Global Climate Snapshot: State of the Planet 2012

2012 has come and gone. It’s time to look at the official data and figure out how alarmed we should be about how warm the planet is getting. To help you with that, I have created the unofficial Global Alarm Bell Index (GAB Index), comprised of a highly scientific mix of seven complicated factors. Let’s begin.

Global Temperatures: 4 Alarm Bells

NOAA declared that 2012 was the tenth warmest year on record. That doesn’t sound too scary, though they are quick to explain that “this marks the 36th consecutive year” of “above average” temperatures, and that only one year before 2000 was warmer than 2012, and that 2012 was the warmest “La Niña” year ever. They also inform us that “record warmth” was observed in many specific areas, while “no record cold regions were observed.”

Most of that data suggests that the planet is warmer than it used to be a few decades ago. But it doesn’t tell us if the planet is getting exponentially warmer, or getting a little bit warmer, or just settling at this “above average” level.

2012-global-temp-anamolyRather than increasing, or even holding steadily, the global temp slope appears to have leveled off since the 90’s. I can slice the data to sound just as un-alarming as NOAA’s alarming slices. NOAA doesn’t tell us that the 10-year moving average of the temperature anomaly (a longer-term trend than any individual year) has now decreased for two consecutive years, the first time this has happened since at least the 70’s. The last ten years (2003-2012) were still warmer than the ten years before it (1993-2002), but by only 0.136 degrees, which is the smallest decade-by-decade increase since 1994.

Temperatures have gotten warmer in the last decade, but at a slower rate than the previous decade. If current trends hold (and of course they may not), the earth will not get any warmer in the next decade. For 2012, I’m giving the Global Temperature Record an arbitrary 4 alarm bells out of 10 for its contribution to the GAB Index.

Arctic Sea Ice: 10 Alarm Bells

2012 was a very bad year for the northern ice cap. After an unusually strong winter maximum, the ice quickly melted away in the spring and summer to a sharp record low that was several hundred thousand square kilometers below the previous record. The ice remained at record low levels through most of the fall and the onset of the next winter.

2012-arctic-sea-iceAfter stunningly dropping below 5 million square kilometers in 2007, the northern ice cap dropped below 4 million in 2012. This was not quite as bad as those who thought it might drop to Zero by now, but certainly nowhere near recovering or even holding steady. If current trends continue (and of course they may not), we will see an ice-free summer by the 2020’s or 2030’s.

As we have seen and will see, other factors are not nearly as alarming as this one. I suppose it’s possible that if the earth stopped warming it could still be warm enough for the north pole to continue melting. Regardless, when it comes to arctic sea ice, things are looking about as alarming as a climate scientist could want. For 2012, I’m giving the Arctic Sea Ice Record an arbitrary 10 alarm bells out of 10 for its contribution to the GAB Index.

Antarctic Sea Ice: 0 Alarm Bells

On the other side of the globe, 2012 was a very good year for the southern ice cap. Antarctic sea ice levels remained above average for essentially the entire year, and both the current and long-term trends point to a slight increase in sea ice.


Critics say the ice is just thinning out, or melting from underneath, etc, etc. If this is true, it should eventually be reflected in the surface ice data, and I will concede and raise the alarm. But until that day comes, the Antarctic sea ice data is about as un-alarming as a climate change skeptic could want; not even showing a neutral non-trend, it’s getting slightly bigger! Thus I have to give the Antarctic sea ice in 2012 an arbitrary 0 alarm bells out of 10 for its contribution to the GAB Index.

Atlantic Hurricanes: 2 Alarm Bells

2012 was, for the most part, an average year for storms in the Atlantic. We observed a slightly above-average ten hurricanes (Category 1+) and a slightly below-average one major hurricane (Category 3+). As you can see in the charts below, there appears to be only a very slight increase in either statistic since the 1970’s, and the 10-year moving average remains below its record in the late 1980’s.

2012-atlantic-hurricanesStorms do not really appear to be increasing in intensity or frequency; we had 4 years with 6 or more major storms in the 1980’s; we have only had 3 in the 23 years since. There was some increase in the 1980’s compared to the 1970’s and earlier, but there does not appear to have been any increase since then.

Normally I would feel this qualifies for 1 Alarm Bell, but I will add an honorary Alarm Bell for Hurricane Sandy. Sandy was not unusually intense, hitting Category 2 in the mid-Atlantic and landing in the northeast as a Cat 1, but it was the “largest” Atlantic hurricane on record. While it was not larger than the largest Pacific typhoon on record, I still feel it is a notable occurrence, which, if it reoccurs, would be rather alarming.

So the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season wins an arbitrary 2 alarm bells out of 10 for its contribution to the GAB Index.

Tornadoes: 0 Alarm Bells

2012 had a handful of destructive tornadoes that hit populated areas, as pretty much every year does, but overall it was a below-average year for tornadoes, thanks partially to the drought in the U.S. There appears to be a long-term increase in the annual U.S. tornado count, although this year’s low number helps the trend look flat since the 1990’s.


