A report sponsored by a Dallas-based nonprofit with ties to the business community and produced by Texas’ state climatologist aims to equip the state’s leadership to act now for climate change expected by 2036.
By Bill Dawson
Texas Climate News
Despite scientists’ repeated warnings that Texas is highly vulnerable to damage from climate change, political leaders at the state level haven’t been at all keen on comprehensively learning about the various threats.
In the Legislature’s 2019 session alone, a slew of readiness proposals went nowhere. Various bills that failed would have launched a Texas Global Climate Change Commission, a Texas Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Commission, a Texas Climate Impact Assessment Council, studies at Texas State University and Texas A&M University, climate sections of state agencies’ strategic plans and a state Climate Action Plan.
Now, however, the Texas state climatologist’s office, commissioned by Texas 2036, a Dallas-based nonprofit with strong ties to the business community, has prepared a report that will help fill the information gap left by that legislative inaction.
Looking ahead to 2036, the year when Texas will be 200 years old, the report projects that the harmful impacts of a changing climate in the state will include substantial increases in extreme heat and extreme rainfall.
The report was released earlier this month as news about the growing coronavirus pandemic was beginning to dominate attention and concern. That domination has only increased since then, of course. Even so, the state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon, told Texas Climate News he expects his new report, “Assessment of Historic and Future Trends of Extreme Weather in Texas, 1900-2036,” will be a useful resource for addressing climate change when the global public-health crisis has abated.
“At the moment,” he said by email, “everybody’s attention is rightly focused on Covid-19 and what’s going to happen in the next days and weeks. Sooner or later we’ll get that under control, and we’ll be able to think long-term again. Our projections will help people remember that some things will not be getting back to ‘normal.'”
The report, authored by Nielsen-Gammon and four of his students in A&M’s College of Geosciences, is the first state-specific assessment of the impact of climate change on Texas since a 2011 book that was also privately sponsored. Various experts, including Nielsen-Gammon, authored that earlier volume’s different chapters.
The new report focuses on historical and future trends of climate-driven weather extremes and addresses trends in related natural hazards, such as droughts. Although it doesn’t discuss all impacts of such extremes like other scientists’ widely projected threats to public health, it can clearly help planners and other citizens prepare for them.
Increasing temperatures are expected to increase health risks in various ways, for example. The report from A&M projects rises in both average Texas temperatures and the number of days with high temperatures above 100 degrees.
…Average Texas temperatures in 2036 should be expected to be about 1.6 degrees F warmer than the 2000-2018 average and 3.0 degrees F warmer than the 1950-1999 average. This would make a typical year around 2036 warmer than all but the absolute warmest year experienced in Texas during 1895-2018.
In terms of 100-degree-plus days, “a good benchmark for extreme heat” in Texas, the report adds:
The number of 100-degree days at typical stations is expected to nearly double by 2036 compared to 2000- 2018, with a typical year having 25 triple-digit days at urban and rural stations and 20 triple-digit days at semi-urban stations. Triple-digit counts will tend to be larger toward the south and away from the coast, and smaller elsewhere.
Several areas of Texas have suffered from intense flooding in recent years, and the report projects more inundations by 2036 in urban areas, where an increasing majority of Texans live:
Based on projected temperatures and the dominance of the direct temperature effect on extreme rainfall, we anticipate an additional increase of 2 percent to 3 percent in expected extreme rainfall intensity in 2036 compared to 2000-2018 and an overall increase of 6 percent to 10 percent compared to 1950- 1999. These changes in amount correspond to increases in the odds of extreme precipitation of 10 percent to 15 percent and 30 percent to 50 percent, respectively.
Assuming that the flooding trends in small, rapidly-responding urban basins are driven climatologically by rainfall intensity, the change in frequency of extreme rainfall would translate directly to a change in the expected frequency of urban flooding: 30 percent to 50 percent more in 2036 relative to climatological expectations for 1950-1999 and 10 percent to 15 percent more relative to 2000-2018.
Severe drought and hurricane-driven storm surge have also been devastating parts of Texans’ recent history. The report projects that they, also, will may worsen by 2036 as the climate changes.
Because of all the factors at play, it is impossible to make quantitative statewide projections of drought trends. The majority of factors point toward increased drought severity. Nonetheless, it seems highly likely that any such underlying trend will be dwarfed by the impact of multidecadal variability, which historical records show is large for Texas. Also, as indicated by paleoclimate records, worse droughts have occurred in Texas than the climate data record alone would indicate.
And storm surge:
The places along the coast with the largest rates of relative sea level rise may have a doubled storm surge risk by 2050 relative to the risk at the beginning of the 20th century, purely due to the relative sea level rise itself.
An additional element of enhanced risk is provided by an expected increase in the intensity of very strong hurricanes, despite an expected lack of increase, or even a decrease, in hurricane frequency overall.
The report authors expect growing susceptibility to wildfires:
Overall, increased dryness should extend the wildfire season in places where the fire season is presently constrained by low levels of aridity, such as eastern Texas.
[Multiple studies suggest] that over the next 20 years, wildfire risk may increase more slowly in the Panhandle and Far West Texas than elsewhere as increased aridity reduces biomass. Meanwhile, the area of the state commonly affected by wildfires may expand eastward as fuels become drier faster in a warmer climate.
Texas 2036, the nonprofit that commissioned Nielsen-Gammon and his team at A&M to produce the report, was founded by Dallas attorney and civic leader Tom Luce with a declared mission of “enabl(ing) Texans to make policy decisions through accessible data, long-term planning and statewide engagement.”
The report’s economic ramifications were addressed in an op-ed column in the Houston Chronicle by Nielsen-Gammon, who is the regents professor of atmospheric sciences at A&M, and Texas 2036 President and CEO Margaret Spellings, who served as secretary of education for President George W. Bush. They said the state needs to take action both to prepare for a changing climate and to help reduce the greenhouse pollution causing climate change.
Our growing state needs to leverage this data – and our innovation, talent and leadership – to strategically plan for what a changing climate will mean for our water supply, infrastructure and economy. Given the long-term horizon of 2036, our strong economy can help position us for the future as we rethink everything from growing crops to creating resilient infrastructure to pre-empting new government budget problems.
At the same time, we can harness the state’s vast leadership and expertise to slow or even reverse these trends. Yes, Texas leads the nation in carbon emissions – largely because we have played such a vital role in supplying energy to the nation and the world. But we are also the world’s epicenter of energy innovation.
John Nielsen-Gammon is a member of TCN’s volunteer Advisory Board, serving solely in his capacity as regents professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M. All of our editorial decisions are made exclusively by TCN’s journalists.
Bill Dawson is the founding editor of Texas Climate News.