Top Ten Extreme Weather and Climate Events (and Related Catastrophes) of 2010

[Updated 12:18PM Eastern]

Every year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) asks experts to vote on the top ten weather and climate events for that year. The “voters consider factors such as the scope and unusualness of the event, its immediate human and economic impact, and whether it is emblematic of climate trends or variability.”

Extreme weather

The list is below. However, as @chr1stianh pointed out on Twitter, this list conflates climate with weather (and tosses some resulting hazards into the mix, too). But the two are NOT the same. As Mark Twain said, “Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.” Put another way, climate is the average of meteorological elements, such as temperature, humidity, precipitation, etc. over a long period. Weather is what’s going on outside your window right now, (34 and sunny here in the DC area), or over a short period of time (i.e. the ten-day forecast). And while climate change experts predictions include more extreme weather events, it’s not possible to point to any one event, and say THAT is the result of global warming. We can say that flooding, hurricanes, or drought in specific regions are consistent with what scientists predict, and we can expect to see a lot more of them.

With that critique, let’s look at the list of extreme weather and catastrophic events that these experts voted into the Top Ten for 2010. It’s a doozy and consistent with what we’re in for with accelerating climate change. Not all the news is bad – I find it hard to mourn a lower-than-usual hurricane season in the NE Pacific (#7), given the damage those storms can cause. And not all of it was confined to 2010: a severe drought in Brazil (#6), which has impacted the Amazon, is ongoing.

  1. Russian – European – Asian Heat Waves, Summer 2010. A severe summer spawned drought, wildfires and crop failures across western Russia, where more than 15,000 people died. All-time high temperatures occurred in many cities and nations in the region. China faced locust swarms during July.
  2. 2010 as warmest year on record. The globally-averaged temperature for 2010 tied with 2005 as the warmest on record. Three months in 2010 were the warmest on record for that month.
  3. Pakistani Flooding, Late July to August. An unusual westward shift of monsoon rainfall dumped more than a foot of rain across a large area of the Upper Indus Valley. Subsequent flooding of the Indus River killed 1,600 people and displaced millions. (The civil government’s late and inadequate response created openings for the military and Islamic militants to increase their influence in the already unstable country).
  4. El Niño to La Niña Transition, Mid-to-Late Spring. The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the most prominent and far-reaching patterns of climate variability, saw a huge swing in mid-2010. Only 1973, 1983 and 1998 have seen larger within-year swings. (More on ENSO and climate change in a future blog post).
  5. Negative Arctic Oscillation (AO), December–February. The AO Index (another future blog post), which is strongly correlated with wintertime cold air outbreaks, was more negative in February 2010 than it had been since records began in 1950. Major cold air outbreaks resulted throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
  6. Brazilian Drought, ongoing. A severe drought parching northern Brazil shrunk the Rio Negro, one of the Amazon River’s most important tributaries, to its lowest level since records began in 1902 at its confluence with the Amazon. The Amazon’s depth there fell more than 12 feet below average. The drought, which is linked to the El Niño, has left 60,000 people hungry as fish die and transportation routes dry up. Millions of dead fish have clogged waterways, making freshwater scarce.
  7. Surprisingly inactive NE Pacific hurricane season. The 2010 NE Pacific Hurricane Season was one of the least active on record, produced the fewest named storms and hurricanes of the modern era, and had the earliest end date (Sep 23) on record.
  8. (Tied for 7th place) Historic N. Hemispheric Snow Retreat, January – June. The melt season for all that 2009-2010 snow was ferocious, contributing to spring floods in the Northern U.S. and Canada. Following the early and pronounced snow melt, the North American, Eurasian and Hemispheric snow cover was the smallest on record for May and June 2010.
  9. Minimum Sea Ice Extent, mid-September. 2010’s sea ice minimum of 4.9 million sq km was the third smallest on record. The last four years (2007-2010) are the four smallest on record. The Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route were simultaneously ice-free in September, a first in modern history.
  10. China Drought, first half of 2010. A persistent drought centered in the Yunan Province was touted as perhaps the worst in this region in more than 100 years. Major crop losses and lack of drinking water created severe problems for local residents.
A firefighter attempts to extinguish a forest fire near the village of Dolginino, some 180 km (111 mi) southeast of Moscow. August 2010 (AP Photo/File)

These are only the ones that made the top ten list. There are fourteen other “honorable mentions” (a dubious honor, for sure), including episodes of coral bleaching, flooding in China, a record dry monsoon in Bangladesh, hurricanes, and cyclones. This ranking was done during the first week of December, so the Australian flooding that started on December 25, was not included in the voting. There’s little doubt that event would have made the list.

Here’s a map showing all the 2010 Global Significant Weather and Climate Events: cyclones, flooding, heat waves. Oh my.

So, if you are faced with a fool climate change denier who claims that our current cold snap proves that climate change is a hoax, you can punch them in the mouth show them this list. And have them tell that to the thousands of families displaced and/or grieving in Pakistan, Russia and Australia, because of these events, and many more that may have been made much worse by human-caused global warming.


NOAA National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate: Global Analysis for December 2010, published online January 2011, retrieved on January 13, 2011 from

Thanks to @thahall for pointing me towards this report. I get some of my best blog ideas from Twitter!

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