A Record-Breaking Year

Data shows that 2012 was the hottest year in U.S. history

Jan 09, 2013 | By Bryan Walsh for TIME
SCOTT OLSON—GETTY IMAGES

High temperatures and drought conditions hit the U.S. hard this year. Here, a corn plant struggles to grow in a field near Olmsted, Illinois.

It’s official: 2012 was the hottest year on record in the continental U.S. — and it wasn’t even close. Last year beat the previous record holder, 1998, by a full 1ºF. That is a landslide, by meteorological standards.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, every one of the lower 48 states experienced an annual temperature average last year that was higher than the 20th century average for that state. Nineteen states — including Texas, New York, Ohio and Oklahoma — had their highest annual average temperatures on record. And 26 other states had years that ranked in the top-10 hottest ever.

The U.S. has been keeping temperature records for 118 years. This map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows state temperature rankings for 2012. A ranking of "1" means 2012 was the coldest year on record. A ranking of "118" means it was the hottest year on record.
NOAA
The U.S. has been keeping temperature records for 118 years. This map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows state temperature rankings for 2012. A ranking of "1" means 2012 was the coldest year on record. A ranking of "118" means it was the hottest year on record.

 

Not Just Hot!

Last year was also unusually dry for the continental U.S. The average precipitation (rain, sleet, snow or hail) total was 26.57 inches. That is 2.57 inches below average, making it the 15th driest year on record.

There were also devastating extremes. Much of the Midwest was gripped — and remains gripped — in a historic drought. In July, 61% of the country was experiencing some drought conditions. The prolonged dry spells and brutally hot weather set the stage for massive wildfires, and 9.2 million acres of forests were burned in 2012.

While 2012 stood out for its high temperatures, it was hardly unusual. U.S. temperature records go back to 1895. Globally, the last decade has been the hottest in recorded history. The last time the continental U.S. had a record cold month was in 1983.

The U.S. is not alone. In Australia right now, the average high temperature is 104.6ºF, an all-time record. So, of course, it could always be hotter.