Feeling the Heat: March Shattered Temperature Records Across U.S.

BY Rebecca Jacobson  April 9, 2012 at 5:13 PM EDT

A day-by-day animation of the daily temperature records tied or broken in March 2012. Over 15,000 records were broken.

This March was the warmest ever in the continental United States, measuring on average a staggering 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than normal, according to a report released Monday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

More than 15,000 heat records were shattered across the country. And 21 cities saw nighttime temperatures break daytime high temperature records.

Jake Crouch, a climate scientist from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, called that “incredible.”

The first three months of 2012 combined clocked in at an average 42 degrees Fahrenheit — 6 degrees above the long-term average, according to the NOAA report. The whole winter season, which stretched from October to March, was 3.8 degrees balmier than average.

An atmospheric pressure pattern that controls westerly winds called the North Atlantic Oscillation caused the cold Arctic air to linger further north, said Crouch, who is also a co-author of the climate report. (Alaska had the coolest March on record.)

The widget below tracks new maximum high temperature records from official government recording stations. You can also see how the number of official records set this year compares to the previous 11 years.

EMBED THIS:

“I can’t point my finger and say ‘this was climate change,’” Crouch said. “But this is what we expect with climate change.”

The warmer air fueled thunderstorms, heavy rain and tornadoes. The tornadoes that hammered the Ohio Valley and the Southeastern United States on March 2 and 3 particularly surprised researchers with their frequency and ferocity. The storms caused 40 fatalities and exceeded $1.5 billion in damages.

“This is one of the earliest outbreaks we’ve seen in the U.S.,” Crouch said. “The tornadoes we saw in March are more typical of April.”

He added that NOAA is predicting greater odds for an even warmer spring and summer. In a new report, James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Science, who has warned the public about the risks of climate change since the 1980s, said unusually warm seasons are a result of climate change and expected to continue. He refers in the paper to “climate dice,” now loaded with the Earth’s energy off balance, increasing the likelihood that these weather patterns will continue.

It’s not all bad. Governments spent less on snow removal, and families across the Midwest and Northeast saved money on heating their homes.

But a note of caution for farmers and gardeners: the early blooms from March are not guaranteed to survive April, Crouch said. In 2007, a warm March followed by a chilly April caused many farmers to lose their crops to frost.

“We’re not out of the woods yet for freezing temperatures that would wreak havoc on crops,” he said.

We received a few responses from the Public Insight Network about the unusually warm March:

From Robert Holley, who lives in Huntington Woods, Mich:

Perhaps the changes this year aren’t statistically significant, but I didn’t have to shovel much snow at all in my Detroit suburban community. I also don’t schedule cross country skiing trips in Michigan anymore because the snow isn’t reliable enough to do so the way it was in the 1990s. Today in mid-March, I was out in my shirtsleeves this afternoon planting my garden much earlier than is usually the case.

And from Emily Buehler, who lives in Hillsborough, N.C.:

Right now (March) it is over 80, after a barely existent winter, and the plants all bloomed early, and it’s still possible we could have a frost! The temp has been up and down every 2 days; it is impossible to adjust.

To share your story about how you are seeing changes in your climate, simply fill out this form via the Public Insight Network, which has partnered with the NewsHour for this project.