Bruce Melton : Welcome to Climate Change in Texas

Tree Kill in Central Texas, drought of 2011. Photo by Bruce Melton / The Rag Blog.

Drought and wildfires:
Welcome to climate change in Texas

By Bruce Melton / The Rag Blog / December 29, 2011

Environmental researcher and climate change activist Bruce Melton will be Thorne Dreyer‘s guest on Rag Radio, Friday, Dec. 30, from 2-3 p.m. (CST), on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin and streamed live on the web. (The show is rebroadcast on Sundays at 10 a.m. [Eastern] on WFTE, 90.3-FM in Mt. Cobb, PA, and 105.7-FM in Scranton, PA.) Also, listen to our Dec. 12, 2010, interview with Bruce Melton at the Internet Archive, and read more articles by Bruce Melton about global warming on The Rag Blog.

[This is the first in a three-part series.]

AUSTIN — If this is not climate change, then this is exactly what climate change will be in as little as a decade. What has been happening in Texas, with these unprecedented (in time frames that matter) droughts and wildfires, is exactly what the climate scientists have been warning us about for over 20 years. We have been building up to this point since about the turn of the century, and now ecosystems have tipped over the edge. Climate feedbacks have kicked in hard.

The Texas Forest Services tells us that a half billion trees have died. Many more will die in the next five to 10 years from disease and insect infestation allowed by the damage that has already been done. These are the trees that have died in the drought, not the fires.

The first of this series of drought in 2005/6 was just classified as extreme. The last two have been one category worse than extreme — the exceptional category. The last 12 months were drier than the worst 12 months of the great drought of the 1950s. This has been a $10 billion drought, with another $1 billion in damages from the fires.

Worse, it’s hotter now. This summer was 4.9 degrees warmer than average. This may not seem like a lot, but think how sick you have been in the past if you have ever had a 102.9 degree temperature. The reason that increased heat makes such a big difference is that extra heat greatly increases evaporation intensifying the effects of drought. In other words, the same drought is much worse if it is only a little hotter.

Trees started dying from the drought in 2005/6. The die-off became really bad in 2009 when broad swaths of the countryside west and east of Austin turned brown and failed to turn green again in the spring. Trees damaged from just one of these droughts can remain weak and susceptible to disease or dieback for a decade or more after the drought. The little root hairs on tree roots that soak up water take a long time to grow back.

West of Fredricksburg for 100 miles to the edge of the forest the desert has arrived. Fully half of the trees in that region are defoliated from drought (only a small amount is from oak wilt). The fate of many of these trees is sealed, but there is hope that rain will return fast enough to make a difference for some.

The total number of fires in Texas since November 2010 (through September 20, 2011) is 22,790, totaling 3,759,331 acres. This exceeds the previous record of 2.1 million acres, set in just 2005/6, by 80 percent. We almost doubled the last record, set just five years ago.

Thirty-three percent of U.S. wildland fires this year have been in Texas. The number of Texas fires this year is 61 percent greater (so far) than the 10-year national average for the entire United States. Six of the 10 largest wildfires in Texas history have occurred in 2011.

Sure, there have been bigger droughts and bigger fires in the early 1900s or the 1800s or the 1,300 hundreds or 3,000 year BC, but our complicated society did not evolve back then. We do not have the water to support our region today. This is why we have water use restriction in effect now, and last summer and every summer since the turn of the 21st century.

Do those bigger droughts in the past matter? Not one bit unless one uses that knowledge to understand the droughts and other really serious impacts allowed by drought that will happen right here, starting now. This is exactly what our climate scientists have been doing for these last 20 or 30 years that they have been warning us that these things would become the normal on a warmer planet.

In June 2009, the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), founded by Ronald Reagan, published a report that tells us that by 2080, Austin will see an average of 90 to 120 days of 100 degree weather every year — 10 times more than today’s average of 12 days per year. And this evaluation was done based on one of the middle of the road scenarios.

We are currently smack-dab in the middle of the worst-case scenario of the climate models. FYI: the Sonoran Desert Research Station in Arizona, the one with the giant Saguaro cactus, has an average of 87 days every year where the temperature tops 100 degrees.