Even that long-term trend, however, can probably be entirely explained away by better technology and larger populations causing us to notice more smaller tornadoes. The long-term trend of F3+ tornadoes, which are harder to miss, continues to show absolutely no upward trend, and perhaps even a slight down-ward trend.

2012-annual-violent-tornadoes(At the time of this writing, NOAA has not updated their F3+ graph with 2012, but preliminary data suggests that bar will go to about 29.) Increases in population and technology may make it seem like we’re hearing about more tornadoes these days, but I believe the data clearly shows there is absolutely no increase in their frequency or intensity. So the 2012 Tornado season gets an arbitrary 0 alarm bells out of 10 for its contribution to the GAB Index.

Sea Level Rise: 2 Alarm Bells

Global sea level rise is hard to measure, what with the constancy of the tides and the different rates of erosion and who knows what else. But apparently the sea really has been rising for many years, and the big question is whether or not it’s going to accelerate and spell doom for the lives of billions of coast-dwellers in a few decades as opposed to a few centuries. I often see sea level data being cited from the University of Colorado (which is not next to an ocean), so I’ve been using that as my “official data” source.

A few months ago I copied all their data points and divided them into years and calculated all these averages and maximums and average increases and maximum increases and was just waiting to add the last data points of 2012 to see how that year fit into the trends when…. they changed all their old data points! And apparently, the updated data conveniently increased the slope of the old data.

So now I’m all like, what’s the point? The lead graph now says the sea is rising at a rate of 3.2mm/yr instead of 3.1mm/yr, which sounds like an increase, but apparently now it’s always been rising at a rate of 3.2mm/yr instead of 3.1mm/yr, which actually sounds like… no increase at all?

So I don’t know… Maybe next year I’ll try to find a better data source, or re-do all of my data analysis from this one, but I don’t have the budget time for that right now. Still, it appears that the sea is rising at least slowly, although not nearly fast enough (yet?) to even rise half a meter by the end of the century. So I’ll give the sea level an arbitrary 2 out of 10 alarm bells for its contribution to the GAB Index.

Drought: 5 Alarm Bells

You may have heard that 2012 was a really bad year for drought in the United States. Some said it was the worst since the 1950’s, some said it was the worst since the 1930’s, but it was definitely bad, although definitely not nearly the worst ever. The only real, detailed, scientific-sounding drought data I know of is the Drought Monitor, which only goes back to 2000. I have gathered the old data points (which have not changed!) and averaged some of them into graphs below:2012-us-droughtIn 2012, for the first time ever, over 59% of the US was considered to be in at least some level of drought. Depending on which graphs you look at and how you look at them, it actually doesn’t seem to have been that much worse than the 2002-2003 drought that we’ve all apparently completely forgotten about. But if I arbitrarily assign an increasing weight to each level of drought and add them together, 2012 is the worst overall drought year with 280 Drought Points!

Unfortunately, that only gives us 12 years of data. Overall, U.S. precipitation shows a slight upward trend:


But that only concerns the United States, and it’s only a precipitation average. Even if we looked at global precipitation trends, that still wouldn’t tell us what we really want to know; precipitation could increase or remain the same while drought increased due to a more extreme distribution of that precipitation. Unfortunately I don’t know of any global drought data that is nearly as precise as the US Drought Monitor, so for now I’ll stick with that data and just weight it lower in my arbitrary Alarm Bell Weighting Algorithm.

So, for a “record” year of drought levels in the US in this century, along with the second year in a row of elevated extreme drought levels, I’m giving the 2012 drought an arbitrary 5 alarm bells out of 10 for its contribution to the GAB Index.

Total Adjusted 2012 GAB Index: 3.46 Alarm Bells

After carefully feeding these arbitrary values into my arbitrary Alarm Bell Weighting Algorithm, I have calculated a Total Adjusted 2012 Global Alarm Bell Index of 3.46 Alarm Bells.

Now since this is the first year of the GAB Index, we have no idea whether or not that is more alarm bells than last year, or if we’re on an upward alarm bell trend (at least next year we’ll be able to calculate a Global Alarm Bell Anomaly). In the meantime, I have created a convenient Alarm Bell Response Chart to help you determine how freaked out you need to be about the current level of the GABI:


As you can see, we are clearly in “Plant a tree” range. I would suggest you respond as soon as possible to these 3.46 Alarm Bells and get on with planting a tree. Otherwise, we could become dangerously close to having to reduce our daily showers next year, and nobody wants that. Do note, however, that there is some flexibility in the nature of your response. If you live in an apartment, for instance, and already have a low carbon-footprint, you may simply want to purchase a houseplant. If you are wealthy, we may ask you to plant a little more. But ultimately, the most important response is that you Do Something.

Well, thanks for reading this far. We’ll re-visit the State of the Planet in about a year and see how those alarm bells are ringing. Until next time, go plant a tree!