From a severe cold snap in Europe to ferocious storms from the tropics to the Arctic, extreme weather events claimed thousands of lives and caused significant economic losses around the globe in the past year. As 2012 closes, let’s take a look at the highest impact major weather events to occur outside the U.S.:
1. February cold snap in Europe
In a year characterized by numerous records for warmth, 2012 still brought severe cold to some parts of the globe. The most memorable was a February cold wave that killed at least 800 people across central and eastern Europe.
In late January, Arctic air from Siberia began migrating westward into Europe. Temperatures fell as low as -10ºF (-28ºC) in parts of Poland, Ukraine and Romania. In the Balkans, crippling snow stranded thousands of people in small towns and villages in Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria. Some 16 ft (5 meters) of snow buried parts of Romania, where military planes delivered food and supplies to stranded locals.
Farther west, unusual snow paralyzed parts of Italy. Rome recorded 8 inches (20 cm) – its largest snowfall in 26 years. The intensity of February’s cold snap even extended into northern Africa and brought the Algerian capital its biggest snowfall in five decades.
The European cold wave was a reminder that even in an era of warming global temperatures, atypical jet stream configurations can send prolonged periods of arctic cold southwards.
2. Typhoon Bopha
The last two Decembers have not been kind to the Philippines. Almost exactly a year after tropical storm Washi killed nearly 1,300 people in the island nation, super typhoon Bopha ripped through the Philippines. Packing one-minute sustained winds of 160 mph just before landfall, Bopha was the strongest storm ever to hit the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
Bopha was notable for its unusual strength so close to the equator. Wunderground’s Jeff Masters wrote that the storm was the second most southerly category 5 storm on record.
Tropical cyclones rarely form so close to the equator because the coriolis force, which helps them begin rotating, is weak at low latitudes. Yet Bopha defied the odds and became a tropical depression just 3.6 degrees north of the equator. By the time it reached 7.4ºN, the storm had morphed into an incredibly powerful super typhoon with a minimum central pressure of 930 mb.
Bopha left a trail of destruction and killed over 1,000 people as it tracked through Mindanao in the southern Philippines. Thousands more were left homeless.
After an active year of typhoons in the western Pacific, typhoon Bopha will be remembered for its unusual strength so close to the equator. It is also a reminder that disaster preparedness is essential for governments around the world, as the weather increasingly behaves in unanticipated ways.
3. Flooding in Venice (and active weather in Italy)
Italy had an unusually active year of weather in 2012. The biggest newsmaker was November’s severe tidal flooding in Venice, which submerged more than 70 percent of the city.
In mid-November, a low pressure system tracked across northern Italy. The storm inundated Tuscany with 9 inches (23 cm) of rain in just four hours. Along the Adriatic Sea, the combination of heavy rain and southerly winds brought Venice its sixth-highest tide since 1872. Floodwaters crested 1.4 meters above normal, swamping homes, businesses, and the well-known Piazza San Marco.
The flooding in Venice is perhaps not surprising considering the active weather across much of Italy in 2012. Over the summer, an EF2 strength tornado struck Venice, causing moderate damage but fortunately no fatalities. And just two weeks after the storm that brought flooding to Venice, a rare late-autumn violent tornado tore through southern Italy.
4. Topsy-turvy weather in Britain
While the United Kingdom is known for its changeable weather, 2012 was downright erratic. In early spring, England was facing its worst drought in four decades, prompting authorities to impose water restrictions in the southern UK. Then, almost mockingly, Mother Nature brought rain – and lots of it.
The UK’s fifth-driest and third-warmest March was immediately followed by the wettest April on record. And once the downpours began, they didn’t abate. The Met Office reports that the United Kingdom saw its wettest April to June period on record. Behind the sudden switch from dry to wet was a southward shift in the jet stream that brought an active storm track across the British Isles.
While the rains eased just in time for the Olympics, the wet, soggy pattern returned shortly thereafter. In late September, a strong storm dumped more than a month’s worth of rain in less than a day, prompting flood warnings and numerous evacuations. AccuWeather reported the storm’s central pressure dropped to 973 mb, which was unusually low for September.
As a stormy 2012 comes to a close, England is now set to record its wettest year on record – an ironic distinction for a year that began with severe drought conditions.
5. The Great Arctic Cyclone and record low sea ice
While melting Arctic sea ice is more climate than weather-related, this year’s record-minimum sea ice extent deserves a place in the top five. What’s more, a remarkable weather event was one contributing factor behind the ice loss, which puts the interplay between short-term weather and long-term climate change prominently on display.
In early August, an unusually strong storm from Siberia tracked into the Arctic Ocean. The storm had a central pressure of 966 mb and was noteworthy for occurring during the summer when the Arctic is typically less stormy than it is during the winter months. A new study has concluded that the storm was the most extreme to ever occur during summer, and was the 13th most powerful Arctic storm observed since satellite observations began.
This unprecedented summer storm helped speed up ice melt in the Arctic, which NOAA says melted some 35,400 square miles per day in August 2012. By mid-September, the extent of Arctic sea ice was 18 percent lower than the previous record low measured in 2007.
Continued melting of Arctic sea ice has implications for mid-latitude weather patterns. As the Arctic warms, the jet stream will likely behave more erratically. This means that prolonged heat, cold, precipitation and other weather extremes will be ongoing challenges in the future.