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2012: The Year of Drought and Heat

By Alex Sosnowski, Expert Senior Meteorologist.
January 02, 2013; 4:52 AM

The "Heat and Drought of 2012" caused crops to wither and Mississippi River levels to plunge while yielding the warmest year on record for the U.S.

The Setup

The drought and heat had their origins during the prior winter.

A fast storm track over northern Canada during the winter of 2011-2012 prevented cold air from making many visits into the U.S. and kept the frigid air locked up near the Arctic Circle.

According to Expert Senior Meteorologist Brett Anderson, "This pattern, in turn, resulted in mild Pacific air over much of the U.S. and southern Canada. Additionally, a lack of snow cover over southern Canada then allowed any air coming southward to further warm up before entering the U.S."

The lack of cold air in the U.S. then greatly limited the intensity of storms during the winter and influenced the form of precipitation.

Many stream and river systems are fed by the melting of snow cover and the release of frozen water in the ground through the spring and early summer.

Drought Begins, Heat Blossoms

The warm start to the spring allowed some crops to be planted early in the Midwest. However, the soil also dried out very quickly.

As the days lengthened and the angle of the sun increased, temperatures climbed much higher than average over the Midwest and occasionally spread into the East as a result of the dry landscape. Many cities over the middle of the nation had weeks of 100-degree temperatures.

Steve Niedbalski shows his drought- and heat-stricken corn while trying to salvage what was left for feed Wednesday, July 11, 2012 in Nashville, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

The quick warmup is why also severe weather season spiked very early and was extremely brief.

According to Agricultural Weather Expert Dale Mohler, "We had a lack of large complexes of thunderstorms during the spring and summer over the Plains and Midwest."

Crops Shrivel

The thunderstorm complexes are a major source of rainfall during the spring and summer.

Mohler stated that corn was the hardest hit major crop during the drought and even though a record number of acres was planted the number of bushels per acre was down about 25 percent from what was originally anticipated.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012, photo, Debbie Blythe stands in a drying pond on her farm near White City, Kan. Blythe is among thousands of farmers looking for alternative ways to feed their animals this winter after one of the worst droughts in the nation's history dried up grasslands in much of the country. The drought also cut hay production, making it harder and more expensive for farmers to buy supplemental feed. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

"The heat and drought hit much of the corn belt during the critical pollination period for the crop." Mohler stated.

Soybeans were not hit as hard. This crop takes much longer to mature, and some rain came the rescue late in the period. However, yields were about 12 percent lower than originally expected.

Last year's winter wheat fared better. The wheat, which matured during the beginning of the summer of 2012, had only a minor negative impact due to the drought.

Streams Dry Up, Rivers Shrink

The excessive heat and drought not only resulted in reduced crop yields and brown pasture lands, but it also forced water restrictions in some communities.

Levels on the Mississippi River, which was near record high levels only a year earlier, plunged to 50-year lows during the summer of 2012.

These levels continued to dip during the autumn as the lack of storms with heavy precipitation continued.

During the summer and autumn, levels became so low that drudging operations on behalf of the Army Corps of Engineers were stepped up to keep the shipping channel open. However, barge companies were still forced to lighten their loads to avoid running aground.

Concerns continue for possible closures along the waterway into this winter above where the Ohio River joins in. Most notably affecting the port of St. Louis.

Barges with excavating machinery are seen working on the Mississippi River on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, in Thebes, Ill. The Army Corps of Engineers is delaying the use of explosives to blast away treacherous rock pinnacles on the Mississippi River because crews are having so much success removing the rocks with excavating machinery. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

According to AccuWeather.com's Long Range Team of meteorologists, headed by Paul Pastelok, "During this winter, rain and snow is projected to be adequate over the Ohio Basin but still may be low enough over the upper Mississippi River for concern with low water levels. Little rain and snow is projected over much of the Missouri Basin and other areas farther south over the Plains."

It will take more than one or two storms like that of the middle of December over the Plains and Upper Midwest to substantially turn things around over the upper Mississippi and Missouri valleys.

Drought and Heat Extremes

For some areas of the Central states, this year will finish high on the list of driest years on record. In portions of Nebraska, and Kansas, 2012 was the driest year dating back to the late 1800s in some cases. For the central states as a whole, the year was the driest since the 1950s.

It isn't so much individual cities that have record dryness, but more the number of locations that were abnormally dry throughout the nation. Only the Northwest and portions of the northern Gulf Coast were regions where rainfall was significantly above normal over a broad area.

Following the warmest first six months of the year and the hottest summer on record across the lower 48 states, it soon became apparent that 2012 in its entirety would be in the running for the hottest years on record.

According to Steven A. Root, President and CEO of WeatherBank, Inc. during mid-December, "2012 is set to be the warmest year on record in the United States and southern Canada since 1950."

Steven A. Root, President and CEO of WeatherBank, Inc., used hourly temperature data from 65 key cities in the United States (including Alaska and Hawaii) and southern Canada to come up with the average annual temperatures (F) depicted in the graph.

Update January 8, 2013: It's Official, 2012 was the warmest year on record for the contiguous United States according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Not even cooler conditions during November, nor chill the last few days of December took 2012 out of the top spot. Unusual warmth occurred during much of December. Virtually every reporting site in the lower 48 states had temperatures averaging above normal during the first 20 days of the month.

Chicago and Rockford, Ill., as well as Muskegon and Grand Rapids, Mich. and Fresno, Calif. were among the locations that recorded their warmest year on record. Records in Chicago date back to 1872. During 2012, temperatures averaged 54.5 degrees, breaking the old record of 54.4 degrees set in 1921. In Fresno, the old record set during 1986 with 66.0 degrees was breached with 66.7 degrees set in 2012. Records in Fresno date back through the early 1900s.

Other cities that had or tied their warmest year on record include: New York city, Dallas/Fort Worth, St. Louis and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

This story was originally published on Dec. 26, 2012.

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