By early July, 56% of the contiguous U.S. was experiencing drought. That's the largest percentage in the 12-year record of the U.S. Drought Monitor. Fires scorched over 1.3 million acres across the US in June, reducing hundreds of homes to ashes in the West.
Just imagining prospects for the rest of the summer is enough to bring sweat to your brow. And last winter is partly to blame.
"799 daytime heat records were broken in the first five days of January in the US," says Jake Crouch, a climate scientist from the NOAA National Climatic Data Center. "Last year's was the fourth warmest winter since 1895. And it was dry, with a dearth of snowfall in many places. During most of this past winter and spring, a positive North Atlantic Oscillation pressure pattern kept the jet stream further north and the US warmer and drier than normal."
With little moisture in the soil to evaporate and dissipate some of the sun's energy, more solar radiation is converted to sensible heat, he says.
Surface temperature anomalies across the United States in June 2012. Of course global warming is on the tips of many tongues.
Greenhouse gasses like CO2 and methane have higher heat capacities than many other gasses, causing the atmosphere to retain more heat.
"The atmosphere becomes a heat source itself, radiating heat back onto the Earth. 85 to 90% of that heat is absorbed by the oceans, because water has a high heat capacity. So the oceans expand and rise. Global sea levels have risen 8 inches over the past 130 years, and the average surface temperature of the entire earth (land surface temperatures plus ocean temperatures) has increased 1.6 °F. These facts," he asserts, "are unequivocal proof of global warming."
But is the record-setting summer 2012 evidence of climate change?
Previous heat waves in the 1930s contributed to the "dust bowl" phenomenon. In this picture, a dust storm approaches Stratford, Texas, in 1935. Credit: NOAA George E. Marsh Album
John Christy, a scientist from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, agrees: "Heat waves are a natural part of the climate system, and while the recent heat wave was remarkable, it was not as intense as others in the past."
He offers a few examples of past heat waves and droughts.
"The central US suffered several heat waves in the 1930s -- the dust bowl years -- when more statewide, all-time record high temperatures were set than in any other decade. And the western US experienced decades-long droughts in the 12th century. So dry were mountain areas that we can still see near-hundred-year-old trees standing upright in the bottom of alpine lakes where they grew on dry ground 900 years ago.1 This shows that in the 12th century it was so dry and hot that the lakes dried up and allowed trees to grow over a significant period before moisture finally returned."
Patzert and Christy are on opposite sides of the global warming debate. Patzert firmly believes that Earth is warming up and humans are the main reason why. Christy, on the other hand, argues that natural climate variations are almost solely to blame. Yet they both agree that the summer 2012 weather might be just that – weather. They also both believe that improvement is needed in models indicating effects of human and other factors on weather and climate.
"Today's climate models are extremely sophisticated, constantly improving, and will be crucial to charting our future -- but they aren't perfect," says Patzert.
One component that needs improvement: clouds.
"Clouds play a key role in climate because they affect the amount of sunlight reflected and absorbed," says Christy. "We need higher resolution models to portray them more accurately. The distance between grid measurement points in current models is too great to capture meter to meter variations in clouds, land cover, and other variables that affect climate."
One more point of agreement: the summer of 2012 is too hot to handle.
Author: Dauna Coulter| Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA