News Section
Stories from Climate Central's Science Journalists and Content Partners

Global Warming Amplifying Texas Drought, Wildfires, Scientists Say

Repost This

Just when it looked like weather conditions couldn’t get any worse in Texas, a new wildfire burning outside of Austin destroyed nearly 800 homes in the past few days. This came on the heels of the state's hottest and driest summer in recorded history, with many parts of the state smashing all-time records by wide margins. Yesterday, Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon announced this was the hottest summer on record for Texas — and the hottest summer ever for any U.S. state, based on preliminary numbers — and last month he declared Texas is in the midst of its worst one-year drought on record. The blend of hot weather and parched land has made for perfect fire conditions, and this has been the worst year for Texas wildfires in over a decade. Nearly 3.6 million acres of the "Lone Star State" have burned so far this year, an area roughly the size of Connecticut.

The heat and drought are record-breaking, but how unusual are they? According to Nielsen-Gammon’s own blog, it’s in a category unto itself:

"The year 2011 continues the recent trend of being much warmer than the historical precipitation-temperature relationship would indicate, although with no previous points so dry it’s hard to say exactly what history would say about a summer such as this one. Except that this summer is way beyond the previous envelope of summer temperature and precipitation," Nielson-Gammon wrote.

  In Texas, the summer of 2011 has been both the hottest and driest on record. The drought has cost billions in economic losses, mainly due to agricultural impacts and from wildfires. Credit: John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas State Climatologist.

Not only is this summer the hottest (highest up on the graph) and the driest (farthest to the left), but it also appears to have a more significant connection between the temperature and drought than what’s been seen before. 

The exceptional drought in Texas and neighboring states set in almost a year ago, when La Niña conditions were present in the tropical Pacific Ocean, with cooler-than-average ocean temperatures that helped alter global weather patterns. Typically, La Niña years are accompanied by below average rainfall in the American Southwest. 

Since the spring, every month in Texas has been among that month's top ten driest on record, and by summer’s peak, there was virtually no moisture left in the ground, says Victor Murphy, the climate service program manager for the National Weather Service’s southern region. Without moisture to help keep the ground cool, he explains, temperatures soared.

“In this case, the drought certainly came first,” says Murphy, “but the drought begets heat, and the heat begets more drought. It’s an extreme leading to more extremes.”

The current drought is worse than any other that most Texans can remember, and it also comes after nearly a decade of drought across most of the Southwest.

According to climate scientist Richard Seager of Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, it’s very hard to say how much human-induced climate change has contributed to this year’s scorching temperatures, drought, and related wildfires in Texas. But Seager says that, while La Niña, as well as warm waters in the tropical North Atlantic Ocean, have been the main causes of the extreme drought, there is also evidence that the region is drying as a consequence of manmade global warming.

Texas is in the midst of its worst recorded one-year drought. Scientists say that climate change may have amplified the drought, which was otherwise caused by natural climate variability. Credit: MyEyeSees/flickr.

“The human-induced components of this [ongoing drought] so far are pretty weak, but I think it’s there,” Seager says. Even in the absence of La Niña’s natural effects, he explains that global warming is making areas like Texas drier than they were for much of the last century. “What you have is background drying, and then the natural variability superimposed on it.”

Moreover, average temperatures in Texas are on the rise. Over the entire year, Texas has been about 1.5°F warmer than it was in the 1980s and 1990s. That doesn’t sound like a big difference, but over several years, the warmer temperatures exacerbate the increasing aridity. And that’s not all.

“These are fairly small changes in average temperature, but even small changes can produce very big changes in extreme events,” says Jerry Meehl, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), during a press briefing today on this year's billion-dollar extreme weather events. For example, because the Texas region has become drier, and average temperatures are warmer than they used to be, the region was likely more susceptible to severe drought brought by La Niña than it would have been a few decades ago.

“When climate change and natural variability happen in the same direction, that’s when records get broken,” says NCAR climatologist Kevin Trenberth.

