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2014: An Epic Year for Climate Change and Other Weather-Related Disasters

Extreme heat, record-breaking floods, and a terrifying tornado in oil country—all in all, a year we can't afford to forget.

In this Oct. 30, 2014 photo, the earth lays cracked in the nearly empty Itaim dam, responsible for providing water to the Sao Paulo metropolitan area, which is experiencing the worst drought to hit southeastern Brazil in more than eight decades. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Stick your hand over a lit stove and you can get a feel for 2014's overall climatic situation: scorching heat. For months, experts have been predicting this will be the hottest year in recorded history, and while in the end it might not quite achieve that ignoble record, it will be way up there (perhaps at No. 3).

The thermostat could've seemed low in your neck of the woods—meaning America's East Coast and Midwest and the Falkland Islands—but temperatures were sweltering in the rest of the planet. Take a look at these abnormally high and record-hot readings, which represent a 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit deviation above the historical average. Notes the National Climatic Data Center: "This was the warmest January-November in the 1880-2014 record, surpassing the previous record set in 2010 by 0.02°F."


Not surprisingly, there were plenty of eye-popping weather and climate events this year, beginning with...

Alaska's Big Melt

Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities/Reuters

A major heat wave bedeviled the nation's topmost state for the beginning of the year, leading to wet, crushing avalanches like the one above on Richardson Highway. Here's a fly-over showing the huge extent of the mucky collapse:

With temperatures as much as 40 degrees above average, several sled-dog races were canceled for lack of snow and the fear onlookers would fall through thin river ice. Perhaps somebody should've organized a marathon instead, as the "all-time warmest January temperature ever observed in Alaska was tied on January 27 when the temperature peaked at 62°F (16.7°C) at Port Alsworth," according to the Weather Underground.

Hallucinatory Heat in Australia

Alaska wasn't the only place suffering from aberrant warmth. In Melbourne this January, the mercury practically shattered the thermometer at an infernal 109 degrees. The scorching sun had players at the Australian Open volleying vomit instead of tennis balls and, in the case of Canada's Frank Dancevic, hallucinating about Snoopy before passing out. A scientific report this same month piled on the bad news, saying Australia should brace for more run-ins with brutal heat if carbon emissions continue at their billowy rate.

By February, the arid spell helped the spread of major wildfires around Melbourne, which from the air looked like a flaming nightmare:

Just flew into Melbourne - view from the window very confronting. Hope everyone in Gisborne/Melbourne area is safe from the bush fires #scary #flames #bushfire #melbourne

A photo posted by sarahaddis (@sarahaddis) on

The Vortex That Shall Not Be Named

Associated Press

The winter of 2014 was stalked by a glacial presence the media dubbed the "Polar Vortex," which in fact was probably located elsewhere on the planet. What wasn't in dispute is that things were horribly cold through much of North America, with temps as much as 35 degrees below average for the Eastern two-thirds of the country. The shivering and long-lasting cold snap helped the natural-gas market reach a five-year high, hitting $6.25 on February 19.

Damnable Drought

A comparison of water levels at Folsom Lake near Sacramento in 2011 and 2014, courtesy of the California Department of Water Resources.

Recent rains alleviated a little of the West's thirstiness, but California remains in a mortal struggle with drought. The state just lived through its driest three-year period in at least 1,200 years, with agricultural pumping and natural causes to blame. (Scientists believe the changing climate will make the West even hotter and drier in the future.) A line of dismal milestones was passed in the descent into crisis: officials begging people to ration water, reservoirs dropping to record-low levels, the physical mass of California itself shrinking due to disappearing H2O.

If you're wondering why hamburger was 20 percent more expensive this year (and next year, why produce costs so much), blame the pernicious dryness. And food woes are likely to worsen if the West gets a repeat of 2014. "The general mood is, 'We'll get through this year, but who knows about next year?'" said one irrigation-company worker. "If there's another severe drought, the face of farming is going to change."

Further south, cities like São Paulo, Brazil, we should note, are in much the same boat.  

One Hell of a Tornado Encounter

An April tornado laid waste to this chicken farm in Noxapater, Mississippi.

