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How hot was 2012? Hottest on record in US, by a long shot (+video)

Global warming 'has had a role' in making 2012 the hottest ever recorded in the lower 48 states, says a US climatologist. The average temperature was 54.3 degrees F., a full degree higher than the previous annual record.

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Still, long-term forecasts project river levels falling to historic lows, according to the American Waterways Operators, a trade group for tug, towboat, and barge operators in the US.

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In the western US, hot, dry conditions contributed to wildfires that, nationwide, torched 9.2 million acres – the third-largest area affected in the past 13 years. Idaho, Montana, and Oregon were hardest hit, with wildfires covering more than 1 million acres in each state. Colorado experienced its most expensive fire, while New Mexico battled its largest fire on record.

East of the Mississippi, extreme weather also made itself felt in hurricane Isaac, tropical storm Debbie, and at the end of the Atlantic hurricane season, hurricane and post-tropical cyclone Sandy. The storms helped ease drought conditions in the Southeast.

Whereas temperatures warmed in part by climate change contributed to record heat and drought, Sandy's storm surge came atop seas that have risen at New York Harbor at a pace of an inch per decade during the past century. Part of that rise is due to factors such as local land subsidence. But part is also due to global warming, as rising temperatures warm seawater, which expands, and melt glaciers and ice caps, whose melt water and ice end up in the ocean.

By some estimates, Sandy, which outlasted tropical storm Tony as the final storm of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, caused at least $65.6 billion in damage and killed at least 235 people in seven countries – 131 in the US.

Indeed, 2012 tied four other years – including 2010 and 2011 – as the third most active hurricane season on record. The season saw 19 named storms, 10 of which became hurricanes. One, Michael, became the season's only major hurricane, sporting sustained winds of 115 miles an hour. But from birth to demise, the storm remained in the middle of the North Atlantic, far from land.

A swath of the US from Indiana to Maryland also took a beating during the summer from a storm whose powerful, expanding downdrafts along the storm's leading edge generated winds that plowed through the region, downing power lines, damaging homes, and killing 22 people.   

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