The Hottest Climate Change Stories of 2012

Meltwater canyon in ice sheet
Meltwater creates a 60-foot deep (18.2 meter) canyon in the polar ice sheet. (Image credit: Ian Joughin)

Global warming was hot news this year, literally.

Perhaps the most unavoidable climate story of 2012 was the warmth that gripped much of the United States, and to a lesser degree, the planet, throughout the entire year. Heat waves brought "spring in March" to parts of the country, and broke all-time high-temperature records in a number of places. This, inevitably, led to a discussion of global warming and the degree to which it contributes to some types of extreme weather, in this case heat waves.

In fact, prominent climate scientist James Hansen, of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and colleagues published research saying recent heat waves "were a consequence of global warming, because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small." Some other climate scientists, however, disagreed about the degree to which heat waves can be attributed to climate change.

Meanwhile, many of the top climate stories this year have become something like annual rites recently, as people around the world grapple with human-caused climate change, and attempt to address it and its effects. [7 Hottest Climate Change Stories of 2012]

Natural disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy (actually a hybrid storm) this year like others last year, have sparked discussion of the connection between climate change and increased risk for some extreme weather events. A majority of Americans also seem to be making the connection between extreme weather and climate change, according to surveys by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

In reality, attributing any single weather event to global warming is tricky, though some scientists said the planet's increasing temperatures may have worsened Sandy. "The climate influences on this are what we might call the 'new normal,' the changed environment this storm is operating in," Kevin Trenberth, who heads the climate analysis section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told LiveScience at the end of October. For instance, the warmer ocean surfaces — which fuel hurricanes — may increase the risk that a storm will become more intense, Trenberth said. In addition, rising sea levels worsen the risk of flooding, the cause of much of the devastation Sandy wrought.

Likewise, global climate talks moved forward slowly, as they have in the last few years, against warnings that nations must curb the planet's rising greenhouse gas emissions or face dramatic consequences.

This year also brought some milestones. Arctic sea-ice cover retreated to a record low in September. As with unusually warming temperatures, the record sea-ice retreat did not come out of the blue. In recent years, the sea-ice cover has fallen below the average extent for 1979 to 2000, and, likewise, the first decade of this century was the warmest decade ever recorded in all continents of the globe, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Scientists who study sea ice have blamed a combination of natural fluctuations and human-caused warming for the increased loss of ice, although some differ as to how much humans have contributed, Claire Parkinson, a senior scientist who studies climate at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in September.

Early in the year, the United States, once the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, saw its carbon-dioxide emissions from energy use drop to the lowest level since 1992, a decline the Department of Energy attributed to a mild winter, a shift from coal to natural gas and a slow economy. In 2011, the United States contributed 16 percent to the world's emissions from fossil fuel use, behind the 28 percent contribution from the top emitter, now China, according to a report by the Global Carbon Project. 

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Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.