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A Look Back at the March 2012 Heat Wave

Updated: Apr 22, 2023

March of 2012 was truly amazing. This month provided one of the most memorable heat waves in the county's history. This heat wave brought summer-like weather to much of the country in March. What's even more impressive is that parts of this heat actually came while it was still astronomical winter. This is the March 2012 heat wave.

In the middle of March 2012, a positive phase of arctic oscillation kept arctic air trapped well to the north of the United States. At the same time, warm, subtropical air surged northward. On top of this, other factors came together to produce a 'perfect alignment' of weather events to create this extreme event.

Ground zero for the extreme temperatures was in the midwest, but very high temperatures were felt across much of the east coast. Thousands of warm weather records were broken in many different ways. Here are a few examples of the most interesting:

Graphic from EarthSky

Chicago saw 80 plus degree days every day between March 14th and 18th. This broke daily record highs each day. Chicago would see a total of eight days with temperatures jumping over 80. For context, Chicago sees an average of one 80 degree April. Since official records have been kept, only once has April produced as many 80 degree days for Chicago that March 2012 did.

Wausau, Wisconsin saw a morning low temperature of 60 degrees on March 21st. That beat the previous daily record HIGH for the day. That same day, Madison, Wisconsin hit 84 degrees in the afternoon, which was an incredible 43 degrees above average.

International Falls, Minnesota would see a 93 degree temperature swing in a little over a week. On March 9th, the temperature was a brisk -14. On March 18th, the temperature would shoot to 79 degrees. Pretty warm for being the ice box of the nation.


Pelston, Michigan set a new monthly record high of 85 degrees. This shattered the previous record high by 32 degrees. Detroit set a new monthly record high on March 22nd, 2012 with a temperature of 86 degrees. That beat the old monthly high of 84 degrees...set on March 21st, 2012. In Michigan, the temperatures rose above average highs for July at times.

The warmth was not confined to the United States. Southern Canada also got in on the act. Winnipeg averaged 21 degrees above average for the month, despite the fact that there were multiple days around zero early in the month before the heat began.

In the end, an incredible 20,000 warm weather records were broken throughout the month. While many basked in the early season heat, it did lead to inevitable problems. There was an increase in severe weather. A tornado touch down on March 12th in Midland county, Michigan. This was the first tornado ever to touch down north of interstate 96 before March 20th.


Trees began to bud and flowers began to bloom. An inevitable cool down caused major damage to these plants and crops, especially northern fruit trees. The extreme heat that began in March played a major role in the onset of the record breaking 2012-2013 North American drought.

While the heat would abate, it roared back in June. Summer 2012 saw 82 heat related deaths in the US and Canada. Denver saw a record tying high of 105 degrees on June 25th. Also on June 25th, two separate recordings saw temperatures hit 113 in Kansas.

Some records set in March 2012 were long believed to be unbreakable. Those records were not only broken, but shattered. Are the records now in place that were set in March 2012 breakable? Many would say 'no', but history may say otherwise.



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