Top Climate Stories of 2012

A group of us, all interested in climate science, put together a list of the most notable, often, most worrying, climate-related stories of the year, along with a few links that will allow you to explore the stories in more detail. We did not try to make this a “top ten” list, because it is rather silly to fit the news, or the science, or the stuff the Earth does in a given year into an arbitrary number of events. (What if we had 12 fingers, and “10” was equal to 6+6? Then there would always be 12 things, not 10, on everyone’s list. Makes no sense.) We ended up with 18 items, but note that some of these things are related to each other in a way that would allow us to lump them or split them in different ways. See this post by Joe Romm for a more integrated approach to the year’s events. Also, see what Jeff Masters did here. We only included one non-climate (but related) item to illustrate the larger number of social, cultural, and political things that happened this year. For instance, because of some of the things on this list, Americans are more likely than they were in previous years to accept the possibility that science has something to say about the Earth’s climate and the changes we have experienced or that may be in the future; journalists are starting to take a new look at their own misplaced “objective” stance as well. Also, more politicians are starting to run for office on a pro-science pro-environment platform than has been the case for quite some time.

A failing of this list is that although non-US based people contributed, and it is somewhat global in its scope, it is a bit American based. This is partly because a few of the big stories happened here this year, but also, because the underlying theme really is the realization that climate change is not something of the future, but rather, something of the present, and key lessons learned in that important area of study happened in the American West (fires) the South and Midwest (droughts, crop failures, closing of river ways) and Northeast (Sandy). But many of the items listed here were indeed global, such as extreme heat and extreme cold caused by meteorological changes linked to warming, and of course, drought is widespread.

This list is subject to change, because you are welcome to add suggestions for other stories or for links pertaining to those already listed. Also, the year is not over yet. Anything can happen in the next few days!

The following people contributed to this effort: Angela Fritz, A Siegel, Eli Rabett, Emilee Pierce, Gareth Renowden, Greg Laden, Joe Romm, John Abraham, Laurence Lewis, Leo Hickman, Michael Mann, Michael Tobis,, Paul Douglas, Scott Mandia, Scott Brophy, Stephan Lewandowsky, and Tenney Naumer.

Before you look at the list, I should let you know about these:

1 Super Storm Sandy

Super Storm Sandy, a hybrid of Hurricane Sandy (and very much a true hurricane up to and beyond its landfall in the Greater New York/New Jersey area) was an important event for several reasons. First, the size and strength of the storm bore the hallmarks of global warming enhancement. Second, its very unusual trajectory was caused by a climatic configuration that was almost certainly the result of global warming. The storm would likely not have been as big and powerful as it was, nor would it have likely struck land where it did were it not for the extra greenhouse gasses released by humans over the last century and a half or so.

A third reason Sandy was important is the high storm surge that caused unprecedented and deadly flooding in New York and New Jersey. This surge was made worse by significant global warming caused sea level rise. Sea level rise has been eating away at the coasts for years and has probably caused a lot of flooding that otherwise would not have happened, but this is the first time a major event widely noticed by the mainstream media (even FOX news) involving sea level rise killed a lot of people and did a lot of damage. Fourth, Sandy was an event, but Sandy might also be the “type specimen” for a new kind of storm. It is almost certainly true that global warming Enhanced storms like Sandy will occur more frequently in the future than in the past, but how much more often is not yet known. We will probably have to find out the hard way.

Note that the first few of the links below are to blog posts written by concerned climate scientists, whom the climate change denialists call “alarmists.” You will note that these scientists and writers were saying alarming things as the storm approached. You will also note that what actually happened when Sandy struck was much worse than any of these “alarmists” predicted in one way or another, in some cases, in several ways. This then, is the fifth reason that Sandy is important: The Earth’s weather system (quite unconsciously of course) opened a big huge can of “I told you so” on the climate science denialist world. Sandy washed away many lives, a great deal of property and quite a bit of shoreline. Sandy also washed away a huge portion of what remained of the credibility of the climate science denialist lobby.

Is Mother Nature revving up an October Surprise (w/ human thumbs on the scale)?

Grim Trajectories

Has climate change created a monster?

Ostrich Heads in the Sand(y)? Does your meteorologist break the climate silence?

Climate of Doubt As Superstorm Sandy Crosses US Coast

Are Tropical Storms Getting Larger in Area?

