2012 Designated Hottest Year on Record for Continental U.S.

January 14, 2013

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officially designated 2012 as the warmest year on record for the contiguous United States. This isn't too surprising for a year that already had the warmest spring, the second warmest summer and fourth warmest winter. The average temperature for 2012 was 55.3°F, 3.2°F above the 20th century average, and a full 1.0°F above 1998, the previous record holder.

Climate expert Anthony Barnston, who is the Chief Forecaster at Columbia's International Research Institute for Climate and Society, explains some of the climate factors behind this record-breaking year in a video interview.

Climate change played a "noticeably important role" in driving last year's warmth, says Barnston, but it wasn't the only factor. Another climate pattern known as the North Atlantic Oscillation was responsible for making the 2012 winter much warmer than usual, bumping up the total year's average temperature.

Last year also marked the 15th driest on record for the country—not quite on the order of the drought that set off the Dust Bowl era, but enough to parch 61% of the country by July and make conditions ideal for wildfires.

While global climate change is still a factor, the temperature for 2013 probably won't be as high as last year. "It’s unlikely we’ll have another record breaker, especially by 1 degree Fahrenheit," he says.

The International Research Institute for Climate and Society is part of Columbia's Earth Institute. It applies its expertise in climate science, agriculture, economics, public health and other disciplines to reduce people's vulnerability to droughts, extreme weather and other impacts of climate.

—Story by Francesco Fiondella
—Video by The International Research Institute for Climate and Society