By Jonathan Marshall
2011 set new records for the person with the longest tongue (3.8 inches), the longest fingernails (19 feet, 9 inches), and the oldest man to swim the English Channel (70).
Unfortunately, the year also broke all previous U.S. disaster records. A total of 12 weather and climate disasters cost more than a billion dollars in damages each, up from the previous record of nine set in 2008.
Total damages came to $52 billion and 646 lives lost, according to the National Weather Service. The disasters included an unprecedented outbreak of tornadoes across the Midwest and Southeast, the giant Groundhog Day blizzard across at least a dozen states, devastating Mississippi River floods, massive Hurricane Irene, a catastrophic drought in Texas and other Southern Plains and Southwestern states, and the consequent wildfires in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
2011 wasn’t the hottest year on record, thanks to a temporary “La Niña” event, but some 2,000 temperature records were broken nationwide in July as a “heat dome” smothered much of the country.
The rest of the world wasn’t spared either. Vast floods of Biblical proportions covered much of Australia and Thailand. Meanwhile, severe drought in East Africa led to the worst famine in the past 30 years. Arctic sea ice continued to dwindle down to the third-lowest extent on record.
Man-made global climate change appears to be aggravating many of these natural disasters, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the American Geophysical Union this fall, “What we are seeing this year is not just an anomalous year, but a harbinger of things to come for at least a subset of those extreme events that we are tallying.”
Fortunately, the world still has time to avoid even greater disasters (the film “2012” notwithstanding). But time isn’t on our side. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, hit nearly 400 parts per million this year, largely as a result of continued burning of fossil fuels.
“The world is locking itself into an unsustainable energy future which would have far-reaching consequences,” the International Energy Agency warned in November, calling for a “bold change of policy direction” to favor more clean energy.