This article is the result of a partnership between Inside Climate News and The Galveston County Daily News.
GALVESTON, Texas—Last week Daniel Gonzales went online with his search for someplace to stay, asking Galveston residents if anyone knew of a garage apartment he and his wife could rent for a few months.
Gonzales’ Webster home is almost unrecognizable—contractors told him it could be three or four more months before all the damage from the February winter storm is fixed, and that’s only after he’d dropped about $60,000 on repairs, he said.
“I’m completely gutted right now,” he said.
Gonzales has heard the favorite mantra of state and local leaders that the February freeze was a once-in-a-lifetime event, but it doesn’t quite ring true for him.
For him and many other residents and leaders in Galveston County who have now lived through the freeze and other devastating tempests such as Hurricane Harvey, it seems these events aren’t so rare.
“We’ve had three 500-year storms in five years,” said Jeff Patterson, a Galveston resident who has long been active in storm-related infrastructure groups. “You can argue about the specific reasons for that, but the climate is changing.”
The science has long been clear that our changing climate will lead to more flooding and hotter temperatures. But might climate change not lead to other, less expected extreme weather, including sudden freezes in places like Texas, with increasing frequency?
Increasingly, experts think the answer is yes.
A Weakening Polar Vortex
More extreme climate events are not only possible, they are very likely, according to major scientific reports such as the most recent global climate assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Fourth National Climate Assessment by the United States government, which highlights expected global warming effects on South Texas and the wider region.
Sea level rise on the Texas coast has already increased by 5 to 17 inches in the past 100 years and is likely to rise more “than the projected global average of 1-4 feet or more,” through 2100, according to the 2018 report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The number of 100 degree Fahrenheit days will increase dramatically, and “the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events are anticipated to continue to increase.”
Deep freezes haven’t been studied as much as some other extreme events linked with global warming, but there is “definitely a school of thought that climate change is contributing to an increase in cold snaps, through a weakening of the polar vortex, which normally traps the coldest air masses in the Arctic,” said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University.
The Arctic polar vortex is a belt of fast, high-elevation winds that’s usually cinched tightly around the Arctic during the winter, but buckles and sags south when warmer air from the Earth’s surface bulges up into the atmosphere above the Arctic to push cold air down to lower elevations and more southerly latitudes. There is a similar wind system in the Southern Hemisphere during Austral winter.
The polar vortex also influences the storm-steering polar jet stream, another belt of winds a bit farther south and lower in the atmosphere. Both are driven by the contrast between very cold temperatures in the Arctic and warmer temperatures farther south, Mann said. Scientists are still studying how much, and when, global warming affects the complex wind systems, and how to tell those effects apart from seasonal climate variability.
He said one area of research shows that “amplified Arctic warming reduces the temperature contrast between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes. “Since it is this temperature contrast that is responsible for the jet stream in the first place, that in turn leads to a weakening of the jet stream and a weakening of the polar vortex,” that spills cold air southward, he added.
In recent climate reports scientists have started issuing more straightforward warnings about how global warming is already causing dangerous extremes, probably because “science is advancing to the point where we can make quite quantitative and qualitative statements about the impacts of climate change,” said Andrew Dessler, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M.
Such attribution science shows how global warming intensifies some weather extremes, or makes them more likely, and some of that research says clearly that “Unusual cold spells can occur even in a warming world, and cause disruption to transport, energy and food supplies.”
“In that sense science has indeed passed a threshold,” he said. “We are no longer stuck saying ‘no particular event can be said to be caused by climate change.’ We can now say, ‘yes, climate change made this storm worse than it would otherwise have been.’”
“In years past, I think there was a reticence to taking a strong stand on this subject, but a combination of strengthening science combined with a true lack of progress on policies has convinced scientists that we need to speak up,” Dessler said. “This is particularly true among younger scientists, and I commend them for it.”
No Atheists in Foxholes
Just as the saying goes that there are no atheists in foxholes, local officials were unanimous in their acknowledgement that the climate is changing, and any viable mitigation must factor that into the data and analysis.
“An afternoon rain shower has three times as much rain as it did previously,” Galveston City Manager Brian Maxwell said. “Winters are more extreme. Whether it’s hot or cold, there’s no moderation in climate anymore. It’s kind of the new normal.”
More than a month has passed since plunging temperatures led to the near total collapse of the state’s power grid, and still there are far more questions than answers about what might change and how state leaders plan to prevent future disasters like the one in February, when millions of Texans lost power and more people died than in hurricanes Ike and Harvey—at least 111 by the most recent count.
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During the coldest days of the winter storm, the wholesale price of electricity skyrocketed to almost $9,000 a megawatt hour from less than $50 before the storm.
In the Texas Legislature, a plan to readjust that electricity pricing—a move that might save money for those who purchased on the wholesale market—stalled in the House, spurring Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to ask Gov. Greg Abbott to take executive action, according to the Texas Tribune.
It’s not yet clear where consensus is emerging among the experts who have pointed at myriad issues that contributed to February’s disaster. But even amid the uncertainty, one thing is clear, according to Galveston County residents. The recent trend of pretending this is a once-in-a-lifetime event will no longer work.
