellites, the extreme melting in the Arctic and across Greenland, the ongoing drought and heat in the United States, Super Typhoon Bopha, and Superstorm Sandy. All of these stories can be tied together in a way. Could the weather pattern across the North Pole influence the track of Sandy? How about the wet conditions in the UK/Russia and the hot and dry conditions across the United States? With our satellites and advancements in weather models, we were able to forecast Sandy correctly. However, if we lose our satellites in the next two decades, what will that do to the overall science in meteorology? Sometimes, we have to think about the big picture and how it can affect us globally.

In 2012, 11 billion-dollar weather disasters in US

Matt Daniel