Tornado activity was anemic in the U.S., with about 400 fewer twisters than the annual average of 1,260, notes the Capital Weather Gang. Yet a couple incidents stood out as examples of these terrifying spinners' power: A late-April outbreak dropped a bevy of tornadoes onto the nation's midsection, killing nearly three-dozen people and leaving several chicken farms looking like they'd incurred a gas explosion. And in May, oil workers had an unbelievable brush with a monumental pillar of whirling debris that ripped through their camp in North Dakota, damaging more than a dozen trailers. This is, officially, the Weather Video of the Year; the fact that these leathernecks are laughing makes it all the more surreal (profanity ahoy):

A Dire Flood Warning

Waves lapping at boot soles could become a common occurrence in the coming decades, to believe a July NOAA report. Researchers predicted the number of days with nuisance floods—ones that inconvenience the public with stuff like road closures and infrastructural damage—will rise by as much as 925 percent along the U.S. East Coast.

The Annapolis waterfront after flooding in 2012. (Amy McGovern)

"Flooding now occurs with high tides in many locations due to climate-related sea-level rise, land subsidence, and the loss of natural barriers," said oceanographer William Sweet. "The effects of rising sea levels along most of the continental U.S. coastline are only going to become more noticeable and much more severe in the coming decades, probably more so than any other climate-change related factor."

California's Bigish One

A moderate-sized earthquake damaged scores of Bay Area buildings in August, including this historic building in Napa. (AP/Eric Risberg)

It wasn't the Big One, but a magnitude-6 earthquake on August 25 near Napa, California, injured roughly 250 people, triggered a bad rash of gas fires and water breaks, and sent innumerable wine barrels and bottles crashing to the floor in sad, crimson cascades. The total damage is expected to top $2 billion. It was the most powerful quake to hit the Bay Area in a quarter-century; scientists have predicted Napa's next one will be even shakier and more devastating.

Asian Rainmageddon

Flooding from powerful rains in early September tore apart this bridge on the outskirts of Jammu, India. (AP/Channi Anand)

The year's priciest weather was not a city-crumbling earthquake or roaring hurricane, but a stretch of bad rain on the border of India and Pakistan, according to Property Casualty 360. A steroidal September monsoon dropped more than a foot of water on the region, killing about 650 people and damaging 375,000 buildings. When the skies cleared, the two countries were left looking at devastation amounting to $18 billion or more, making these storms the most expensive natural disaster in India, ever.


An airport in Vishakapatnam, India, in the wake of the October cyclone. (AP/Press Trust of India)

India didn't have good meteorological luck in 2014. In October, Cyclone Hudhud roared out of the ocean to tear into the southern Andhra Pradesh state, destroying thousands of homes, killing more than a hundred, and leaving damage so severe in Visakhapatnam that a rescue worker said it could take "at least 100 years to rebuild our beautiful city," according to the Hindustan Times. Hudhud's punch left an $11 billion dent in India's economy, making it the costliest cyclone in the country's history.​

Fishing boats lie damaged in the wake of Cyclone Hudhud in Vishakapatnam, India. (AP/Press Trust of India)

Buffalo Uses All its Snow Days at Once

In the middle of November, parts of the Buffalo region got pounded by a one-two-three series of lake-effect knockouts. Even for a metro area used to powder dumps, these storms were surprising, looking like a vengeful god was spraying the region with an almighty snow blower. Accumulations in some areas topped 7 feet. Here's some footage of one of the narrow but intense snow bands coming off Lake Erie:

An Encouraging Sign for 2015 and Beyond

In November, the U.S. and China announced they'd work together to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions—a move of no small significance, given that these countries plus the European Union "emit about as much each year as the rest of the world combined," according to the World Resources Institute. Here's more on the deal:

As part of the agreement, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would emit 26 percent to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005. That is double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020.

China’s pledge to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, if not sooner, is even more remarkable. To reach that goal, [Chinese President President Xi Jinping] pledged that so-called clean energy sources, like solar power and windmills, would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030.

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.