2012 Temperatures – One For the Record Books

Posted by on Jan 8, 2013

NOAA data on statewide average temperatures in 2012. Nationally, the average temperature in the contiguous U.S. was 3.3°F above the 20th century average and a full 1°F above the previous record. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

For those who have made a habit of following temperature records over the past few decades, what’s most surprising with today’s news isn’t that 2012 set a record for U.S. temperatures (that had been expected for months), but rather the extent of that record.

If you go back to the beginning of systematic record-keeping for the lower-48 states in 1895 until last year, the difference between the record-low (1917) and the record-high (1998) was 4.2°F. That temperature span jumped a full degree Fahrenheit with the 2012 record temperature. The average temperature in the contiguous U.S. in 2012 was 55.3°F, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), dramatically beating the previous record of 54.3, and exceeding the 20th century average by an amazing 3.3°F.

At weather stations around the country, 34,008 daily high-temperature records were set in 2012, compared to just 6,664 daily low-temperature records. In a normal year, those record highs and lows would be roughly balanced.

You have to go way back to 1985 (28 years ago) to find a single month (February) when the average U.S. temperature was below the 20th century average.

Nineteen states recorded their warmest year on record in 2012 and another 26 states recorded one of the ten warmest years on record. Only three states did not experience one of their ten warmest years (2012 was the 11th warmest for Georgia, 12th warmest for Oregon, and 30th warmest for Washington).

Nationally, July 2012 was the warmest month ever recorded in the history of the U.S.

Severe drought in 2012

Along with record temperatures, 2012 was exceptionally dry. Drought extended across 61% of the country, wreaking havoc on the nation’s grain belt. The average precipitation for the contiguous U.S. was 26.57 inches, 2.57 inches below normal, according to NOAA. That made 2012 the 15th driest on record, while two states—Nebraska and Wyoming—experienced record drought conditions.

Crop losses have already reached $35 billion and some experts project that total damages from drought in 2012 could top $100 billion, according to the reinsurance company Aon Benfield—perhaps even eclipsing the damages from Hurricane Sandy.

And don’t forget wildfires. Dry conditions in the West lead to wildfires, and 9.2 million acres were burned in 2012—the third highest in U.S. history.

The average temperature in 2012 was a full degree Fahrenheit higher than the previous record. Source NOAA National Climate Data Center, January 8, 2013

The need for resilient design

If the numbers in the above paragraphs don’t present a clear and compelling argument for the need to focus on resilience, I don’t know what could. With Hurricane Sandy we saw the “more intense storms” aspect of climate change. In these NOAA statistics we see the temperature and drought impacts.

What this information tells us—screams at us, really—is that we need to not only double down on efforts to mitigate climate change, but also begin a full-scale effort to adapt. We simply must learn how to become more resilient.

Is anyone paying attention in Washington?

Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.


  1. Great post Alex! One question I’ve been contemplating is how will agriculture keep up with the demands of an expanding world population given an increasingly variable climate? Planting thousands of acres of monoculture is not what I would call a nimble approach to the problems posed by a variable climate.

  2. I believe that, indeed, agriculture will be among the greatest challenges we face. Some of the most intensively farmed parts of the world–in China and India–are depleting aquifers not by centimeters but by a meter or more per year! Here in the U.S. we will face huge challenges as precipitation in the west becomes less predictable.

    This is why I’m so pleased that University of Vermont Extension professor Vern Grubinger is on the RDI board and lending his perspectives about creating more resilient agricultural systems. Where there lie huge challenges there also lie huge opportunities–and the expansion of local food production is one of those opportunities.

  3. Hey, at least all of the great lakes are at ‘below normal’ temperatures, lol. I look forward to your presentation tonight at the moderns. A bit preaching to the choir, but hey, sometimes the choir gets all caught up in the music and forgets the meaning in their hymns, so it is not fruitless.



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