What you need to know about Frankenstorm Sandy

Fox: Hurricane Sandy Has “Nothing To Do With Global Warming”

2 Related to Sandy, the direct effects of sea level rise…

… were blatantly observed and widely acknowledged by the press and the public for the first time

Sea Level Rise … Extreme History, Uncertain Future

Peer Reviewed Research Predicted NYC Subway Flooding by #Sandy

How peer-reviewed material understates likely sea-level rise and examining NY Times interactive graphic relying on this optimistic material.

See WMO summary of year for info on global extremes – especially floods in Africa, India, Pakistan, China

3 The Polar Ice Caps and other ice features experienced extreme melting this year.

This year, Arctic sea ice reached a minimum in both extent (how much of the sea is covered during the Arctic summer) and more importantly, total ice volume, reaching the lowest levels in recorded history.

Arctic sea ice extent settles at record seasonal minimum

Ice Loss at Poles Is Increasing, Mainly in Greenland

TV Media Cover Paul Ryan’s Workout 3x More Than Record Sea Ice Loss

4 Sea Ice Loss Changes Weather …

We also increasingly recognized that loss of Arctic sea ice affects Northern Hemisphere weather patterns, including severe cold outbreaks and storm tracks. This sea ice loss is what set up the weather pattern mentioned above that steered Sandy into the US Northeast, as well as extreme cold last winter in other areas.

Arctic Warming is Altering Weather Patterns, Study Shows

5 and 6 Two major melting events happened in Greenland this summer.

First, the total amount of ice that has melted off this huge continental glacier reached a record high, with evidence that the rate of melting is not only high, but much higher than predicted or expected. This is especially worrying because the models climatologists use to predict ice melting are being proven too optimistic. Second, and less important but still rather spectacular, was the melting of virtually every square inch of the surface of this ice sheet over a short period of a few days during the hottest part of the summer, a phenomenon observed every few hundred years but nevertheless an ominous event considering that it happened just as the aforementioned record ice mass loss was being observed and measured.

Greenland Losing Ice Fast

Media Turn A Blind Eye To Record Greenland Ice Melt

7 Massive Ice islands…

…were formed when the Petermann Glacier of northern Greenland calved a massive piece of its floating tongue, and it is likely that the Pine Island Glacier (West Antarctica) will follow suit this Southern Hemisphere summer. Also, this information is just being reported and we await further evaluation. As summer begins to develop in the Southern Hemisphere, there may be record warmth there in Antarctica. That story will likely be part of next year’s roundup of climate-related woes.

8 More Greenhouse Gasses than Ever

Even though the rate of emissions of greenhouse gasses slowed down temporarily for some regions of the world, those gasses stay in the air after they are released, so this year greenhouse gas levels reached new record high levels

United StatesGreenhouse Gas Levels Reach New Record High

World Meteorological Organization: Greenhouse Gas Concentrations Reach New Record

9 It Got Hot

As expected, given the greenhouse gases just mentioned, Record Breaking High Temperatures Continue, 2012 is one of the warmest years since the Age of the Dinosaurs. We’ll wait until the year is totally over to give you a rank, but it is very, very high.

UK Met Office forecasts next year to set new record

Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math

10 …and that heat brought extreme, killer heat waves

Hot, Very Hot, Extremely Hot Summers

STUDY: TV Media Ignore Coverage of Climate Change In Coverage Of Record July Heat

11 For many areas, this was the year without a Spring.

The growing season in temperate zones is longer, causing the USDA in the US to change its planting recommendations.

It’s the Heat of the Night

12 There were widespread, unprecedented and deadly wildfires…

…around the world and in the American West.

STUDY: Media Avoid Climate Context In Wildfire Coverage

STUDY: Media Begin To Connect The Dots Between Climate Change And Wildfires

13 There was a major drought…

…in the US with numerous negative effects including threats to the food supply

Drought, Water & Energy

What is the link between Global Warming and Drought?

Brutal Droughts, Worsened by Global Warming, Threaten Food Production Around The World

Alarm bells on climate change as extreme weather events sweep the world: CCSOS

The Bacon Shortage

14 River Traffic Stops

A very rare event caused by drought conditions was the closing of the Mississippi River to traffic in mid-summer at two locations. This is part of a larger and growing problem involving drought, increased demands for water, and the importance of river traffic. Expect to hear more about this over the next couple of years.