A paper in Geophysical Research Letters in July 2010 (Diffenbaugh and Ashfaq) tells us that climate conditions will continue to rapidly worsen in the interior of North America and especially the West. The worsening will be so rapid that the decade 2020 to 2029 will include three to five droughts as bad as or worse than the worst drought that we have seen since 1951 (like what we just had).

A report out of the National Climatic Data Center in February 2011 (Dia) tells us that beginning in just 19 years (2030) Dust Bowl conditions will be the average climate condition across much of the interior of the U.S. By 2060, much of the interior of the nation will be two to three times as bad as the Dust Bowl with some areas four to five times more extreme than the Dust Bowl.

If you think I am trying to scare you, you are wrong. Projecting the second year of this current drought similar to or worse than what we have just experienced, with a growing La Nina and Lake Travis at 38 percent of capacity right now — that’s scary.

Lake Travis was 100 percent full just 16 months ago. Travis is at its third lowest level or as low as it has been in 47 years. The only reason that it is not the lowest level ever though, is that prior to 47 years ago Lake Travis was used extensively for hydropower generation. This has not been done since that time.

What are we gonna do? Getting through the drought and fires is very important. This situation is extremely dangerous. Trim your trees, police your underbrush, move that firewood pile away from the house, get your valuables together in a “go-bag.”

The threat of suburban and even urban firestorms, as demonstrated recently in Bastrop and accidentally predicted, to the weekend — by our State Climatologist — is real and it is not likely to get better for another year. The future is here now. We must change the evolution of our society fast, before we run completely out of water. Prehistory tells us that these abrupt climate changes can be exceedingly violent.

This is no longer business as usual. Water use restrictions will not meet this challenge alone. We must act now to convince our leaders that this is not just another in a long string of extraordinary weather events that we cannot yet blame on climate change. If we do not immediately change our habits and lifestyles, we will run out of water. Our forests are already dying because they have run out of water.

Now: if you have read this far, you deserve a break. The bigger picture is a little more comforting than what is happening in our region today. I just finished another book by Dr. Richard Alley, one of the pivotal climate scientists of our time. Professor Alley tells us in Earth, the Operators Manual, that fixing our climate will be no more difficult or costly than creating our society’s wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure.

Cleaning up human waste took about 100 years and so will fixing our climate. It took about one percent of global GDP to install our wastewater infrastructure and this is close enough to the latest economic analyses of dealing with climate change to make the comparison valid. One percent of global GDP is almost exactly the same amount of money as the U.S. spends on its military every year, not counting wars.

But please understand that our climate scientists have been warning us for more than 20 years that if we do not act now, the costs and impacts will only become greater.

[Bruce Melton is a professional engineer, environmental researcher, filmmaker, writer, and front man for the band Climate Change. Information on Melton’s new book, Climate Discovery Chronicles, can be found, along with more climate change writing and outreach, critical environmental issue films, and the band’s original blues, rock, and folk music tuned to climate change lyrics at his website. Read more articles by Bruce Melton on The Rag Blog.]

References:

A half billion trees:
Preliminary estimates show hundreds of millions of trees killed by 2011 drought, Texas Forest Service, December 19, 2011.
http://txforestservice.tamu.edu/main/default.aspx?dept=news

The Texas drought and future of drought in Texas:
Snapshot of the Texas Drought: Near-term and long-term, projections include more dry conditions in Texas, Texas Climate News, Houston Advanced Research Center, November 2011.
http://texasclimatenews.org/wp/?p=3548

Drought in Texas: Status, Future, Reinsurance, Willis Re, 2011.
http://www.willisre.com/documents/publications/Risk_Financing_Structuring/Resource/Property/TexasDrought_2011.pdf

August 2011 Weather Summary: National Climatic Data Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:
http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/national/2011/8

Billion dollar U.S. weather disasters 2011, National Climatic Data Center:
http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/reports/billionz.html

