What Climate Change Means for Texas in 11 Charts

W.A. Parish coal plant
W.A. Parish coal plant Flickr/Roy Luck

The new federal climate assessment, which came out Tuesday, tells us what we (should) already know. But does it in great and alarming detail, linking what’s already occurred to what else is in store. In short: Climate change is here. We’re already feeling the effects. And things will get much worse without a concerted effort to reduce emissions globally.

For Texas, which is lumped in with the Great Plains region, the National Climate Assessment finds that the state is getting hotter, exacerbating droughts. Precipitation patterns are changing, with more infrequent but heavier downpours. And sea-level rise is putting low-lying coastal communities like Galveston and Houston at increased risk of storms and loss of habitat.

The report, of course, was greeted by Texas politicians and regulators with the usual fact-free distortions and obfuscation we’ve come to expect. (More on that later.)

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It’s a compelling report and the website presenting the findings is well worth your time. Here are a few visuals that tell the story.

First, a little scene-setting… The increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, is driving the increase in global temperature averages.

Global temperatures and carbon dioxide, 1880-2012
Global temperatures and carbon dioxide, 1880-2012

Average temperatures have risen across the U.S. since the late 19th century, with most of the increase occurring since 1970. The hottest year on record for the contiguous United States, including Texas, was 2012.

Climate CS_Net_Change_in_Ann_Temp_12910_v11
The colors on the map show temperature changes over the past 22 years (1991-2012) compared to the 1901-1960 average for the contiguous U.S., and to the 1951-1980 average for Alaska and Hawaii. The bars on the graph show the average temperature changes by decade for 1901-2012 (relative to the 1901-1960 average). The far right bar (2000s decade) includes 2011 and 2012. The period from 2001 to 2012 was warmer than any previous decade in every region. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

The assessment uses the record hot and dry summer of 2011 in Texas and Oklahoma as an example of how “extreme climate events resulted in cascading effects across energy, water, and land systems.” In Texas, the summer of 2011 was 5.2 F hotter than normal, with more than 90 days of 100-plus days in parts of the state. 

climate WEL_days_above_100_13605_V4 climate WEL_texas_scatter_plot_V3

We can expect more brutally hot days—a quadrupling of days in the southern part of the Great Plains by mid-century—and higher temperatures across the board in the future, especially under higher-emissions scenarios. (Throughout the report, the authors relied on two different projections: The “lower emissions” scenario assumed a “substantial reduction” in greenhouse gas emissions and a temperature increase by the end of the century of 3 to 5 F; the higher emissions scenario assumed continued increases in emissions, leading to a 5 to 10 F increase by 2100.)

climate CS_projected_temperature_change_sres_V7
Figure 2.8: Maps show projected change in average surface air temperature in the later part of this century (2071-2099) relative to the later part of the last century (1970-1999) under a scenario that assumes substantial reductions in heat trapping gases (B1) and a higher emissions scenario that assumes continued increases in global emissions (A2). (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

The number of warm nights will also rise, increasing water losses in lakes and streams, heat stress and demand for air conditioning.

climate GP_warm_nights_projected_V4
The number of nights with the warmest temperatures is projected to increase dramatically. The historical (1971-2000) distribution of temperature for the warmest 2% of nights (Top: about seven days each year) echoes the distinct north-south gradient in average temperatures. By mid-century (2041-2070), the projected change in number of nights exceeding those warmest temperatures is greatest in the south for both the lower emissions scenario (B1) and for the higher emissions scenario (A2). (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

Rainfall patterns are changing too.

climate CS_Net_Change_in_annual_Precip_12909_v9
The colors on the map show annual total precipitation changes for 1991-2012 compared to the 1901-1960 average, and show wetter conditions in most areas. The bars on the graph show average precipitation differences by decade for 1901-2012 (relative to the 1901-1960 average). The far right bar is for 2001-2012. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

Texas has always been drought-plagued, but increasing heat and projected changes in rainfall patterns likely means longer dry spells.

