Hurricane Ike

Satellite images of an area northeast of Galveston illustrate the Texas coast's vulnerability to storms and sea-level rise. The image on the left shows the area in August 2008. The image on the right, captured in September 2008 after Hurricane Ike came ashore, shows inundation by Ike's storm surge in blue-green. The 23-foot surge saturated soil with saltwater more than nine miles inland.

Texas can hardly be called a leader in terms of state-level policies and programs aimed at getting ready for manmade climate change – “adaptation,” as it’s commonly known.

The state’s continuing legal effort to block federal restrictions on climate-changing pollution – litigation based on a claim that the science behind concerns about human-caused climate change is dubious – wouldn’t jibe with a dedicated program to adapt to a phenomenon that top state officials are highly skeptical about.

Consider just a few ways that Texas differs from California when it comes to climate-change efforts, particularly adaptation:

For three biennial legislative sessions in a row, Texas lawmakers have declined to pass Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis’ proposal to direct certain state agencies to adopt “climate adaptation plans” to deal with changes that scientists are projecting. The terms “climate” and  “climate change” don’t appear on the alphabetical index of hundreds of subjects on the website of the state’s principal environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

California’s state government, on the other hand, maintains an entire website that details its laws and policies for dealing with climate change, including a landmark 2006 law to cap the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions. An “adaptation” page on the site leads to other pages for the “California State Adaptation Strategy,” an “Adaptation Planning Guide” for local and regional officials and others, and a web-based planning tool called “Cal-Adapt.”

California officials’ rationale for their approach received an implicit boost last week when the National Research Council issued a new report by a panel of experts from a number of universities.

The report said there is “growing concern over the increased potential for abrupt climate changes in the near future” – “abrupt” meaning occurring over a few years or decades – that could “happen faster than human or natural systems could respond.” It advocated developing an “early warning system” with vigilant scientific monitoring in order to anticipate “tipping points” in natural and human systems.

“Right now we don’t know what many of these thresholds are,” said the chair of the committee that wrote the report, James W. C. White, a geological sciences professor at the University of Colorado. “But with better information, we will be able to anticipate some major changes before they occur and help reduce the potential consequences.”

Rong Fu, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Texas and the one Texas-based scientist on the National Research Council panel, told Texas Climate News that the report is especially relevant for Texas.

“Texas is one of the more vulnerable states in the U.S, to both abrupt climate changes and to the abrupt impact of gradual climate changes,” Fu said.

“For example, mega-droughts can trigger abrupt change of regional ecosystems and the water cycle, drastically increase extreme summer temperature and fire risk, and reduce availability of the water resources, as we witnessed during 2011-2012,” she added.

“Texas has thousands of miles of coastline that are highly vulnerable to the combined impact of sea-level rise and the potential increase of storm intensity,” she said.

“Paleoclimate records also show that the climate over Texas had large swings between periods of frequent mega-droughts and periods of mild droughts that we are currently in. We do not know clearly what caused them, but we can anticipate that such change could occur again and it might already be occurring.”

Citing the “critical issue” of “billions of dollars in natural and manmade infrastructure at risk” from sea-level rise in the Houston region, the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi in July announced a project to map, forecast and evaluate the impacts of sea-level rise on the upper Texas coast.

The institute did not use the term “early warning system,” but its announcement of the project indicated it could serve a complementary, perhaps similar, function:

The HRI assessment will involve projecting the geographic changes that sea-level rise is expected to cause, the economic impact on the natural and built environments, and an analysis of current policies and opportunities for coastal zone management with respect to sea-level rise. Results will be disseminated through a data and information-rich website that will enable policy makers, managers, and the general public to evaluate the impacts or risks of private and public land use decisions with greater precision and accuracy.

Summarizing the purpose and context of its report, the National Research Council committee stated:

A growing body of research is helping scientists gain a better understanding of abrupt climate change. There is a new recognition that, in addition to abrupt changes in the climate system itself, steady climate change can cross thresholds that trigger abrupt changes in other physical, natural, and human systems. For example, human infrastructure typically has been built to accommodate current climate variability, but gradual climate changes can cause abrupt changes in its utility—such as when rising sea levels suddenly surpass sea walls, or when thawing permafrost causes the sudden collapse of pipelines, buildings, or roads.

Some abrupt impacts that are already unfolding include the disappearance of the late-summer Arctic sea ice and increased extinction rates of both ocean- and land-dwelling species, the committee said, adding that the probability of others occurring over the next 100 years, such as the destabilization of the west Antarctic ice sheet, is poorly understood and requires more research.

Researchers, meanwhile, have concluded that other potential abrupt impacts that have received scientific attention are unlikely to happen in the coming century, the panel said. Those impacts include Atlantic circulation patterns shutting down and permafrost or undersea ice rapidly releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Regarding its recommendation of an early warning system for abrupt climate-change impacts, the committee said:

Some surprises in the climate system may be inevitable, but with improved scientific monitoring and a better understanding of the climate system it could be possible to anticipate abrupt change before it occurs and reduce the potential consequences. Building this ability will require careful monitoring of climate conditions, improved models for projecting changes, and the interpretation and synthesis of scientific data using novel analysis techniques. […]

Such a system would be part of an overall risk management strategy, providing information for hazard identification and risk assessment. These data would help identify vulnerabilities to assist in tailoring risk mitigation and preparedness efforts and to ensure warnings result in appropriate protective actions, with the ultimate goal of preempting catastrophes.

– Bill Dawson

Image credit: NASA