Third Hottest U.S. Summer Ends With a Splash of Drought Relief

BY Rebecca Jacobson  September 10, 2012 at 5:12 PM EDT

Climatic Data Center This infographic from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center highlights some of the records set for the country this summer. Image by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The hottest July on record combined with a warmer-than-average June and August made this summer the third hottest in the lower 48 states since record keeping began, according to a report released today from National Oceanic Atmospheric Association. In 2012, the national average temperature for June through August was 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average. Hurricane Isaac delivered some relief, but not enough to end the record droughts and wildfires throughout the Midwest and the Rocky Mountains.

An earlier record-breaking heat wave in March dried out much of the soil throughout the country, which raised daytime temperatures, worsening drought conditions, said Jake Crouch, climate scientist with the National Climatic Data Center and lead author of the report.

Crouch pointed to Wyoming as a prime example of what happens when such factors converge. Wyoming experienced its hottest and driest summer ever, and with it, a startling number of forest fires. Wildfires burned across 289,000 acres of the state, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Meanwhile, Florida experienced the wettest summer on record, fueled by Hurricane Isaac and Tropical Storm Debby. Yet while precipitation from these storms provided relief in the Lower Mississippi River Valley, states like Nebraska and Iowa barely received a drop of rain. At the end of August, nearly 63 percent of the country was still experiencing drought.

“This drought has been developing for several months. It’s going to take more than one event to end that,” Crouch said.

Natural weather patterns like La Nina and the North Atlantic Oscillation contributed to the hot, dry summer, Crouch said, adding that the data this year is consistent with overall atmospheric warming trends. He speculates that warmer-than-average temperatures are likely to continue through December.

“We keep getting these record and near record-breaking seasons,” he said, “The U.S. has been in a warm pattern for 15 months.That has not occurred before.”

You can track the trend with the NewsHour’s record temperature widget here:

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Earlier this summer, we tackled the murky challenge of reporting on temperature extremes. Read that here.