Climate change for Southeast Texas

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HOUSTON - Scientists are warning that climate change is here and it is already affecting our lives.

"Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been burning increasing amounts of coal, oil and gas. This is the primary reason why climate is changing today," said Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, Texas Tech Climate Science Center Director and lead author on the recently released Third U.S. National Climate Assessment.

Hayhoe went on to explain that, in the past, climate changed due to natural factors alone; however today, all of those natural factors have an alibi, and they can't be blamed for the current warming.

The report released Tuesday is the result of a three-year effort in which over 300 climate scientists contributed their input.

The assessment looks at how climate change will affect the country.

For Southeast Texas, the message being sent isn't just about temperatures going up, but rather our weather is becoming more extreme with natural hazards, like hurricanes, heavy rainfall and droughts, becoming more intense.

"Climate change matters because it is changing the risks associated with these events," said Hayhoe.

Those anticipated risks include more powerful storm surges, severe storm flooding and a negative impact on our health.

"Climate change interacts with our existing vulnerabilities," said Hayhoe. "We are already vulnerable to storms. We are already vulnerable to hurricanes. We are already vulnerable to flood, and we are already vulnerable to drought. Climate change is going to exacerbate the same problems we already deal with today."

More Rain Expected

According to the report, our area will get more precipitation from storms including hurricanes.

Hayhoe explains that as the earth warms more water evaporates into the atmosphere, "so when a storm comes along, then there will be more water vapor in the air for it to pick up and dump on us."

The report points out that, "projections of future climate over the U.S. suggest that the recent trend towards increased heavy precipitation events will continue."
This doesn't mean we will see more rainy days bringing in more manageable amounts of rain.

That means when storms push showers over the region, there will be larger amounts of rainfall, on average, in any given event which could lead to more flooding, especially in urban areas where there is more concrete.

A storm doesn't have to be a hurricane to be a heavy rain producer.

"On average, any storm, whether hurricane or not, will have more precipitation associated with it because, as temperature increases, so does humidity," she said.

More Powerful Hurricanes

When hurricane season does arrive, the report states that although we are not likely to see any change in the number of storms due to climate change, we will see more frequent strong hurricanes in categories 4 or 5 as compared to less intense category 1 or 2 hurricanes.

"In the case of hurricanes, we aren't seeing more frequent hurricanes and we don't expect to in the future," Hayhoe explained, "but what we are seeing is the ocean water is heating up. So when a hurricane come along, it gets more energy from the ocean, and we are seeing stronger hurricanes as a result."

The report says, "...almost all existing studies project greater rainfall rates in hurricanes in a warmer climate, with projected increases of about 20% averaged near the center of hurricanes."

Stronger Storm Surge And Faster Sea Level Rising

Another concern connected to hurricanes the report discusses is sea level rising and storm surge.

"Texas' Gulf Coast averages about three tropical storms or hurricanes every four years, generating coastal storm surge and sometimes bringing heavy rainfall and damaging winds hundreds of miles inland," said the report. "The expected rise in sea level will result in the potential for greater damage from storm surge along the Gulf Coast of Texas."

Globally, sea level has gone up about 8 inches since the late 1800s.

Researchers warn in the report that sea level could rise another 1 to 4 feet by the end of the century.

"When we get those storm surges, they are going to have more water associated with them. This means that areas are going to be flooded that would not have been flooded if we didn't have sea level rise," explained Hayhoe. "And, with sea level being 8 inches higher already, we are already seeing that today."

The report speculates that with continued sea level rising, marshes will extend along Texas' Gulf Coast as the most low-lying coastal areas become permanently inundated.

More Intense Droughts

Even though more rain is predicated on average for our region, that doesn't mean droughts are out of the question.

There is a natural pattern of wet and dry years in Texas' history.

The summer 2011 drought was primarily a consequence of lower amounts of rain.

However, the report states that the drought was stronger due to the record-breaking heat that occurred at the same time, which was more likely to occur because of climate change.

"...the human contribution to climate change approximately doubled the probability that the heat was record-breaking. So while an event such as this Texas heat wave and drought could be triggered by a naturally occurring event such as a deficit in precipitation, the chances for record-breaking temperature extremes has increased and will continue to increase as the global climate warms. Generally, the changes in climate are increasing the likelihood for these types of severe events."

"So when we get a drought -- and we are still going to get droughts in the future, that is absolutely for sure," said Hayhoe, "when we get a drought it is going to be warmer. That means more moisture is going to evaporate from the soil and the drought is going to be worse that it would be otherwise."

More Extreme Heat

The report also finds that, "heat waves everywhere are projected to become more intense."

For example, Hayhoe points to data that shows that since the 1970s we have been receiving less energy from the Sun. So if the Earth's temperature were being controlled by the Sun, we would be getting cooler, not warmer.

Scientists also have discovered that changes in the Earth's axis of rotation over thousands of years cause the ice ages and the warm interglacial periods that we're in right now. However, according to these types of natural cycles, "we are overdue for the next ice age," she said.
Once again, if the Earth's temperature were controlled by natural cycles, we'd be cooling, not warming.

The average for the 7 hottest days in Southeast Texas ranges between 95 and 100 degrees.

The report projects that by mid-century (2041-2070), we could see 16 to 22 more days like that even if global carbon emissions can be reduced and 22 to 28 plus days if carbon emissions continue to grow.

The 7 hottest nights' average temperature is 75 degrees in our region.

The report predicts that number could increase by 35 to 45 nights under a scenario that reduces carbon emissions and more than 45 under a scenario where human emissions of carbon continue to grow.

More Impact To Our Health

This added heat can affect our health in several ways.

First off, the Houston area has already had ozone action days.

As summer and hotter days arrives, ozone will become a more frequent air quality issue.

But with climate change, there will be more in the number of warmer days, and the hotter it gets, the faster the ozone will be produced.

Heat waves can affect those with weaker hearts, breathing problems, young children and the elderly. Those who can't afford air conditioning will be most affected.
Then there are the mosquitoes.

Hayhoe explained that as the U.S. is warming, we could see more tropical diseases carried especially by mosquitoes moving northward into the U.S.
Allergy season is also getting longer as weeds flourish in a warmer world with higher carbon dioxide levels.

"From Texas to Montana, altered flowering patterns due to more frost-free days have increased the length of pollen season for ragweed by as many as 16 days over the period from 1995 to 2009," said the report.

The Outcome Can Change

According to Hayhoe, the research and projections of the consequences of climate change are not set in stone.

The report, which can be found at, compares the consequences of two very different futures. Hayhoe describes them in this way:

"If we continue to depend on fossil fuels -- coal, oil and gas -- as our primary source of energy, we will see much more severe impacts than if we can transition in a sensible, sustainable way to wind energy, solar energy, and being more energy efficient with the energy that we do get from fossil fuels."

"The amount of change that we expect in the future depends on the choices that we make today," she said.

Click here to read the report.

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