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2006: warmest year on record in the U.S.

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 9:18 PM GMT on January 09, 2007

The United States recorded its warmest year ever in 2006, according to today's report issued by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC). The 2006 annual average temperature was 55�F, 2.2�F (1.2�C) above the 20th Century mean and 0.07�F (0.04�C) warmer than the previous warmest year, 1998. The NCDC had estimated that 2006 would be the 3rd warmest year in U.S. history last month, but an unusually warm December pushed 2006 to the top. It was the warmest December on record in the Northeast U.S., and the 4th warmest December for the country as a whole. Only 1939, 1957, and 1933 had warmer Decembers. However, the statistics partially hide the extraordinary warmth that began on December 10 and continued until January 6, when New York City tied their all-time record January high temperature of 72�. During the month ending January 6, the Northeast was 14 �F above average, and the U.S. as a whole was 7� above average.

No cause for alarm?
"No cause for alarm. Enjoy it while you have it," said Mike Halpert, head of forecast operations at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center, in a story run by CNN just before New York City's record warmth. The story continued, "The weather is prone to short-term fluctuations, and forecasters said the mild winter does not necessarily mean global warming is upon us. In fact, the Plains have been hit by back-to-back blizzards in the past two weeks." True, the weather across most of the U.S. has finally cooled off this week, and the rest of January should have near average temperatures. And I agree that one warm month of winter in one country in its warmest year in 112 years of record keeping is not evidence of global warming, particularly when there is a moderate El Nino episode going on. An El Nino can lead to significantly warmer winters in the U.S.--exceptional December warmth has also occurred in 1877, 1939, and 1957, all of which were moderate or strong El Nino years. I've plotted up a comparison of temperatures in December of 1957 vs 2006 (Figure 1), and one can see that the unusual warmth of December 2006 does have historical precedent. Taking a look at average U.S. December temperatures for all years in the historical record (Figure 2), we see that these temperatures do show quite a bit of noise, and there is no evidence of dramatic warming in the past 30 years.

Figure 1. Comparison of the departure of average temperature from normal for December 1957 (the the second warmest December on record in the U.S.) and December 2006. Image credit: NOAA.

Figure 2. Average December temperatures for the U.S. from 1895 to 2006. Image credit: National Climatic Data Center.

Rolling thirteens with the weather dice
Take a look at the trend December temperatures in Figure 2. It shows that the average temperature has warmed a little more than 1� F in the past century. It may not seem like much, but that is enough to significantly load the dice in favor of warmer winters. Six of the ten warmest U.S. winters on record have occurred in the past 15 years. Month long spells where winter is seemingly absent--as also occurred in January 2006, the warmest January in U.S. history--have become more common. Keep in mind that the weather of January of 2006--which blew away the previous record for warmest January by a huge margin (2� F)--occurred during a La Nina year, not an El Nino. What concerns me most is that the warming trend is not isolated to the U.S. The 1� F rise in temperatures the past century has occurred world-wide, thanks to global warming, and the temperature increase has been much higher in the Arctic--something the climate models have predicted would occur as a telltale sign of the human-caused addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. In the past, an exceptionally warm winter month in the U.S., like December 1957 (Figure 3), was offset by much cooler weather elsewhere, such as we see in Alaska, Greenland, and northern Siberia. However, December 2006 had no such offsetting cool temperatures--it was more than 1� C above average over almost all the land areas of the Northern Hemisphere north of 40� north latitude (Figure 4). Colorado, whose three blizzards have been widely cited as evidence that winter has been severe elsewhere, still recorded temperatures about 1� C above normal in December 2006.

Figure 3. Global departure of temperature from average for December 1957, the second warmest December on record in the U.S. Note that the exceptionally warm temperatures over the U.S. are offset by much cooler weather elsewhere, such as in Alaska, Greenland, and northern Siberia.

Figure 4. Global departure of temperature from average for December 2006. Note that the almost the entire globe north of 40� north latitude was more than 1� C above average, with large areas more than 6� C (11� F) above average.

All this unusual heat in the northern high latitudes is going to significantly slow down the formation of ice over the Arctic Ocean this winter. Furthermore, the lack of the usual snows across the Arctic may allow the snowpack to melt much earlier than normal in spring, resulting in more record warmth in the Arctic this summer. Arctic sea ice coverage, already down 20% in the past 20 years, is likely to continue to shrink in 2007. As sea ice melts in response to rising temperatures, it creates a positive feedback loop: melting ice means more of the dark ocean is exposed, allowing it to absorb more of the sun's energy, further increasing air temperatures, ocean temperatures, and ice melt. The observed changes in the ice cover (Figure 5) indicate that this feedback is now starting to take hold, and the weather dice will continue to get more loaded towards rolling higher numbers in 2007. I do think we're due for a cold winter next year--part of the warmth of the past two winters is probably due to the normal random fluctuations in the weather, and Nature has been rolling twelves more often than snake eyes of late. However, we're not going to see snake eyes too much more. December's weather in the Northeast U.S. may have been a case of the weather dice coming up thirteen--weather not seen on the planet since before the Ice Age began, 118,000 years ago. The weather dice will start rolling an increasing number of thirteens in coming years, and an ice-free Arctic Ocean in summertime by 2040 is a very real possibility, as indicated by computer modelling studies published in the Journal of Geophysical Research last month. This possibility is cause for alarm, and I, for one, had a lot of trouble enjoying the phenomenally warm weather of the past month here in Michigan.