Drought Closes Mississippi River Traffic in Two Locations

14 Very, very bad storms.

In June, a major and very scary derecho event – a thunderstorm and tornado complex large enough to get its own Wikipedia entry – swept across the country. This was one of several large storm systems that caused damage and death in the US this year. There were also large and unprecedented sandstorms in Asia and the US.

June 2012 North American derecho

16 Widespread Tree Mortality is underway and is expected to worsen.

Dire Drought Ahead, May Lead to Massive Tree Death

17 Biodiversity is mostly down…

We continue to experience, and this will get worse, great Losses in Biodiversity especially in Oceans, much of that due to increased acidification because of the absorption of CO2 in seawater, and overfishing.

Big loss of biodiversity with global warming

18 Unusual Jet Stream Configuration and related changes to general climate patterns…

Many of us who contributed to this list feel that this is potentially the most important of all of the stories, partly because it ties together several other events. Also, it may be that a change in the air currents caused by global warming represents a fundamental yet poorly understood shift in climate patterns. The steering of Hurricane Sandy into the New York and New Jersey metro areas, the extreme killer cold in Eastern Europe and Russia, the “year without a Spring” and the very mild winters, some of the features of drought, and other effects may be “the new normal” owing to a basic shift in how air currents are set up in a high-CO2 world. This December, as we compile this list, this effect has caused extreme cold in Eastern Europe and Russia as well as floods in the UK and unusually warm conditions in France. As of this writing well over 200 people have died in the Ukraine, Poland and Russia from cold conditions. As an ongoing and developing story we are including it provisionally on this list. Two blog posts from midyear of 2011 and 2012 (this one and this one) cover some of this.

The following video provides an excellent overview of this problem:

19 The first climate denial “think” tank to implode as a result of global warming…

… suffered major damage this year. The Heartland Institute, which worked for many years to prove that cigarette smoking was not bad for you, got caught red handed trying to fund an effort explicitly (but secretly) designed to damage science education in public schools. Once caught, they tried to distract attention by equating people who thought the climate science on global warming is based on facts and is not a fraud with well-known serial killers, using large ugly billboards. A large number of Heartland Institute donors backed off after this fiasco and their credibility tanked in the basement. As a result, the Heartland Institute, which never was really that big, is now no longer a factor in the climate change discussion. We failed to drive the wooden stake through Heartland's heart when it was down. While Heartland has lost much of their funding and Corporate support Hearthland's Anti-Science Syndrome Hatred Of a Livable Economic System voices still get soapboxes in traditional media =91balance=92 articles and otherwise. Learning how to pound in the wooden stake has merit.

More like this

I had considered writing an accounting of all the outlandish weather events of 2015, but that project quickly became a tl:dr list of untoward happenings which is both alarming and a bit boring, since it is so long. So, I decided to generate something less comprehensive, focusing more on the context…
We are becoming aware of two very important changes in the Arctic that you need to know about. These are separate thing but related, and both are almost certainly the outcome of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). They are: The sea ice that covers much of the Arctic Sea during the winter is…
The story of climate change has always been more of worst-case, or at least, worser-case scenarios developing and less about good news showing up out of nowhere and making us unexpectedly happy. A few decades ago, it became clear that the release of fossil Carbon into the atmosphere primarily as…
A new paper advances our understanding of the link between anthropogenic global warming and the apparent uptick in severe weather events we’ve been experiencing. Let’s have a look at the phenomenon and the new research. Climate Change: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. It is mostly bad. Sometimes…

A buncha dweebs and dinks who are alone with their computers over the holiday season - no invites to parties, nothing better to do. Even the hippy chicks that coo in their ears are home at their mom and dads. They're lonely and this is how they get their jollies. Compiling a bunch of manipulated data, combining with ridiculous assumptions and exaggerations. Their form of self pleasure.

Ya, you wish you had a hippie chick cooing in your ear, lemon.

Anyway, thanks so much for the insightful and thoughtful comment.

Britain's wettest year ever might get onto an extended list?

It is very disappointing that this list doesn't include the primary reason trees are dying, which is due to the inexorably rising background level of tropospheric ozone. When plants absorb pollution it makes them more vulnerable to opportunistic pathogens - insects, disease and fungus - which are now rampant everywhere on earth. When vegetation is forced to repair foliage and needles damaged by ozone, it takes energy from roots and makes trees more susceptible to windthrow and drought.

