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Associated Press/Photo by David Duprey

March cookout

Science | What's behind the warmest spring on record?

Issue: "The GOP and Hispanics," May 19, 2012

Though few Americans were complaining, an unusual winter heat wave this year produced the warmest January to March stretch in the contiguous United States since records began in 1895. It was the warmest March on the books, too, and scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that temperature stations across the nation had broken an unprecedented 15,292 records during the month.

March weather, combined with last year's warm summer and severe drought in Texas and Oklahoma, led many Americans to blame global warming. A Yale and George Mason University poll conducted in March found more than two-thirds believe "global warming is affecting the weather in the United States."

But while some climate scientists called the March barbecue weather "weird" and "beyond unbelievable," others pointed out that normal weather patterns like La Niña were responsible.

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"We see hot and cold spots over the globe every month, and this was just our turn," explained climatologist John Christy, from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. "Weather systems aligned in March in a way that changed normal circulation patterns and brought more warm air than usual to the continental U.S."

Zooming outward gives a cooler perspective: While March was warm for the lower 48 states, it was cool for Alaska, Australia, and parts of Russia. Globally, it was the coolest March in 13 years (though still warmer than the 20th century average). And according to 30 years of satellite measurements of the earth's surface air temperature, Christy calculated the month was only one-fifth of 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer than usual.

Quaking

Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey are reporting an increase in the number of earthquakes of magnitude 3 or greater in the U.S. midcontinent, including in Colorado, Texas, and Arkansas. There were 134 such quakes in the region last year-six times the 20th century average.

The geologists say the new earthquakes are "almost certainly man-made," and possibly a result of pumping wastewater from oil and gas operations into underground disposal wells. There was no evidence suggesting hydraulic fracturing, a gas extraction technique, was to blame.

Priced out

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

A new set of vehicle fuel economy standards the Obama administration announced last November-and billed as a money-saving measure-could actually price millions of Americans out of the new car market. The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) recently analyzed the corporate average fuel economy standards, which apply to vehicles made between 2017 and 2025, and found that higher price tags on cars and trucks could remove up to 6.8 "million licensed drivers from the new motor vehicle market by 2025."

Those are drivers who would be unable to qualify for a loan for higher priced vehicles because of debt or low income. The NADA analysis assumed the average price of new vehicles would rise nearly $3,000 by 2025 because of the technology needed to increase fuel efficiency. The Obama administration argues the fuel savings will save car buyers money in the long run, and reduce American oil consumption by 4 billion barrels. -Daniel James Devine

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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