Figure 5. Percent change in coverage of Arctic sea ice in Decembers from 1979-2006, compared to the 1979-2000 average. The Polar Ice Cap has shrunk by about 15% in December, and 20% in summer, over the past 20 years. Image credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Check out the realclimate.org post on this winter's anomalous warmth.

I'll be back Thursday afternoon or Friday with a look at the status of El Nino. Will it still be around during hurricane season?

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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99. weatherboykris
2:19 AM GMT on January 10, 2007
cyclonebuster,read this Link
I'm not saying your idea couldn't work, but is it practical and cost efficient?
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98. pottery
10:15 PM AST on January 09, 2007
Drug sales and debauchery and peace pipe swith wampum. Whats going on here tonight ????????
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95. sfranz
2:09 AM GMT on January 10, 2007
I saw the predictions for more "normal" temps next month. I was a little weak on pulling the weeds in my garden in the fall thinking "the frost will get them." Hah! The pansies look nice, though, and the iris are coming up nicely.
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94. pottery
10:08 PM AST on January 09, 2007
Cyclone. You are right. But this is your second theory that you have, that no one is taking on. No tunnels, no peace, noboddy wants them. Its a hard road you chose......
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93. HurricaneMyles
2:10 AM GMT on January 10, 2007
liquidsquid...Global warming is not going to save us from large-scale eruptions or a large meteor. The dust kicked up by either blocks the sun and stops any heat or light from reaching the ground. Plants die and animals follow. Not to mention there is a global fire storm after a meteor hits due to falling debris kicked up in the explosion.
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91. liquidsquid
2:05 AM GMT on January 10, 2007
Well, global warming is a fact as taken with plenty of evidence of glaciers retreating. However if we get the planet warm enough, it may offset the next volcanic eruption or meteor. All this global warming could actually save our collective buts. Think of how many folks starved after Krakatoa and the mini-ice age! Mt. St. Helens put a damper on global warming for a while too...
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90. sfranz
2:04 AM GMT on January 10, 2007
Lessening the world impact of oil-based economies would just be one of the perks. Plus terrorism would have to fund itself through prostitution and drug sales, just like the good ol' days. :)
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88. weatherboykris
2:03 AM GMT on January 10, 2007
wouldn't such an idea have a bad effect on sea life?
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86. pottery
9:59 PM AST on January 09, 2007
OH NO> Dont do that Franz. You keep that up, you destroy my Country's petroleum based economy. Its not fair !!!!!!!
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84. weatherboykris
2:03 AM GMT on January 10, 2007
cyclonebuster, is this it:
Here is how it will work. Anchor a large tunnel to the sea floor like a buoy but in several locations around the tunnel to hold it fast to the sea bed.
Position it to where one open end opposes the current at depth where the cool water is and the other open end at the surface faces away from the current. What happens is a difference in pressure is created at both ends and when a pressure difference is created flow occurs. That is the beauty of Bernoulli's principle. Cool water is bought up from below thus mixing with the warm water at the surface. The tunnel is neutrally buoyant with the top end just under the surface. Remember it can only work where there is a current. No current, no difference in pressure. Also, enough electricity can be generated for millions of people in Florida.

With the use of both of these principles combined no pumps are needed since the water will flow up the tunnel naturally. They can also be placed in the Yucatan and Caribbean currents thus cooling the Gulf of Mexico via the loop current thus saving the Gulf States, if placed SW of Key West They will save the whole East coast Of North America. The SSTs can be regulated to 70 to 80 degrees by the addition of a gate on the discharge end of the tunnel that regulates the flow of cool water flowing from them.

The idea does not eliminate the hurricanes it modifies them to a much weaker state no more than a catagory one by regulating the SSTs. The transfer of heat to the mid latitudes still occurs. The ocean temperature is regulated between 70 and 75 degrees and therefore as the storm crosses the cooler water it just weakens but it is not eliminated. BTW during the winter the temperature of the gulf is below 70 degrees so this should not harm sea life.
tornado's may not even form in the mid west because of the cooler temperatures in the Gulf thus cooling the warm air migrating to the North out of the Gulf Of Mexico. Since the air is cooler not as much lift is created in the atmosphere for tornados to form.