“None of this is easy,” Patterson said. “You’re talking about big money and big investments. With climate change, you’re going to have more frequent freezes, bigger storms and heavier rainfall. Doing nothing is not a good option.”
Emergency Responders Stretched Increasingly Thin
Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration classified the Texas freeze as 2021’s first billion-dollar disaster in the United States, but it won’t be the last. In 2020, there were 22 weather and climate disasters that cost that much, including a dense cluster in and around Texas.
“As we take into account climate change, among other factors that are increasing our risk across the country, it’s likely these larger scale disasters will become more frequent,” said Dr. Samantha Montano, a disaster researcher and assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
“This idea that something is a once in a lifetime event is a very dangerous way of thinking about risk,” she said. “We need to be thinking about risk more holistically. Texas, especially East Texas, they have just had one disaster after another the last decade or so. And the idea that they aren’t going to have another situation where they lose power for an extended period of time strikes me as, frankly, delusional.”
The increasing frequency of such disasters is raising concerns about the nation’s capacity to respond to a catastrophic combination of events, such as in 2017, when hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria struck the U.S. over the span of just two months while massive wildfires burned in California around the same time, she said.
Montano said a subsequent report from the federal General Accounting Office, showed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency ran short of trained staff to respond to that many disasters. The GAO report concluded that federal emergency agencies need to speed up after-action reviews, accurately track corrective actions and share those findings with any local governments, residents, businesses or anyone else potentially affected by emergency response operations.
The risk-assessment process also needs updating, because it’s typically built on historical data, like the size of floods that happen every 100 years. But with the warming atmosphere increasing the magnitude and frequency of many such events, successfully responding to them in the future requires including climate projections that look at things like increased rainfall from tropical storms in those assessments.
Not the First Rodeo
While the February deep freeze is freshest on Texans’ minds, Galveston County residents are perhaps most familiar with another type of weather disaster—tropical storms and hurricanes.
In response to a quick succession of storms, including Hurricane Harvey in 2017, local officials have changed building requirements and are considering what effects climate change might have on the region’s infrastructure in the future, Friendswood Councilman Steve Rockey said.
Voters in League City and Friendswood, for instance, approved bond referendums totaling more than $110 million for drainage projects in the years since Harvey dropped more than 50 inches of rain on some parts of the county and flooded more than 20,000 homes, Rockey said.
The response after Harvey “seems to be different from previous times,” League City Councilman Hank Dugie said. “Individuals and entities have really gotten together and tried to make something happen.”
And some part of that planning after the hurricane included accounting for the fact that the climate is changing, officials said.
At the federal level, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2018 increased the amount of rain needed for an official 100-year event in Galveston by 3.5 inches—to 17 inches in a 24-hour period from 13.5 inches..
Local officials, in particular, have taken seriously the importance of planning far into the future for more severe weather, Maxwell said.
But the key moving forward will be more federal investment, he said.
“During the last election, a common criticism was that nothing has been done,” Maxwell said, regarding flood mitigation. “But a tremendous amount has been done with drainage. The issue is that someone doesn’t get elected and start digging new pipe the next day. It doesn’t work that way. The environmental and engineering hurdles alone take years.”
Cities have shifted their focus now toward preparing shovel-ready projects, that way they’re ready should the federal government ever provide extra funding for climate infrastructure, Maxwell said.
Paying Now or Paying Later
As extreme weather events become more common, it’s important that those closest to the front lines have a say in determining how to best respond to them, Montano, the disaster researcher in Massachusetts, said.
“Not having these emergency managers be part of this conversation is a huge concern,” she said. “Because of the urgency of the climate crisis we don’t have time to reinvent the wheel. We have to pull from the existing research and knowledge that we have if we’re going to be efficient in addressing these needs.”
For disasters that don’t exceed historical patterns for magnitude and frequency, the groups that exist to come in and help are well trained, adequately resourced and able to respond efficiently, she said.
“Where we have an issue is when we get to larger scale events like the winter storm in Texas, and catastrophes like Katrina and Maria,” she said. “Then things fall apart really quickly. Things get more complicated, with increased challenges in communications and coordination. That is the area where our focus needs to be within emergency management.”
“We need to be investing more in our emergency response capacities,” she added. “Just because historically we’ve been OK at responding, doesn’t mean we will be in the future. If we’re depleting our capacities, the ability to respond to smaller events could also suffer.”
Bracing for Impact
Successful responses to future impacts of climate extremes require investments in building social strength, based on economic and environmental justice and equity, she said. Studies show that highly integrated communities with strong social bonds are better able to respond and recover, she added.
“We have a tendency to think of disasters as individualistic experiences, something you prepare yourself, your family for getting through,” she said. “But really, disasters are a social phenomenon and they require a social, community response.”
Still searching for a temporary place to live in Galveston, Gonzales said he took all the steps he’s learned to take ahead of freezes, such as leaving the faucets dripping and wrapping all the pipes with insulation.
None of that was enough to stop the devastation. “There was water gushing into our driveway from the garage,” he said.
When he can still remember the last “once-in-a-lifetime event,” something is amiss, and as the scientists make very clear, that something is climate change.
“The same thing, just not as severe, happened in 2011,” he said. “They should have understood what could happen. There should have been more preparedness.”