2012 Was Hot, Dry and Energy-Shifty in the U.S.

The data confirm it. Last year broke records for temperature and precipitation — and the trends continue.

2012 United States temperature ranks

National Climatic Data Center
It was a hot year. In all, 19 states saw the warmest year on record. Almost every other state had a top-ten warmest year.

In the coming days, Circle of Blue will publish its review of 2012 and its preview of 2013. Our stories, photographs and infographics tell the tale in their own stellar way, but recent summary data from federal agencies chisel 2012’s epitaph in cold, hard numbers.

Yesterday the National Climatic Data Center confirmed what everyone knew to be true. Last year was the hottest in the 118-year historical record for the Lower 48 states. It was an outlier among outliers, a full degree Fahrenheit warmer than 1998, the former standard-bearer, and 3.3 degrees F warmer than the 20th century average.

2012 United States temperature record

National Climatic Data Center
Temperature anomalies in the United States since 1895. The lines represent how far from the 20th century average a particular year’s average temperature strayed. The five warmest years on record are shown in orange; the five coldest in blue.

Not only was it hot. It was dry too. Two states, Nebraska and Wyoming, set records for lowest rainfall. Eight others had a top-ten dry year.

2012 United States precipitation ranks

National Climatic Data Center
State ranks for precipitation in 2012, compared to the 118 years that data has been kept. A high number means the year was comparatively dry in the state; a lower number, comparatively wet.

Dry above ground, less water below. If rivers shrivel, we tap that which is hidden. But groundwater levels, too, are below normal in most of the areas affected by the drought.

2012 United States groundwater levels

U.S. Geological Survey
Drought squeezes groundwater two ways: less rainfall to recharge aquifers and more consumption as surface supplies shrink.

Often partners in arms, the heat and aridity led to the worst drought in the U.S. since the 1950s. Since July, roughly three out of every five acres in the Lower 48 states have endured drought conditions.

Five out of every six counties — 83 percent — is designated a drought disaster area.

2012 United States precipitation ranks

U.S. Department of Agriculture
Disaster declarations made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2012 because of the drought.

Scant rain and higher temperatures mean more evaporation, which has hit the Great Lakes. Lake Michigan dropped to a record-low level in December.

Agriculture, too, was bludgeoned. Forecasted to set records, the corn crop failed in several states, resulting in the lowest production since 2006 and the smallest yields — 123 bushels per acre — since 1995, according to the Department of Agriculture. Soybeans yields were the lowest since 2003.

Commodity prices rose, but natural gas prices continued to fall. The average national price of natural gas dropped 31 percent in 2012.

2012 United States natural gas prices

Energy Information Administration
Average natural gas prices fell 31 percent in the U.S. in 2012.

Power companies are sopping up the flood of cheap fuel, converting the nation’s stock of power plants from coal to gas. The Energy Information Administration, however, expects that trend to level off in the next few years.

2012 United States natural gas prices

Energy Information Administration
Natural gas now comprises 30 percent of U.S. electricity generation.

What does 2013 bring? Weather-wise, more of the same, it seems. The three-month outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts persistent dry pattern over the heart of the country.

2013 United States drought outlook

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
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