Figure: Change in Maximum Number of Consecutive Dry Days Caption: Change in the number of consecutive dry days (days receiving less than 0.04 inches (1 mm) of precipitation) at the end of this century (2081-2100) relative to the end of last century (1980-1999) under the higher scenario, RCP 8.5. Stippling indicates areas where changes are consistent among at least 80% of the 25 models used in this analysis. (Supplemental Message 5 and Ch. 2: Our Changing Climate, Key Message 3). (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).
Figure: Change in Maximum Number of Consecutive Dry Days Caption: Change in the number of consecutive dry days (days receiving less than 0.04 inches (1 mm) of precipitation) at the end of this century (2081-2100) relative to the end of last century (1980-1999) under the higher scenario, RCP 8.5. Stippling indicates areas where changes are consistent among at least 80% of the 25 models used in this analysis. (Supplemental Message 5 and Ch. 2: Our Changing Climate, Key Message 3). (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

We can also expect seasonal changes in precipitation. Spring, in particular, may be significantly drier across Texas.

climate CS_seasonal_precip_projections_A2_V5
Climate change affects more than just temperature. The location, timing, and amounts of precipitation will also change as temperatures rise. Maps show projected percent change in precipitation in each season for 2071-2099 (compared to the period 1970-1999) under an emissions scenario that assumes continued increases in emissions (A2). Teal indicates precipitation increases, and brown, decreases. Hatched areas indicate that the projected changes are significant and consistent among models. White areas indicate that the changes are not projected to be larger than could be expected from natural variability. In general, the northern part of the U.S. is projected to see more winter and spring precipitation, while the southwestern U.S. is projected to experience less precipitation in the spring. Wet regions are generally projected to become wetter while dry regions become drier. Summer drying is projected for parts of the U.S., including the Northwest and southern Great Plains. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

Soil moistures are decreasing, a major hurdle for farmers trying to coax crops from the soil. Parched land will be a growing problem, in particular, in areas like the Panhandle, where farmers are transitioning from the depleting Ogallala Aquifer to dry-land crops.

“Climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the past 40 years and are projected to increase over the next 25 years,” the assessment states.

climate CS_soil_moisture_v9
Average change in soil moisture compared to 1971-2000, as projected for the middle of this century (2041-2070) and late this century (2071-2100) under two emissions scenarios, a lower scenario (B1) and a higher scenario (A2). The future drying of soils in most areas simulated by this sophisticated hydrologic model (Variable Infiltration Capacity or VIC model) is consistent with the future drought increases using the simpler Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) metric. Only the western U.S. is displayed because model simulations were only run for this area. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

Finally, sea levels have been rising inexorably, with an acceleration since the 1970s. Because of all the heat that’s already in the system, oceans will continue to rise for millennia. But by how much and how quickly is dependent on how much more carbon is pumped into the atmosphere. The assessment projects that oceans are likely to rise 1-4 feet by the end of the century, but the report does not rule out an increase of six feet. Much of the Texas coast—including barrier islands like Padre and Galveston, that protect the mainland from tropical storms—is only a few feet above sea level. And sea-level rise will not be uniform. In some areas, like around Galveston-Houston, the ground is sinking as well.

climate CS_SLR_scenarios_v8


And what is the response from Texas’ top officials to this sobering report?

Gov. Rick Perry: He’s refused to say anything. “Gov. Rick Perry’s office did not respond to a request on Tuesday to describe his policy for preparing the state for climate change and reducing its impact.”

Notably, Perry once wrote that the planet is actually cooling.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn: He didn’t address the report directly, but also avoided putting himself squarely in the denial camp.

“I am not one that denies that human beings have an impact on the environment. But I am sure not willing to put the federal government in charge of trying to micromanage the environment for the United States of America, nor for us to drive up the price of energy for people on fixed income, like seniors and people of modest means, by putting restrictions in place that other nations are not.”

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith: He’s the chair of the House Science Committee, so what do you think his take was?

“This is a political document intended to frighten Americans into believing that any abnormal weather we experience is the direct result of human CO2 emissions.”

And, finally, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality:

The environmental agency seems mightily concerned about the coal industry.

“There has been no significant global warming in more than 15 years, although carbon dioxide levels continue to rise. It is clear that the science of global warming is far from settled.  Regulatory policy cannot be set without firm guidelines and the proven cause and effect that would dictate policy. The NCA global warming policy will result in greatly reduced use of coal for energy generation. This will impact the reliability of the electrical grid, and will also increase energy costs.  It will particularly impact energy prices for those who can least afford it, such as the elderly and the poor.  This is the true environmental impact of the war on coal.”

Just for the record, here are the top 10 warmest years on record globally, according to NOAA (not in rank order):

2013 (tie)
2012 (tie)
2009 (tie)
2007 (tie)
2004 (tie)
2003 (tie)

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is the editor of the Observer.

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Published at 3:15 pm CST