USGCRP, U.S. Climate Change Science Program Coastal Sensitivity to Sea Level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region, U.S. Geological Survey, Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Department of Transportation, 320 pages, November 2009.
Complete report available online: http://www.globalchange.gov/publications/reports/scientific-assessments/saps/302

Diffenbaugh and Ashfaq, Intensification of hot extremes in the United States, Geophysical Research Letters, August 2010. http://www.stanford.edu/~omramom/Diffenbaugh_GRL_10.pdf

Dai, Drought under global warming – a review, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews – Climate Change, p 45-65, January-February 2011.
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wcc.81/pdf

Alley, Earth: The Operators Manual, WW Norton, 2011

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6 Responses to Bruce Melton : Welcome to Climate Change in Texas

  1. Anonymous says:

    OK, I’ll bite..

    If there were worse droughts in the 1800s or in the last 1,000 years — any time since people came around and even before — then how is the current drought evidence of anthropogenic global warming?

    doesn’t it have to get even worse before one can finally “prove” the AGW link??

  2. Since it’s not only happening locally.

    That’s why the term “Global” is in the phrase “Global Warming”.

    There’s a little parable I like to tell, about when I was in Job Corps at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in OK. See, they had, 30+ years ago, the world’s largest herd of American Bison. At that time it was about 50,000. The Bison were first recognized by White society to be a really important part of the ecosystem when they were almost wiped out, the plants they ate and re-planted their seeds created a vast ecosystem called The Prairie. Which you don’t actually see anymore.

    Seems “conservatives” in the 19th century deemed it wasteful for all that rich ground to support a hundred MILLION bison and a couple of million “savages” so they killed off as many of both as possible, fenced in the rest and ploughed up that rich prairie soil.

    Only, the soil is held together by the native plants far better than single-crop plantations, as the song goes “land stretchin’ out so far and wide, take Manhattan just gimme that countryside” ever could. The sod once held by a rich ecology was torn apart, dried out and turned into a Dust Bowl in less than two generations. What healthy prairie remains, and the more artificially constructed replacement that keeps the Dust Bowl from coming back full force, is done by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

    But hey, it’s too expensive, so the modern “conservatives” say, to maintain the ecology.

    Think on this, in 1930 most Americans lived in rural or small town settings.

    And people starved. More so in other areas of the world where violent revolutions were the answer to the drought, famine and pestilence.

    In America the deciding factor was the much worse than decimation of the Buffalo and the killing of the prairie coinciding with Capitalism bursting it’s bubble one more time. Kind of a “Perfect Storm” scenario, everything went to Hell at once.

    Decimation means killing off one tenth of any group. Not “leaving only one tenth” or, in the case of the bison and the prairies by 1930, one tenth of one percent. How did they kill off so many buffalo, says ye? Well, says I, it’ll be in another post because I’m not sure of the word limit.

  3. Brother Jonah says:

    If the drought now were a singular event not happening worldwide, like the famines (Depression) happening worldwide, brought on by a vicious cycle of overspending every resource JUST LIKE THE “conservatives” who conserve nothing TODAY advocate, run out of oil, just take some from somewhere else, even fellow Americans who’ll be drinking the pollution when Fracking or other resource rape methods come to their localities. Coupled with the wars, like the current “war on terror” which is a massive resource grab, which are needed to subsidize Capital on the backs of the Global laborers and the blood of Global soldiers and civilian victims of war…

    The free market isn’t free, somebody has to be forced to pay for it to survive and those somebodies always seem to be those who can’t afford massive military spending.

    Oh, the Buffalo… yeah… seems they devised this method for killing bison that revolves on social heirarchy. The bison have a matriarchal system, there’s a lead cow, a second leader, right on down the line, everybody knows her place and stays in it.

    So the buffalo hunters, hunting mostly for the skins and also because the Army was subsidizing their enterprise as a way to starve Indians into submission, would watch a local herd, identify the heirarchy, and shoot the Lead Cow first. The other bison would look to her for guidance but there was none, as Big Momma Buffalo was dead. Then the subordinates in order. A really ghastly thing to know.

    The other bison would simply assume that since it hadn’t happened to them, it wouldn’t happen and there was nothing to worry about. Kind of like Ayn Rand Republicans.

