Climate change is making Texas hotter, threatening public health, water supply and the state’s infrastructure
"Climate change is making Texas hotter, threatening public health, water supply and the state’s infrastructure" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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Climate change has made the Texas heat worse, with less relief as nighttime temperatures warm, a report from the state’s climatologist published Thursday found.
Climate data also show that the state is experiencing extreme rainfall — especially in eastern Texas — bigger storm surges as seas rise along the Gulf Coast and more flooding from hurricanes strengthened by a warming ocean, the report says.
Those trends are expected to accelerate in the next 15 years, according to the report, which analyzes extreme weather risks for the state and was last updated in 2019. The report was funded in part by Texas 2036, a nonpartisan economic policy nonprofit group named for the state’s upcoming bicentennial.
The average annual temperature in Texas is expected to be 3 degrees warmer by 2036 than the average of the 1950s, the report found. The number of 100-degree days is expected to nearly double compared with 2000-2018, especially in urban areas.
“From here on out, it's going to be very unusual that we ever have a year as mild as a typical year during the 20th century,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist who authored the report. “Just about all of them are going to be warmer.”
A hotter Texas will threaten public health, squeeze the state’s water supply, strain the electric grid and push more species toward extinction, experts told The Texas Tribune.
Nielsen-Gammon said that weather data showed minimum temperatures across the state have rapidly risen in recent years. The entire baseline of temperatures in the state has shifted upward — a trend that is likely to continue to cause problems for the state’s aging infrastructure, experts said.
“I was surprised at how strong the upward trend was in the coldest temperatures of the summer,” Nielsen-Gammon said. While global temperature analysis had already shown that trend, he said, it is now very clearly happening on the local level in Texas.
Even this year, which was considered a mild year because Texas didn’t see temperatures above 100 degrees in much of the state, Nielsen-Gammon said nighttime temperatures stayed warm enough to put 2021 in the top 20% of years with the hottest summer nights on record.
Persistently higher temperatures cause a host of issues for public health. Heat stroke becomes more common, and the number of days and hours each year when it’s safe to work outdoors is reduced. In the last decade, 53 workers in Texas have died from a heat stroke, nearly double the number of workers that died in the decade prior, according to an NPR investigation.
Droughts are enhanced, which places even more pressure on the state’s rivers and lakes, already strained by a growing population. And pathogens can more easily grow and infiltrate public water systems.
“If you have situations where more parts of the state are pulling from lower reservoirs, rivers that are flowing less and warmer water temperatures, there’s a real concern about what pathogens end up in [the water] system,” said Gabriel Collins, a Baker Botts fellow in energy and environmental affairs at Rice University.
In Lake Jackson in 2020, a brain-eating amoeba was found in the water supply, which caused the death of a 6-year-old child. Warmer water temperatures caused by climate change could increase the prevalence of such water-borne amoebas, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The combination of higher heat and heavier precipitation in the eastern half of Texas also damages underground water pipes by causing the ground around them to expand and contract more, Collins said. It’s likely that Texans will continue to see more frequent interruptions in their water supply as the state warms, he said.
And the state’s power grid can be strained during extreme heat when Texans turn up the air conditioning to stay cool. At the same time, higher temperatures make it more difficult for power plants to run as efficiently as they do during normal conditions, decreasing the power supply — and increasing the risk of blackouts.
“We will see more risk of outages due to increased demand,” said Juliana Felkner, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Texas whose research focused on sustainable development and design. “Power plants need water to run, so if there is a lack of water, this makes them less efficient and they generate less electricity.”
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s grid operator, included extreme calculations for heat and drought in its assessment of potential power supply conditions this summer, seeking to “broaden the debate” on making the grid more resilient. After a February winter storm knocked out power to millions of Texans for days, Texas Public Utility commissioners, who oversee the grid, questioned whether the grid could withstand more extreme weather as they looked to improve the grid’s operations.
The environment, too, is damaged by persistently higher temperatures. Shaye Wolf, the climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said more species’ extinctions can be expected. Many species of lizards, for example, are going extinct in the U.S. and globally because when it gets too hot, they retreat to the shade and can’t hunt for food. Each species plays an important role in the local ecosystem, Wolf said, which is important for the safety of humans, not just plants and animals.
“When you destroy the web of life, it not only makes for a lonelier planet, but a more dangerous planet,” Wolf said.
Local extinctions, or the disappearance of a species to a specific area but not the globe, are already widespread due to climate change, a 2016 study by University of Arizona researchers found. Among almost 1,000 species surveyed, nearly half of them were locally extinct.
Texans can expect every aspect of public infrastructure to be damaged by the heat brought by climate change, said infrastructure expert Mikhail Chester, associate professor of engineering and the director of the Metis Center for Infrastructure and Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University. While each individual effect may seem small — a boil water notice here, a broken pipe there — the total effect is a massive public challenge, he said.
“Climate change is slightly shifting everything: It’s slightly breaking infrastructure, and it’s pushing us beyond what we design things for,” Chester said. “When you add all of that up, it’s monumental.”
Disclosure: Rice University, Texas 2036 and the University of Arizona have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Correction, Oct. 7, 2021: A previous version of the map in this story incorrectly labeled the temperature change in Texas counties between 1975 and 2020. It represents the average increase each decade, not the increase over the entire 45 year period.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/07/texas-climate-change-heat-water/.
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