At the moment, climate models predict that La Niña may stage a comeback this winter, which means the Texas drought could continue. Eventually, however, Seager says the tropical Pacific will warm up and the worst of this drought will subside. “We don’t expect it to be this dry consistently,” he says. “This won’t be what the climate will be like throughout the 21st century.” 

On the other hand, Seager says that climate change, driven by increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, is tilting the scales in favor of future droughts that may look like this one. “The human induced component is making years like this one more likely.”

Comments

By Radhakrishna Rao (Mumbai,Maharastra,INDIA)
on September 9th, 2011

Wonder why this article on Texas and published in Texas is not read by Your Governor & Presidential hopeful Mr. Perry?

Reply to this comment

By Donald Dolan (wichita falls,Tx 76301)
on September 9th, 2011

Texas needs water.    Please help by signing and sharing this Petition

In the near future the Whitehouse will launch “We The People” on the Whitehouse website.
“We The People” will allow the American citizens with a 5000 signature petition to share ideas on improving the United States.
I’m asking for your help. The 5000 signature’s must be in a 30 day period. Please sign the petition and share it with everyone.
  The petition letter below outlines a way to reduce the floods on the Mississippi river, Creates thousands of jobs, And provides boarder security to Texas by increasing the water level in the Rio Grande.
Copy & Paste or click on the link   http://www.change.org/petitions/permanent-jobs-that-will-stay-in-america               Thanks,
                  Donald

Reply to this comment

By james (austin, TX)
on May 21st, 2012

Interesting how they don’t mention 2004 or 2007, which according to the data presented, were some of the wettest summers in Texas history.  In fact, 2011 is the only year in the last 10 that falls on the lower 40th percentile of that chart…  I’m not saying global warming isn’t real or whatever else, I’m just saying this isn’t a good article.

Reply to this comment

By Fred (Medford, OR 97501)
on May 17th, 2014

Good point, James. It is May of 2014 and I just drove through Texas and San Antonio as well as the rest of Texas are quite green. Unusually so, I am told, for this time of year. The greening of the planet is a positive effect of the warmth and extra CO2 in the atmosphere. 

Source| http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/GlobalGarden/

A very positive thing to see were the thousands upon thousands of wind turbines in eastern New Mexico and Western Texas. There is so much energy around us, we just need to learn how to use it effectively. Combine those wind farms with Natural Gas and we have a better and cleaner solution than coal and oil. 

I hope that  we will get away from the war on climate where some say that anyone who is skeptical of articles like this are called heretics and deniers or where those who know that the effects of CO2 are real and potentially catastrophic are dismissed as alarmists. Science and the human mind can and will deal with our problems. Blaming every weather event on Man or dismissing real scientific concerns are both paths to ruin as each will hurt their own cause by making the claiment and “their side” look foolish and biased. 

Reply to this comment

By Fred (Medford, OR 97501)
on May 13th, 2014

Man does induce a small amount of climate change via CO2 (1 degree C per doubling of CO2) but it is important to put it into perspective and understand that the overall effects have so far been clearly positive and that articles like this contradict themselves. First of all this drought is minor as compared to historic droughts that happened well before AGW was an issue. This is also a regional effect and La Nina lowers global temperatures while El Nino will raise global temperature. La Nina and El Nino are natural effects. El Nino alone can raise global temps more in one year than the .8 degree rise seen since the 1850’s, supposedly due to AGW. Google “wood for trees” for an online product that allows you access to global temp records. Also, Please read peer reviewed reasearch articles to get a real take on what is going on…http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:356915/FULLTEXT01.pdf That is just one of dozens of articles I have read on the subject and only a single, old paper written by Hansen, and full of references to Hansen, an activist on the subject, suggest there is a clear link and concern about AGW.  This is an important issue…too important not to educate yourself.

Reply to this comment

Name (required):
Email (required):
City/State/Zip:
Enter the word "climate" in the box below:

[+] View our comment guidelines.

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment will not appear until reviewed by Climate Central staff. Thank you for your patience.