Omitted from #16, the entry that trees are dying in areas in drought, is the easily verifiable and well-documented fact that trees are dying everywhere around the globe, including areas that have become wetter due to climate change (such as the UK). In addition to the very profound effect that forest dieback will have on the loss of a major carbon sink, and the change in precipitation from the loss of evapotransporation, the fact that trees are dying due to pollution is a major influence on entry #12. Obviously with trees and shrubs turning to tinder wildfires will be worse.

Unfortunately, the existential threat posed by ozone to trees is even better understood by agronomists as inflicting reduced yield and nutritive quality of annual agricultural crops, both directly and through the much worse secondary influence of increased attacks from insects, disease and fungus.

Perhaps the most egregious omission was in the story about Hurricane Sandy (or maybe I just think so because I was in the middle of it). Leaving aside the surge, the most devastating effect of Sandy was the extended power outages, which would have been even worse had the weather been frigid. As it was, it was the extended loss of power that was most notable for the millions of people not directly impacted by flooding on the coast.

Those power outages (and many others from many other storms from Irene to the Derecho) have more to do with dying trees than winds. Trees are falling over on powerlines - and cars and houses and people - even when there is no wind at all. It was quite obvious just looking around at pictures of the aftermath of Sandy that most of the trees that came down - young and old - were visibly rotting in the center.

I suspect that by the end of 2013, this will become obvious to one and all. Meanwhile if anyone wants to learn about the well-established science that has proven over decades that ozone is highly toxic to plantlife, you can download a book for free here:

or keep up on new information at the blog

By Gail Zawacki (not verified) on 29 Dec 2012 #permalink

Gail, notice that there is a comment section on this post and an invitation to add more information, which you did. And although I'm not endorsing what you are saying (sounds a bit off to me, but you may be right) I'd appreciate it if your comment did not contain that element of blame for not doing what you would have done had you been a participant in the process. It does not help to get your message across.

I'm not sure what to think of your ozone theory. I do know that while we could ad a sentence reminding everyone of the broad damage done by Sandy (beyond the storm surge, etc) I think it is true that most of the people who died in that storm were drowned along the coast line or struck by falling trees or indirectly killed by falling trees. I can demonstrated (and did, see links) that the storm surge and flooding is directly related to global warming. The trees were knocked down because of a storm that was severe and located where it was because of global warming. But do you really have evidence that the trees that fell on people or broke power lines did so because of ozone? I was unaware of that general problem.

Hopefully others who know about this stuff will chime in and verify/dispute your claims as they see fit.

I'm not sure how what I characterized as my disappointment translates into "blame". I'm actually way past blame.

However, since you seem to be excruciatingly sensitive to what appears to you perhaps as criticism, allow me to explain that at least 5 or maybe 6 of the people you listed as collaborating on the list are well aware of the issue about ozone even though you may not be, which I know since I have corresponded with each of them myself. So why none of them chose to include it, I can't say.

But I can say honestly, I'm disappointed.

By Gail Zawacki (not verified) on 29 Dec 2012 #permalink

Gail, I think you have a good point about the Ozone. I just think your attitude is kind of crappy.

"A buncha dweebs and dinks who are alone with their computers over the holiday season..."

Ah, but even more pathetic is lemon wallowing in his own retched bile and willful ignorance.
Talk about a Holiday party pooper.

And Ethon urges you to vote on your choices at Rabett Run

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 30 Dec 2012 #permalink


Check your facts. The UK has steadily increasing numbers of trees since coal, oil and gas have been developed as fuel to replace wood and charcoal. There are some dying because of introduction of a disease.

By Doubting Rich (not verified) on 30 Dec 2012 #permalink

Mr. Rich, you might learn something if you read the posts cited from Daily Kos. They cite actual data, something that you seem woefully unaware of. You might also want to read some background information on hurricane intensification written by AOML. Deep pools of warm water are linked to intensification.

Sandy had the second highest energy of any Atlantic hurricane on record. Instead of high wind speeds it had an enormous size. It was phenomenal for a storm so late in the season to have so much energy.