    Their fellow herd-members dropping dead around them and they would just go right back to eating.

    Aside from the easy comparison to the MeMeMeMeMe first last and always attitudes of the Rand Paul type, (hey, they MAKE it easy) comes the name of what was, 3 decades ago, the largest herd of American bison which was a fraction of a percentage point of the population merely a century before.

    It’s called “The Republican Herd”.

  4. Brother Jonah says:

    Drought in Texas wouldn’t be anything new, except it’s happening in far more places than Texas. The record snowfall on the East Coast last year, was actually a misplaced monsoon, the moisture coming off the ocean, increased because the WATER, lots of it, far more water than in mass than the land mass of Texas going down a hundred feet, meets a mass of not even unseasonably cold air and falls as snow very near the coast.

    If the Right Wing can explain how an event like that somehow DISPROVES anthropogenic GW then perhaps they’ll have the scientific high ground sufficient to challenge the evidence of much greater changes, worldwide, that support (as even the snows of last winter do) the projections of global warming and the underlying cause being human intervention.

    It was Human Intervention that caused the Dust Bowl and human intervention that repaired the damage enough to hold it at bay for 80 years. Before the bison were shot down to a few hundred the notion of extinction was preached against, that God wouldn’t make a species and then let it go extinct. There were enough frozen Mammoth carcasses to demonstrate that they had existed, so the anti-Anthropogenic Extinction Event deniers of the 19th century kept looking for herds of living mammoth. Their strident denial in the face of overwhelming evidence was as pitiful as the deniers of today.

    They shot off a species of birds, Passenger pigeons, whose migrations covered the sky like storm clouds, how could any such resource be made extinct? A few decades with guns and they were.

    But, yeah, it’s somehow the height of conceit that humans can cause that much damage. The Europeans pretty much proved they CAN with the help of other species they imported with their pillage armies and pillage ships. Hogs, cattle, jimson weed, tumbleweeds, cats, Asian brown rats which had already driven the European black rats to the brink of extinction, goats, horses, donkeys,kudzu, eventually even Fire Ants. Smallpox and measles claimed huge percentages of the native humans, other diseases, overhunting, habitat destruction (the wild hogs of Arkansas have invaded all the neighboring states and ask any hunter in the areas ravaged by that introduced species how much damage has been done By One Species…)

    Can we as a single species actually screw up that much of the world?

    Hell to the fuck yeah we can.

  5. Brother Jonah says:

    And judging by the destruction of the rest of the world beyond the boundaries of Texas, we already have.

    Even without the destruction via Global Warming “our” capitalist system, which benefits the very few at the expense of everybody else on the planet, has destroyed other areas of the resources we need to survive. Clean water? Thirty percent of American fresh water is contaminated with mercury, and that’s only ONE toxin. Small-mouth bass downstream from EVERY strip-mine are displaying a peculiarity, the male fish, the ones fishermen know very well because they’re only allowed to keep adult males, are turning female.

    Children in the Dallas-Ft Worth metroplex aren’t allowed to go outside and play during recess at school, on warm days, which would be every day between February and November, because of the ozone from all the automobile exhaust.

    Yet that’s healthy for the kids, I guess. The steps needed to reverse Global Warming are needed to address a whole bunch of other problems which arise directly from the Very Few acquiring most of the wealth.

    Just as the Texas Drought doesn’t exist as a SINGULAR event neither does Global Warming. We have allowed our life support system to become so screwed at every level that it’s like one homeowner taking a hundred pounds of rat poison and dumping it into his own well water… and incidentally the water of his neighbors.

    It’s a murder-suicide pact. Perhaps the Right Wing would feel better if the rest of us would simply voluntarily join them in their Jim Jones Kool-Aid party and are probably feel very insulted that we object.

    That’s too bad. You don’t get to just kill off your neighbors without them fighting back.

  6. Brother Jonah says:

    Oh, maybe the editors can fix it, but the water in the oceans put off much more vapor last winter, thus causing the snow events, because the Atlantic was much warmer than usual.

    I just reviewed and it seems I missed making that point. My bad.

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