2010: A Year of Extreme Weather

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Earth's atmosphere showed a mean streak in 2010, and there may be more to come.

Along the East Coast of the United States, buried under the avalanche of this week's blizzard (above) in New York City, are the memories of "Snowmageddon" — the big Nor'easter that in the first week of last February dumped record snowfalls on major cities in the Mid-Atlantic region, from Wilmington to Washington.

SEE ALSO: Snowmageddon Brings Icicles of Doom

In Spring, great downpours of rain brought floods across the Southeast, including Oklahoma and Arkansas, but especially Tennessee, where 33 people died and damages were estimated at nearly $2 billion in Nashville alone.

And then came summer, with heat-waves across much of the Northern Hemisphere. Nineteen nations recorded new record high temperatures — including a reading of 128.3 degrees F in Pakistan, the hottest ever in Asia, reported meteorologist Jeff Masters at Weather Underground. Russia suffered through its hottest year in 1,000 years of history. In Moscow, at least 10,000 people died from the heat. The wheat crop was heavily damaged and wildfires spread across the country.

SEE ALSO: Smog from Fires Chokes Moscow

In the United States, intense heat spread from Maine to Pennsylvania in July and across the Southeast in August. In the Southwest, continuing drought shrank Lake Mead, the enormous impoundment behind Hoover Dam that waters much of the region, to a fraction of its former self.

In Pakistan, the worst was still to come. Monsoonal rains brought floods of staggering proportion, destroying bridges and roads and dams, and leaving thousands dead and millions homeless.

The year's wild, dangerous weather is leading many climate scientists to see a pattern. They are beginning to wonder whether the climate system is showing signs of instability brought about by its changing chemical composition, by the added heat and water vapor, and by changing circulation patterns prompted by the loss of Arctic sea ice.

SEE ALSO: Inside the Cold Winter 'Paradox'

A pattern of more frequent weather extremes is a feature that is common to most global model simulations of the future in our changing climate. If they are right, of course, 2010 could mark the early stages of a longer trend of more frequent dangerous weather.

As the New Year approached, thousands of residents in Queensland, northeastern Australia, found themselves stranded by floodwaters from Tropical Cyclone Tasha. Speaking to reporters, Queensland premier Anna Bligh called it "a disaster on an unprecedented scale," which seemed to be a pretty good epithet for the year as a whole – whatever its cause.

PHOTO: Satellite image of the blizzard over the northeastern US on Dec. 27, 2010, CREDIT: NASA/GISS