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83. weatherboykris
2:00 AM GMT on January 10, 2007
Accuweather is saying the next month will be one of the top five coldest in the past 50 years,and looking at the long range models I agree.
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82. weatherboykris
2:00 AM GMT on January 10, 2007
Sorry,but the rest of the winter is looking cold
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81. sfranz
1:52 AM GMT on January 10, 2007
I live in the Northeast and folks are greatful that we aren't getting killed again this year with fuel prices. A business-owner friend spent over $9,000 heating his space last year. I did find it interesting that the warmer weather and the active conservation you now see here were together enough to drop world oil prices. I have to wonder if we could focus some smart technologies for energy use in this high-industrial area of the world, it might be able to slow global warming and keep energy prices down for everybody. This latitude was called the "roaring forties" for centuries by sailors. More wind and wave generated power might be a decent start.
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80. weatherboykris
1:57 AM GMT on January 10, 2007
Can I find your idea in your blog?
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78. pottery
9:53 PM AST on January 09, 2007
Yes, you would confuse people no end. LOL......
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77. weatherboykris
1:53 AM GMT on January 10, 2007
Cyclonebuster, please respond to my post.I'm genuinely interested.
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75. weatherboykris
1:49 AM GMT on January 10, 2007
Cyclonebuster,I've never heard what you're idea is.What is it?All you ever say is 'tunnels solve this and that'.What are they!?
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74. pottery
9:42 PM AST on January 09, 2007
I'm glad you're not into religion cyclone. Trying to convert people seems to be your forte.......
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70. pottery
9:21 PM AST on January 09, 2007
True enough. And that would give you a record for that tree in that location. But its a narrow perspective. What was the condition around and about at the time. If it were a tree in a thick forest it would show less hurricane strikes. If there were a stream that was diverted it would show up as less/more rainfall. etc. Its an ongoing science as you say, but even the scientists are still gathering data.
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69. Patrap
7:22 PM CST on January 09, 2007
Heres a Linkie..LOL.Link
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68. Patrap
7:20 PM CST on January 09, 2007
Now a sequoia..Thats a Wealth of Info..surf the web and youll see the Point Im making.
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67. Patrap
7:18 PM CST on January 09, 2007
Its a science.A field of Study,Most reliable.Just cut a tree down thats a Pine lets say..near BAy St. Louis..from the last 100years.I can show you 14 drought years and 14 Hurricane strikes from them..alonfg with years of Good precip..and hard winters.
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66. pottery
9:13 PM AST on January 09, 2007
Patrap, I always was a little dubious about trying to determing temp from tree rings and cores, because we cant know all the conditions that applied then. Maybe one day yes.
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65. Patrap
7:11 PM CST on January 09, 2007
The greeks kept excellent Marine records too.As well as the Royal Navy for centuries.But the mindset of the youth today is narrowed.They want absolutes.So they create them.To fit their folly.it can be annoying.
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64. pottery
9:09 PM AST on January 09, 2007
Your point is well taken, Storm man, but I believe the "ever " refers to " since records have been kept ". In any event, as you say 150 yrs is this morning in context.
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63. Patrap
7:09 PM CST on January 09, 2007
Temps are recorded in Tree rings..ice cores..and Offshore drill core samples..there many ways to determine past temps...other than a thermometer.
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62. StormMan
1:07 AM GMT on January 10, 2007
Two problems with this whole "warmest" thing.

1. Decent records for the entire USA only go back, maybe, 100 years, stretching it might go back 150 years.

2. Temperature change is going to happen around cities because of the "heat island" effect from impervious cover (road, buildings, parking lots, etc.)...upward change in temperature is going to happen around these objects because of their greater tendency to hold/retain heat.

So, for a true picture of the overall USA temps you need to:

1. Gather a list of all temperature recording stations that are more than 50 miles away from heat island objects (a two lane highway isn't such a problem, so away from cities is the basic idea).

2. Of the list, cull it down to just those that have been continuously reporting since 1850-1900 and then see what you have...

...and, drop the "highest ever" nonsense, records that go back 150 years for a planet that has been here a few billion years is just not useful evidence of anything, especially to qualify as "most ever".

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60. Patrap
7:06 PM CST on January 09, 2007
Here study this...
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59. Patrap
7:06 PM CST on January 09, 2007
Ah..not tonight.Give the world a Break,
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56. pottery
8:52 PM AST on January 09, 2007
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52. snowboy
12:10 AM GMT on January 10, 2007
The basic principle is simple - the more of the Arctic Ocean is ice free in the summer, the more of winter's cold has to go into reforming that ice and the less is available to go flowing south into our latitudes. The dramatic decline in areal extent of year-round ice cover in the Arctic Ocean is going to lead to progressively greater delays in the onset of winter weather down here (as we've seen this yeaR)..
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51. Brunski
11:16 PM GMT on January 09, 2007
Posted By: ZRR at 10:50 PM GMT on January 09, 2007.

The artic sea is not even anywhere close to being ice free during the northern hemisphere winter. As someone above aluded to..

...I think Dr M and StSmns were not talking about ice-free winters. Just feedback loops reducing ice build-up in winter... and so on
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50. hurricane23
6:01 PM EST on January 09, 2007
ULL'S can also cause unfavorable conditions as we have seen before.All we need is troffiness STL and hopefully things get shoved out to sea.As we learned in 2006 it takes alot more then warm seas surface temperatures to get tropical cyclone formation.
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Cat 6 lead authors: WU cofounder Dr. Jeff Masters (right), who flew w/NOAA Hurricane Hunters 1986-1990, & WU meteorologist Bob Henson, @bhensonweather

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