By FishOutofWater (not verified) on 30 Dec 2012 #permalink

Fish, thanks for the comment. Rich's other comment got trashed because it violated my arbitrary and capricious commenting policy of not allowing science denialists to write 1200 word essays as though this was their blog! But, all he really did was to copy the Heartland post, which is linked to above for laughs.

Nice list. This is helpful to keep things in perspective. I am not sure what the difference is between #4 and #18, though. Maybe I am missing something. I agree that the altering of the jet stream is probably the most significant because it has a broad effect on weather patterns over the NH. Thanks for putting the list together.

By Ben Vandergugten (not verified) on 31 Dec 2012 #permalink

Ben, thanks. I'm not completely sure either. I'm not willing to go with a simple model of blocking or of jet stream changes. There is a grand pattern to how energy moves form the equator towards the poles, and we are clearly seeing a shift in that. Those two items are part of that.

In truth, many perhaps all of the items on this list are in some way connected. Here they are grouped in a sensible way but there are other sensible ways to group them as well.

I'm a firm believer in vigorous application of the Van Helsing method - stake the bastards at the first opportunity, cut off the head, burn the body and add a bunch of garlic and unholy H2O
in blinding sunlight to the charred remains. Alice Cooper summed up my attitude towards anyone who is blind to empirical evidence - "No more Mr. Nice Guy"

Re Gail's ozone post, I agree that there are many problems related to ozone, but I don't see where trees falling in uncommonly severe weather has much to do with tropospheric ozone. It has more to do with applied physics( F=MA for one) Existential? Why drag Sarte and Camus into this? (semi-facetious disclaimer here)

Let us not forget the leading climate stories of 2013, which as it is no longer the future, has become easier to predict :


Jeffrey, Gail has some important information on the Ozone thing. It may be very important. I'm hoping that we'll hear more from her soon.

Russell, we don't allow links to denialist blogs here.

Geeze, give me a break. "Hurricane Sandy" was barely a Cat 1 storm. It didn't hold a candle to the 1938 hurricane Cat 3 that devastated the area, killing hundreds of people.

Building in well-known flood areas, filling in wetlands, filling in the rivers, not believing that a once in a 100 years storm won't happen again, all are not climate change by any stretch of the imagination.

George, a Category I hurricane hitting the region is not climate change. Sandy was stronger than it would normally have been because there was extra energy in the extratropical system, making it climate change enhanced. Sandy took a virtually unprecedented track because of atmospheric geometry caused by a change in arctic systems which is regarded as a result of climate change. There are no storms (hurricanes and their kin) that do not include the extra energy provided by warming. Prior research (discussed on this blog:… )
indicated that a storm following a track like Sandy's would have an enhanced storm surge, which turned out to be the case, owing to warming induced sea level rise over the last century.

In your statement you impy that 1938 predates anthropocentric climate change, but burning of fossil fuels ad been going at an increasing rate for the prior century. It is a common and rather weak trick for Climate Science Denialists to point to things that did not occur in the last few years and claim that therefore there is no climate change, but this is incorrect. (I'm not saying what the 38 hurricane was exactly, but since you bring it up, as a long time resident of and historic researcher in the region it hit I can tell you that it began a new era; the word "hurricane" was learned for the first time by coastal fishing people in New England ... indicating a shift in climate right there).

It is interesting that you bring up the "100 year event" ... the previously referred to research indicates that "100 year" and "200 year" etc. events like the flood surge of sandy will be, under the new climate system caused by the release of fossil carbon into the atmosphere, much shorter term events (decadal instead of secular).

It's not a bad list, Greg. I think the big three have to be Sandy, the USA heatwave/drought, and the lowest ever ice extent at the north pole.
I think it is worth asking, what did the denial crew come up with in 2012? I can't think of a thing. Their only news was negative, the Heartland Institute implosion. But it's okay, Fox is still in their corner. :)
As to Sandy, the intensity of the wind field may have been no big deal, but the extent of the wind field was astonishing. It was not business as usual.

By Chris Wiegard (not verified) on 02 Jan 2013 #permalink

Unfortunately or fortunately, Russell's wonderful lampoon site looks like a denialist blog. It ain't. Take a closer look. That's two v's, and the material is a scream. A little black humor brightens our days. The top post is a little less fun than some of the others, so please scroll down.

By Susan Anderson (not verified) on 05 Jan 2013 #permalink