A look back on a landmark study, weird weather, Greenland’s ice sheet melt, and other highlights that shaped climate change science news last year.

If past indeed is prologue, what lessons can be drawn from the 2012 climate news experience to help us anticipate the year ahead? Can looking back help us see forward in the new climate year?

The year just ended is widely viewed as one of surprising twists and turns, with some climate forecasts and potential dangers of climate change playing out on a grand stage: devastating and widespread drought, numerous weather anomalies across North America, culminating in “Superstorm” Sandy’s historic surge, record-breaking melting of Arctic ice sheets, and more.

As is typical of climate change science, more is known with time, and the work progresses in small steps — not major leaps. So many of the stories and research that made headlines in 2012 are kernels for future stories. Reporters have ample opportunity to address risk and adaptation realities of climate impacts; looking ahead, a focus on climate solutions — addressing issues such as energy and innovation — will likely play a large role.

Drought Punishes American ‘Breadbasket’ States

As of December 2012, 62 percent of the continental U.S. was experiencing drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor Report. The worst drought in 50 years carried over from 2011 and took deeper hold in June when record heat waves seared crops in the middle part of the country. By the end of the year, water levels in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan had fallen to all-time lows.


Shipping companies on the Mississippi in late December said they fear they may soon have to halt work because of low water flow. Early reports say drought losses may total some $50 billion, but official statistics have not yet been released.

Landmark Study

In November, a team of 47 researchers representing 26 institutions published a landmark study on ice sheets in the journal Science. Their study reconciled different estimates of how much the melting of ice sheets contributes to sea-level rise. Their integrated perspective found that 20 percent of total sea-level rise between 1992 and 2011 is caused by the melting of Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets.


The notion that the study effectively reduced the uncertainty of how much the ice sheets contribute to sea-level rise, combined with knowledge that the rate of ice sheet melting is now accelerating, suggests scientists are gaining confidence about sea-level rise estimates. As John Wihbey pointed out last month in The Yale Forum, the acceleration of ice sheet melting is “collectively taking place at a rate three times that of the 1990s (and with Greenland’s ice sheet melting at five times the earlier rate).” Thus, the landmark findings will likely play a key role in informing the public and public policy in the future.

Superstorm Surge

It was a special hybrid-combination storm, formed by a massive hurricane and an early-season Nor’easter.

The stunning result was Sandy, quickly dubbed “Superstorm Sandy.” Its storm surge inundated New York City with 13 feet of water and with destructive forces that left 125 people dead. Scientists said higher sea levels and warmer ocean temperatures off the mid-Atlantic states combined with changing hurricane patterns lead to Sandy’s devastating effects. Many media reports made connections with Sandy to climate change, but scientists — normally reluctant to state that a single storm can be linked to climate change — suggested that impacts of climate change (changing hurricane patterns, warmer ocean temperatures, and sea-level rise) had contributed to Sandy’s ferocity and had made damaging impacts even worse.

Politics and Presidential Election

Despite some preliminary reporting in early October that climate change could amount to the presidential election’s “sleeper issue,” and that swing voters likely would vote “green,” climate change remained absent from the campaign trail throughout much of the long primary and general election campaign seasons.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg points finger at climate change.

Absent, that is, until New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, pushed it to the front page in the aftermath of Sandy. While none of the presidential debate moderators asked the candidates about climate change, Bloomberg late in the general election made a surprise endorsement of President Obama, citing climate change, in an editorial for Bloomberg View.

“Our climate is changing,” he wrote. “And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Weather Weirding

It was a parade of weird weather. The winter that never was. Drought. The hottest July on record in the U.S. A fluke derecho. The historical melting of polar ice to the smallest levels observed. At the same time, scientists began to speak out more aggressively on connections between weather anomalies and climate change. Both warming and drought have enough patterns, they said, that connections can be made. Public opinion surveys provided further indications that public attitudes toward a climate/weather connection indeed were strengthened in the wake of the widely reported Sandy impacts.

In an interview at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference in Lubbock, Texas, one scientist suggested that reporters ask the climate-weather question this way: “Rather than ask, ‘Did climate change cause this weather event?’ Ask ‘How frequently will climate change cause it to occur in the future?” said Katharine Hayhoe, of Texas Tech University.

Warming Temperatures

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, by early January had confirmed what others had indicated would be true:  2012 was “the warmest year on record for the contiguous United States,” with the 55.3 degree F average temperature a full 3.2 degrees warmer than the 20th Century average, virtually certain to go down as the hottest year ever recorded (since 1985).  It pointed to 2012 as “the second most extreme year” (second to 2011) in terms of economic losses resulting from natural disasters (see related story).

Scientists have long been predicting that in addition to the increase in global average temperatures, other climate variables are very likely with a changing climate, including intense and frequent heat waves, more record-high temperatures relative to record-lows, decreasing frequency of cold extremes, and a decrease in snow and ice extent.

One year of record breaking temperatures, or even an intense heatwave, isn’t evidence of climate change. Yet, as reporter Joanna M. Foster pointed out in The New York Times, “A vast majority of scientists agree that such events will become ever more common as the planet warms, however.”

Summer Ice Sheet Melt in Greenland

It was a stunner. National Geographic News’s term for it: Shocking.”

Over the course of four days, 97 percent of the Greenland ice sheet showed signs of substantial melting, and the event was observed by three satellites. The U.K.’s Guardian reported that the event “has stunned and alarmed scientists, and deepened fears about the pace and future consequences of climate change,” and added that “In a statement posted on NASA’s website on Tuesday, scientists admitted the satellite data was so striking they thought at first there had to be a mistake.”

Natural Gas Boom in the U.S.

As a result of the fracking boom, natural gas trapped in shale formations holds promise in the U.S., but coal use will continue to expand elsewhere. In the U.S., natural gas for the first time dethroned coal as the country’s primary source of electricity generation, with gas accounting for some 42 percent of fuel used in power plants in 2012. While natural gas has half of the emissions than coal when burned, natural gas production has been responsible for an increase in leaking methane — a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide — and risks to groundwater that may be more problematic for the environment.

Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and a fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, SESYNC, in Annapolis, Md. Her writing covers the environment, energy, food security, agriculture,...