Although the economy and presidential election dominated many of the year’s headlines, events associated with climate change exerted a major impact on U.S. citizens all year. In combination, the stories reveal how deeply climate change has affected, and will continue to affect, our lives and livelihoods. Climate-related events abounded locally, nationally and globally.
In the Midwest, record low water levels in rivers, including the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, and in Lake Michigan, due to extended drought and multiple years of low winter ice, affected commerce and wildlife habitats. Along parts of the Mississippi River, water may drop below levels necessary for navigation in early 2013, which would shut down shipping and have serious economic repercussions.
Nationally, the United States faced record heat and drought. July 2012 was the hottest month on record in the United States since record keeping began, contributing to one of the warmest 12-month periods in our history. Extreme drought also covered more than 60% of the continental United States.
Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on many east-coast states in late October, causing at least 135 deaths, and costing an estimated $30 to 50 billion in damages. While climate change may not have caused Sandy, it strengthened the storm and increased its impact. More heat energy in the atmosphere helped fuel the storm, while higher sea levels increased storm surges and flooding damage.
On a global level, Arctic sea ice fell to its lowest ever—revealing that melting is occurring faster than expected. Ice cover equivalent to the size of the United States melted this year. When tracking began, in the 1970s, sea ice covered half of the Arctic Ocean’s surface, but in summer 2012, ice covered only about one-quarter of the Ocean.
Land-based ice sheets are melting rapidly as well, at a rate three times faster than only two decades ago. A report in the 30 November issue of the journal Science revealed that billions of tons of ice from glaciers and land-based ice sheets melt annually in Greenland and Antarctica. According to an NBC news report, the equivalent of more than one million Empire State Buildings melts per year. The study also discusses the extent to which water from melting land ice increases sea levels.
But despite these signs that our ‘ship’ is foundering, we keep sending away the lifeboats. Climate talks in Doha, Qatar saw little progress. Countries in attendance extended the Kyoto climate protocols to 2020, but in a weakened form. Many countries, including the United States, keep resisting definitive actions that would address the increasing threats of climate change.