At least the summer wasn’t too brutal. Other than a merely somewhat-above-average summer, 2017 proved to be another record-breaking year of weather extremes in Texas. We hardly had a winter, with the warmest February on record. That month, 42 weather stations in the state broke records, and temperatures in Houston didn’t drop to the 30s the entire month for the first time since 1950. In the first quarter of the year, wildfires scorched about 500,000 acres and killed five people in the Panhandle. In late March, communities in North Texas were pelted with softball-sized hail. While the summer had close to average temperatures, the coast was hit in August by Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that dumped 60 inches of rain over Houston.
As global temperatures rise, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense. According to an analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2017 was the second-warmest year on record for Texas — 2.8 degrees Fahrenheit above the historical average. The warmest year on record for Texas was 2012, with temperatures 3.2 degrees above average. Nationally, six of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred in this century.
El Niño and La Niña, the alternating oceanic weather cycle, combined with climate change are the dominant factors in determining global temperatures as well as Texas weather. In 2017, both La Niña and climate change worked hand-in-hand, according to John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist and a professor at Texas A&M University’s department of atmospheric sciences. La Niña typically brings warmer and drier conditions to Texas. Overlaying climate change on the effects of La Niña led to Texas experiencing its second-warmest year on record, he said.
Though the year started off warmer than usual in Texas, the summer wasn’t much warmer than average, partly because of the cooling effect of Harvey, according to Nielsen-Gammon. Despite Harvey, Texas didn’t break any annual statewide precipitation records last year — in part the effect of drier conditions brought by La Niña. On average, the state received 3.23 inches more rainfall than normal, ranking 35th in the historical record.
The rise in temperatures exacerbates extreme weather, and Texas experienced this firsthand with Harvey. The hurricane, which landed on the Texas coast as a Category 4 storm and stalled for several days over Houston, dumped about 60 inches of rainfall. While Nielsen-Gammon said that it is rare for storms to stall, the amount of rainfall produced by any given storm is increasing because of climate change.
“The combination of storms stalling and being right along the coast and being very intense is a bad combination,” he said. Only two other storms that stalled in the Atlantic — Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and Hurricane Flora in 1963 — were more intense than Harvey, he said.
Extreme weather events are costly. For one, more intense storms, longer droughts, wildfires and heavier rainfall can destroy property and wreak havoc on the agricultural industry. According to NOAA, there were 16 weather and climate disasters nationally, which cost more than $300 billion and resulted in the deaths of 362 people. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion and resulted in 89 deaths. Similarly, about 9,300 wildfires in Texas damaged more than 700,000 acres and destroyed 49 homes.
But last year’s temperature records and disastrous weather events don’t appear to have changed the president’s thoughts on climate change. In December, President Trump tweeted that the East Coast, which was facing a snowstorm, “could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming.” Trump has also renominated Texan Kathleen Hartnett White to lead the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. White, who previously worked at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation and chaired the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has said that climate change is the “dogmatic claim of ideologues and clerics” and “fossil fuels dissolved the economic justification for slavery.”