Equilibrium & Sustainability

Five reasons extreme weather is bigger in Texas

A formation drops from passing rain clouds over part of Fort Worth, Texas.
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
A formation drops from passing rain clouds over part of Fort Worth, Texas.

The American West is experiencing its driest period in human history, a megadrought that threatens health, agriculture and entire ways of life. DRIED UP is examining the dire effects of the drought on the states most affected — as well as the solutions Americans are embracing.

The threat that extremes of drought and flood pose to Texas’s long-term water supply are just one aspect of the danger that intense weather — strengthened by the warming climate — poses to the Lone Star State and its people. 

“We are already the most vulnerable state in the country to these extreme weather disasters,” climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe told The Hill. “And then we have climate change loading the dice against us.”

Here are five reasons why climate change is making Texas a more dangerous and unpredictable place.

Texas gets all the weather

Climate change takes normal phenomena and turns them freakish. That’s bad news for Texas, which has a wide range of possibilities for destruction even before rising heat enters the picture.

The chances of being struck by an severe weather disaster — such as the $125 billion onslaught of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 — are like the odds of rolling two sixes on a pair of dice, said Hayhoe, a chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy who helped Austin put together its 100-year water plan. Texas, she said, already has extra sixes on its dice.

And climate change is turning some of them into sevens, she added.

“If you live in Kansas, you don’t really have to worry about hurricanes or wildfires, and if you live in Oregon, you have to worry about wildfires and drought, not to worry about hurricanes,” Hayhoe said. “If you live in Texas, you have to worry about everything.”

Climate change is disrupting natural cycles 

One challenge in talking about climate change in Texas is that the state’s weather has always been defined by strange, difficult-to-forecast extremes. 

The state’s climate helps explain why “all the major lakes in Texas are created by people,” said Tom Gooch, vice president at a Fort Worth-based infrastructure engineering firm.

In the state’s boom-and-bust water cycle, “it’s very difficult to get a reliable surface water supply to almost everyone if you don’t store the water,” Gooch said.

To the extent that there is an overall pattern, it’s the annual migration inland of a mass of hot, dense air during Texas’s stifling summer.

The hot air mass hunches atop the state, “deflecting storms away from the region,” Hayhoe said.

As the world warms, Hayhoe’s research has shown that a ridge of high-pressure hot air — which usually rolls back east over the Gulf of Mexico as the weather cools — will stay in place for longer, exacerbating and lengthening droughts.

Then when it finally does break up — and storms bring long-delayed precipitation — rains will be bigger and more intense as the hot air sucks up, holds and ultimately releases more water than it might have during storms in the 20th century.

The extremes are growing

By some metrics, such as average rainfall, the situation for Texas throughout the century to come doesn’t look that bad. 

“Climate models, on average, have a slight decrease going forward, but there’s not a strong consensus on that,” state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon told The Hill.

“So if we took a simple-minded approach of saying, ‘drier means less rain,’ it’s not at all clear that we’ll have less rain. It’s not even clear that climate change is bringing rainfall levels down to what they were 100 years ago.”

But those averages may conceal the way that dangerous extremes are being stretched in both directions, Hayhoe said. 

“If you looked at that precipitation over the whole year, you’d be like, ‘Oh, well, there’s not really much change.’ But there is a world of difference between a summer where you get the rain evenly distributed — versus one in which it’s “drought, drought, drought, drought, drought, floods.”

“If you live in Texas, you have to worry about everything.”

Climate researcher Katharine Hayhoe

Scientists have gotten better at determining how much the human burning of fossil fuels over the past century has strengthened disasters such as hurricanes and heat waves — with one recent study finding that climate change increased the amount of rain released by Hurricane Harvey by about 37 percent.

“Climate change is a threat multiplier,” Hayhoe said. “In most cases, it’s not creating something new that you’ve never seen before. It’s taking something that you already are at risk from and making it worse.”

GOP officials remain reluctant to face climate change

Even as near-record drought and record flooding have pounded the state, Republican state-level politicians have near categorically refused to talk about the threat from climate change — let alone the role the state’s fossil fuel industry plays in worsening it.

When a reporter asked Gov. Greg Abbott (R) about the role of climate change in the recent Dallas-Fort Worth floods, Abbott pointedly refused to use those words. 

“We’re constantly looking at what extreme weather may lead to, whether it be power, demand, extreme heat, extreme cold, heavy water or even drought,” he said.

In Texas, “you might hear that we’re having extreme weather events with increasing frequency. But people still don’t like to say ‘climate change,’” state Sen. Nathan Johnson (D) of Dallas told The Hill. 

“Just extreme weather events with increasing frequency — which seems to me to be a change in the climate,” Johnson added.

The state’s antipathy toward climate talk is such that just two days after the Dallas-Fort Worth floods, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced the state was banning state and local governments from doing business with ten major banks — including BlackRock and Goldman Sachs — that he accused of using climate change as an excuse to boycott the state fossil fuel industry.

Infrastructure — and society — isn’t built for the new normal

That fact that weather is becoming more dire “in both directions is bad news, because we’re just like Goldilocks,” Hayhoe said. “We don’t want it too wet or too dry; we want it just right.”

Most aspects of modern society — from building codes to flood insurance requirements to where crops are grown — are built on the implicit and mostly unquestioned assumption of “a stable, stationary climate,” she said.

Those assumptions helped determine, for example, who in Houston needed to get flood insurance — those in properties with a 1-in-100 chance of flooding under National Flood Insurance Program requirements. 

But plenty of Houstonians who weren’t even in the 1-in-1000-year flood zone saw their houses flooded, generating losses that they weren’t insured for, Hayhoe said.

“These definitions are no longer relevant to our lives today,” she said.

Previously in this series:

Texas cattle industry faces existential crisis from historic drought

Lakes Mead and Powell are at the epicenter of the biggest Western drought in history

Seven stats that explain the West’s epic drought

Why Great Plains agriculture is particularly vulnerable to drought

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