Is it time to rent out Texas?
It’s not the heat, it’s the warming beyond evolutionary boundaries.
There’s a quote that has been around forever, variously worded and attributed to many. The origin of the story seems to be General Philip Sheridan in San Antonio after the Civil War: “If I owned Texas and all Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.”
It’s always been blisteringly hot in Texas. In Austin, we have not set a new all-time temperature record since 2012 at 112 degrees, which was a tie from 2003. We hit 2009 a half dozen times (+/-) in the 20th century, including 2017, 2019, 1923, and 1925
The difference today with climate change is duration. In the 20th century we had on average about 10-to-11 days at 100 or above every year. In 2019 the five-year average was 40 days and since 2022 the five-year average has been 47 days. In 2011 of course we endured 90 days at 100 or above, so there is a lot of natural variability. In 2021 we only had 12 days above.
But the numbers aren’t that simple.
But the numbers aren’t that simple and something the National Weather Service is doing is masking warming. Because of large natural variability from year to year, weather data statistics tend to take about 30 years to accurately reflect the true average. But because our climate has only recently begun to change rapidly, the old 30-year average strategy creates an understatement. The example is that the “30-year average days over 100 degrees every year” statistic that we hear in the weather report for Austin is 28 days, a bit less than half of the much more realistic five-year average of 47 days.
It’s this extended duration of heat, not the absolutes, that is doing the damage. We just broke a record for 10 days in a row over 105 on Tuesday and the record is likely to be smashed by a couple more. The old record was 9 days in a row in 1923.
The problem with this kind of heat is a nonlinear bit of heat physics, where a little warming does not create a little bit more heat energy, it creates a lot more — nonlinearly more. This increases evaporation nonlinearly so that in a warmer climate we can actually see perpetuated drought with normal or even above normal rainfall.
What I am concerned with is an overly aggressive reporting of the simple “heat wave” concept with global warming — even with “new normal” as a subtitle… Even with “and it gets much worse from here” as a subtitle… The absolute temperature is hardly any different than it was in the early 20th century, which is trouble for our grids with an ever-expanding population and challenges with Texas regulations that require safety factors with design. The true killer is that our current average amount of warming is beyond the evolutionary boundaries of our Earth’s systems.
When these boundaries are exceeded, the systems collapse.
When these boundaries are exceeded, 10th grade science tells us the systems collapse so new species and mechanisms can evolve into the void that are tolerant of the new conditions. This is what is happening now with the fires, insect, and simple water stress mortality. It’s this water stress mortality that — when doubled — creates a halving of carbon storage. Because our biggest natural systems sequestration ability is from our forests, and because most forests globally have already seen a doubling to quadrupling of mortality, and because forest sequestration is only modest when in full health, we have natural systems feedback emissions right now where our forests are likely in general no longer absorbing, but instead emitting carbon in the form of greenhouse gases that compound the warming.
These collapses do not self-restore unless the warming that caused them is removed, and they self-perpetuate, becoming worse and worse every year until the systems totally collapse, creating nonlinearly more greenhouse gas emissions that dwarf that of humankind. It’s these runaway greenhouse gas feedback emissions that are wildly more troubling than the perpetuation of simple global warming heat waves that kill tens of thousands.
Back in our built environment, mechanical stress does not self-restore like a lot of biologic systems. Once stressed, like with the extended unprecedented heat, that stress never leaves whatever components of the system that were degraded. Continued stresses accumulate until failure.
This means our old and decrepit grid is becoming less and less reliable. Winter Storm Uri really put it to the test, meaning that severe stress was encountered during Uri. This stress is compounded with four times more extreme heat days today than when most of our grid and generation capacity was designed and built. Design criteria for most engineering is the same today as it was in our old climate.
[Bruce Melton is a professional engineer, environmental researcher, filmmaker, climate science education specialist, author, and director of the Climate Change Now Initiative founded in 2005. He has written over 500 reviews of academic climate science, lectures regularly, and has recently been involved in groundbreaking climate policy development where he was awarded a special achievement award by the Sierra Club for helping in the establishment of new climate policy and a safer limit to warming of “less than 1.0 degrees C above normal,” that reverses already initiated ecological collapse and climate tipping and restores extreme weather mayhem back to its former rare levels. You can see his climate science reviews and films at ClimateDiscovery.org, and his counterintuitively beautiful climate change photography at ClimateChangePhoto.org.]