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Start of 2012, March shatter US, NC heat records

It's been so warm in the United States this year, especially in March, that national records weren't just broken; they were deep-fried. The Triangle saw its warmest March since World War II.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — It has been so warm in the United States this year, especially in March, that national records were not just broken; they were deep-fried. 

Temperatures in the lower 48 states were 8.6 degrees above normal for March and 6 degrees higher than average for the first three months of the year, according to calculations by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That far exceeds the old records.

The Triangle saw the warmest March in six decades of record keeping at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. 

"We actually never did break a record high in March. We tied one. But overall, we just had so much warmth that we ended up really doing a number of the record book," WRAL meteorologist Elizabeth Gardner said.

The mean temperature for the month was 60.4 degrees, beating the 60.1 degree mark that had stood since 1945. The average mean temperature for March in the Triangle is 50.5 degrees.

For one 16-day stretch in March, the daily highs were all above average, often getting into the 70s and sometimes soaring over 80 degrees.

The warm start to the year has many wondering if a hot summer will follow. That's not necessarily the case, though, Gardner said.

Of the top 10 warmest springs in North Carolina, six lead to an overall unusually hot year, and four to an unusually cool year.

"Our chances are maybe slightly higher that this will go on to be an especially hot year, but they're almost just as good that it will be an unseasonably cool year," Gardner said.

The magnitude of how unusual the year has been in the U.S. has alarmed some meteorologists who have warned about global warming. One climate scientist said it is the weather equivalent of a baseball player on steroids, with old records obliterated.

"Everybody has this uneasy feeling. This is weird. This is not good," said Jerry Meehl, a climate scientist who specializes in extreme weather at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. "It's a guilty pleasure. You're out enjoying this nice March weather, but you know it's not a good thing."

It's not just March.

"It's been ongoing for several months," said Jake Crouch, a climate scientist at NOAA's National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina.

Meteorologists say an unusual confluence of several weather patterns, including La Nina, was the direct cause of the warm start to 2012. While individual events cannot be blamed on global warming, Couch said this is like the extremes that are supposed to get more frequent because of manmade climate change from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil.

It is important to note that this unusual winter heat is mostly a North American phenomenon. Much of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere has been cold, said NOAA meteorologist Martin Hoerling.

Nor is this type of heat unprecedented. 

Of the top five warmest months of March in North Carolina, two happened in the 1940s, one in the 1970s and in 2007. The second hottest March on record, 1945, was only 0.3 degrees away from the high of March 2012.

"Yes, there's some concern about global warming, but it was interesting to see that most of these were pretty far away in terms of years," Gardner said.

The first quarter of 2012 broke the January-March record by 1.4 degrees. Usually records are broken by just one- or two-tenths of a degree. U.S. temperature records date from 1895.

The atypical heat goes back even further. The U.S. winter of 2010-2011 was slightly cooler than normal and one of the snowiest in recent years, but after that things started heating up. The summer of 2011 was the second warmest summer on record.

The winter that just ended, which in some places was called the year without winter, was the fourth warmest on record. Since last April, it has been the hottest 12-month stretch on record.

But the month where the warmth turned especially weird in the United States was March.

Normally, March averages 42.5 degrees F across the country. This year, the average was 51.1 F, which is closer to the average for April. Only one other time, in January 2006, was the country as a whole that much hotter than normal for an entire month.

The "icebox of America," International Falls, Minnesota, often the nation's coldest city, saw temperatures in the 70s F for five days in March (30s C for four days ), and there were only three days of below zero temperatures all month.

In March, at least 7,775 weather stations across the nation broke daily high temperature records, and another 7,517 broke records for night-time heat. Combined, that is more high temperature records broken in one month than ever before, Crouch said.

In a paper that NASA's top climate scientist, James Hansen, submitted to the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and posted on a physics research archive, Hansen shows that heat extremes are not just increasing but are happening far more often than scientists thought.

What used to be a 1-in-400 hot temperature record is now a 1 in 10 occurrence, essentially 40 times more likely, said Hansen. The warmth in March is an ideal illustration of this, said Hansen, who also has become an activist in fighting fossil fuels.



National Climatic Data Center:

James Hansen's study on climate extremes:


Seth Borenstein be followed at