Climate change increases the risk of many types of record-breaking extreme weather events that threaten communities across the country. In 2012, there were 3,527 monthly weather records broken for heat, rain, and snow in the US, according to information from the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC).1 That's even more than the 3,251 records smashed in 2011—and some of the newly-broken records had stood for 30 years or more.

Check out the interactive map below to find out what events hit your area.

Click to watch 2012's extreme weather events.
You can also click on a particular state.

Download the map graphic: JPG | PDF

traffic jam under smog-filled sky

record heat days

In 2012, record-breaking extreme events occurred in each of the 50 states. We saw the hottest March on record in the contiguous US,2 and July was the hottest single month ever recorded3 in those lower 48 states. Spring and summer aren't the whole story: 2012 is very likely to be the warmest year overall ever recorded in the US, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The frequency and intensity of some very costly types of extreme events4 are likely to worsen with climate change, as temperatures continue to rise and affect weather patterns.

Extreme weather events inflict tremendous costs on our health and families.

Extreme Weather Events and Climate Change

2012 has been another year of unparalleled extremes and disastrous weather events, including:

  • The worst drought in 50 years across the nation's breadbasket according to NOAA, with over 1,300 US counties across 29 states declared drought disaster areas
  • Wildfires burned over 9.2 million acres in the US, and destroyed hundreds of homes. The average size of the fires set an all-time record of 165 acres per fire, exceeding the prior decade's 2001-2010 average of approximately 90 acres/fire.5
  • Hurricane Sandy's storm surge height (13.88 feet) broke the all-time record in New York Harbor, and ravaged communities across New Jersey and New York with floodwaters and winds. Besides the 131 deaths that have been already attributed to Sandy in the US and countless injuries, there are health impacts including respiratory illnesses and mental health effects resulting from the stress and trauma of losing homes and being displaced that could be much longer-term.
flooding on highway

FEMA News Photo days of record rainfall

The cost of Hurricane Sandy reached an estimated $79 billion for federal aid to cover damages, recovery and measures to cope with future storms in New York and New Jersey. However that price tag doesn't include health-related impacts like hospital visits, which would boost the damage tally even higher. In 2011, a first-of-its-kind study published in the journal Health Affairs estimated $14 to 40 billion in health costs resulted from just six extreme events—types of events that climate change is expected to worsen in terms of frequency, intensity, duration, or geographic extent.6

Climate scientists are saying that these events likely represent a climate-induced trend.7 International insurance giant MunichRe recently concluded that from 1980 through 2011, the frequency of weather-related extreme events in North America nearly quintupled, rising more rapidly than anywhere else in the world.8 A recent analysis by the International Panel on Climate Change, the world's most respected scientific body on the subject,9 further concluded that climate change will likely amplify extreme heat, drought, heavy precipitation, and the highest wind speeds of tropical storms.

Solutions to Limit Climate Change's Worst Effects and Increase Community Resilience

We need to be prepared. As the experience of Hurricane Sandy starkly reminds us, US communities—coastal communities in particular—are vulnerable to the damaging health effects of climate change. And moreover, there are disparities in climate-health vulnerability among regions and neighborhoods, depending on economic advantage, age and level of mobility, underlying health conditions, and whether people have strong social networks of people to help get them out of harm's way.

By limiting carbon pollution, which the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for under the Clean Air Act, we can protect our health and prevent the worst effects of climate change and future extreme weather events. Another milestone was hit in 2012, when 3 million-plus Americans sent comments to EPA supporting limits on carbon pollution from power plants. That's the kind of record-breaker we can all live with—one that's about protecting our children's health and creating healthier, more secure communities.

Recommendations: strategies to enhance climate-health preparedness

Emergency planning must incorporate risks from climate change. For example, maps describing areas at risk for flooding need to account for increased risks caused by extreme rainfall and sea level rise that are increasingly fueled by climate change. While these plans are made at the local level, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) must also prioritize addressing and preparing for climate change by providing guidance and resources to state and local governments, and making sure that states include climate change considerations in their state Hazard Mitigation Plans.

Protect your family from extreme weather:

  • Stay informed: Subscribe to local extreme weather or emergency alerts offered by many cities, counties, or agencies—and watch for updates. Make sure to have a battery-operated radio or other device in the event you lose power.
  • Stay connected: Check on relatives, friends and neighbors, especially those who might be more vulnerable to climate-health risks. That includes elders, families with children, people with limited mobility or economic disadvantage, or with pre-existing illnesses.
  • Be prepared: Have an evacuation plan and emergency supplies on hand. Click here for information on how to be aware and be prepared for a natural disaster. Also see the Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), or the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) lists for what you need.

Check out our maps to find out how vulnerable your community may be to the effects of climate change.

Methods for Developing NRDC's Extreme Weather Map 2012

The project goal was to map "record-breaking" weather events that occurred in 2012 within the 50 United States, and explore the implications of these types of events with a changing climate. We created an animated map that tracks extreme weather events over the course of the year.

A. Criteria for Events' Inclusion in the Map: Record-Breaking

"Record-breaking" was defined as exceeding the monthly maximum for each of 3 major event types (extreme weather: heat, rain, snow)) over the past 30 years; or for events that broke other standing records related to fire, drought, and flooding in the course of 2012. We included two different types of weather event information to build the "Extreme Weather Map 2012": (1) specific record-breaking weather observations linked to a meteorological station or monitoring location (i.e., point events with latitude and longitude); and (2) record-breaking extreme weather events reported over the course of 2012, for which we could access and map corresponding datasets from appropriate US Government agencies.

B. Link to Climate Change

The map compiles month-by-month locations of record-breaking extreme weather events that occurred in 2012 and are linked to the influence of climate change. With the March 28, 2012 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s SREX report—The Summary for Policymakers of the Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation—some of the linkages between climate change and extreme events have been drawn more sharply than ever before.10 For example, the SREX summary finds at least a 66 percent chance that extreme temperatures and coastal extreme high water (which contributes to flooding) have worsened globally as a result of human activities. And looking to the future, SREX projects that if carbon emissions continue unabated, it is likely that the frequency of hot days will increase by a factor of ten in most regions of the world; that heavy precipitation will occur more often; and that maximum wind speeds of tropical storms will increase.11 It's likely too, that climate change will intensify drought in the future and that, coupled with extreme heat, wildfire risks will increase.

The net influence of climate change on other types of extreme events—such as tornadoes and overall frequency of hurricanes—is less well understood, and are thus not included in our map.

C. Event Data Sources

We used the following data sources:

(1) Temperature, rainfall and snowfall records

We mapped record temperature, rainfall, and snowfall using the National Oceanic and Atmospheric-National Climatic Data Center (NOAA-NCDC) data available online for each state. We looked at the monthly records broken at meteorological stations in 2012.

Record Temperatures: Monthly Highest Maximum Temperature records and Monthly Highest Minimum Temperature records (i.e., daily records that were higher than recorded temperatures previously set for that month in the period of record for that temperature station) were compiled for 2012. Records, by state from January through December, were downloaded by month and compiled as of January 4, 2013 from NOAA-NCDC. The NOAA-NCDC dataset is based on the historical daily observations archived in NCDC's Cooperative Summary of the Day dataset, and on preliminary reports from Cooperative Observers and First Order National Weather Service stations, and as such is subject to change. (Data was downloaded from these sites: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/extremes/records/monthly/maxt/2012/01/00?sts[]=US#records_look_up and http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/extremes/records/monthly/himn/2012/01/00?sts[]=US#records_look_up.)

Values that only tied with prior monthly temperature records were not counted as broken, for mapping purposes, and were removed from the dataset. The Period of Record (POR) represents the number of years with a minimum of 50 percent data completeness. All data applied were from stations with a POR of at least 30 years.

The Record Temperature icon means that the monthly highest maximum temperature, the monthly highest minimum temperature, or both exceeded the previous records set at meteorological stations located within the designated county in a given month.

Record Rainfall: The record-breaking events we used are daily records that are higher than recorded rainfall for any day in that month in the period of record for that station. Records broken in the US in 2012 were downloaded (in inches) from the NOAA-NCDC site. Values that only tied with prior monthly rainfall records were not counted as broken, for mapping purposes, and were removed from the dataset. NOAA-NCDC records were based on the historical daily observations archived in NCDC's Cooperative Summary of the Day data set and on preliminary reports from Cooperative Observers and First Order National Weather Service stations, and as such are subject to change. The Period of Record (POR) represents the number of years with a minimum of 50 percent data completeness. All stations have a Period of Record of at least 30 years.

The Record Rainfall icon means that at least one day of record breaking rainfall occurred at a meteorological station(s) located within the designated county in a given month.

parked cars buried in snow

FEMA/Aaron Skolnik Days of Record Snowfall

Record Snowfall: The record-breaking events we used are daily records that are higher than recorded snowfall for any day in that month in the period of record for that station. Records broken in 2012 were downloaded (in inches) from the NOAA-NCDC site. Values that only tied with prior monthly snowfall records were not counted as broken, for mapping purposes, and were removed from the dataset. These records are based on the historical daily observations archived in NCDC's Cooperative Summary of the Day data set and on preliminary reports from Cooperative Observers and First Order National Weather Service stations, and as such are subject to change. The Period of Record (POR) represents the number of years with a minimum of 50 percent data completeness. All stations have a Period of Record of at least 30 years.

The Record Snowfall icon means that at least one day of record breaking snowfall occurred at a meteorological station(s) located within the designated county in a given month.

(2) Wildfires

In 2012, the average size of wildfires in the US exceeded decadal trends, with a pattern for incidents of fewer fires but with larger size. The year-to-date average fire size (165 acres per fire) was the largest on record for any January through November period, appreciably exceeding the previous 2001-2010 decadal average of approximately 89 acres/fire.12 For the purposes of creating the record-breaking 2012 wildfire map, fires of 90 acres or greater were included. The data that was accessed to produce the 2012 wildfire map was downloaded from the US Geological Survey (USGS) dataset "nifc_sit_rep_dd83.zip" available online at: http://rmgsc.cr.usgs.gov/outgoing/GeoMAC/current_year_fire_data/current_year_all_states/.

The Wildfire icon means that a wildfire of 90 acres or more size occurred within the designated county in a given month of 2012.

(3) Extreme Drought

In 2012, widespread and intense drought conditions across much of the contiguous United States caused the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to declare a federal drought disaster on July 11 in 1,016 counties in 26 states. At nearly one-third of all counties in the US, this declaration was record-breaking13: the largest single drought disaster declaration ever made by USDA. By late November 2012, approximately 80% of the US was designated a drought disaster-affected area.

USDA drought disaster declarations are shown on the 2012 map. These include both regular gubernatorial drought-request counties; and those that fall under the 2012 'Fast-Track' designation established by USDA to streamline the drought disaster qualification process, in the face of the year's extreme weather. 'Fast-Track' designations cover those counties either (a) in Drought Monitor D2 (severe drought) conditions for 8 consecutive weeks; or (b) in D3 to D4 (extreme to exceptional drought) conditions at any time during the 2012 growing season.

The map applies USDA's original start/end dates of Drought Disaster designations. Counties are shown on the map, relative to the record-setting July 11 USDA announcement, because they represent areas where: (a) drought began on or after July 11, 2012; (b) the drought began before July 11th, but continued past July 11th; or (c) the drought began and ended before July 11th but drought designation was approved on or after July 11th by USDA.

(4) Extreme Flooding

collapsed beach house

photo: Cristian Salazar/Gotham Gazette

In 2012, there were widespread flooding events associated with the record-breaking storm surge and rainfall from Hurricane Sandy when it made landfall in the eastern U.S. in late October. The map information on flooding was developed from data on flood disasters declared by FEMA. GIS shapefiles for "2012 Declared Disasters" and "2012 Declared Emergencies" associated with Hurricane Sandy were both downloaded and compiled from FEMA. Downloaded flood disaster data was subsequently compiled into statewide declaration areas, since counties within a given state were assigned declarations at the same time. The map shows FEMA-Declared Disaster or Emergency areas associated with Hurricane Sandy from late 2012. The date that FEMA posted the flood disaster or emergency declaration was applied as the corresponding start date, beginning with October 28 2012; many of the flood declaration areas persist as of December 2012.

(5) Data Location

This map was based on data from NOAA's National Climatic Data Center. If the coordinates for a station did not fall within the state listed, once mapped, the point was moved to the nearest border of the state in which the weather station was located. This occurred for 0.5% of temperature record stations, 0.3% of precipitation, 0% of snowfall, and 1.7% of wildfire.

View Records Broken in 2012 By State or County

Listen to the telepresser event announcing NRDC's launch of the 2011 Extreme Weather Mapping Tool, recorded on December 8, 2011.

  1. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) US Records 2012 website at: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/extremes/records/monthly/maxt/2012/01/00?sts%5b%5d=US#records_look_up.
  2. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) State of the Climate-National Overview-March 2012 website at: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/national/2012/3.
  3. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) State of the Climate-National Overview-July 2012 website at: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/national/2012/7.
  4. As of December 20, 2012, eleven extreme weather events that each cost more than an estimated billion dollars in damages had occurred in the US, according to NOAA information available at: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/news/preliminary-info-2012-us-billion-dollar-extreme-weatherclimate-events. NOAA further estimated that total aggregate costs for 2012’s event are likely to exceed 2011’s total of $60 billion.
  5. According to information for 2012 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s State of the Climate-Wildfires, November 2012, available at: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/fire/2012/11.
  6. Knowlton K, Rotkin-Ellman M, Geballe L, Max W, Solomon G. 2011 (in press). Health costs of six climate change-related events in the United States, 2002-2009. Health Affairs, 2011; 30(11) p.2167-2176.
  7. Carey J. Storm warnings: extreme weather is a product of climate change. Scientific American [online, June 28-30, 2011 (3-part series)]. Available at: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=extremeweathercaused-by-climate-change.
  8. Munich Re. 2012. Press release: North America most affected by increase in weather-related natural catastrophes. October 17, 2012. Available at: http://www.munichre.com/en/media_relations/press_releases/2012/2012_10_17_press_release.aspx.
  9. IPCC Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, Summary for Policymakers, approved and released Nov. 18, 2011. Press release from March 28, 2012 for Final Report available at: http://www.ipcc.ch/news_and_events/docs/srex/srex_press_release.pdf [pdf]; full report available at: http://www.ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/.
  10. The SREX report, the Summary for Policymakers, and a Press Release, are available at: http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/.
  11. See IPCC SREX Summary for Policymakers and Full Report available at: http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/.
  12. See NOAA/NCDC State of the Climate-Wildfires–November 2012 website at: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/fire/2012/11.
  13. See USDA July 11, 2012 Press Release at: http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdamediafb?contentid=2012/07/0231.xml&printable=true&contentidonl
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