As any climate scientist will tell you, the world is changing. More greenhouse gases mean a warmer and warmer planet. Texas just ended what could be its warmest year in history, with an established trend of warming over the last few decades. So what will climate change mean for Texas?
“One thing we know just from basic theory is that as the climate warms, and as you put more greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, the intensity of hurricanes should go up,” MIT Professor of Atmospheric Science Kerry Emanuel says. Emanuel’s work looks at how warming affects hurricanes, which have a long history of bringing destruction to Texas. His work has found a very high correlation between hurricane power and the temperature of the tropical oceans where hurricanes form. That level of energy actually dropped from the 1950s to the 1980s, then began going up quite rapidly. It’s more than doubled since then, Emmanuel notes, following the sea surface temperature.
“From the modeling studies that we’ve done, we expect to see an increase in hurricane risk in Texas,” Emmanuel says. That doesn’t necessarily mean more storms, but it does mean a larger number of the stronger ones. And bigger storm surges will have greater impact because of rising sea levels across the entire Texas coast.
Emmanuel notes that the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history was in Texas, with the Hurricane of 1900 in Galveston. The damage from that storm, which killed at least 6,000 people in just a few hours, came mostly from a storm surge that reached 15 feet high. (The highest point on Galveston Island at the time? 8.7 feet.) And hurricane damage isn’t limited to the coast. For the interior of the state, in places like Austin, Emmanuel says you can expect to see more rainfall from hurricanes, with an increased risk of flooding.
That may seem ironic, given the dry conditions afflicting much of the state, but Emmanuel says that yes, climate change could bring more intense rainfall, at times leading to flooding. But it will be accompanied by much longer stretches of times without rain, or drought. “We’ve had some terrible droughts in Texas, and it’s not entirely clear whether we’re seeing a climate change signal in those droughts,” Emmanuel says. “But the models suggest that Texas will, as we go forward during the next hundred years, see more drought.”
So how much time is left before Texas begins to see the more destructive effects of climate change? Emmanuel has tried to answer this question in a joint effort with the Yale economist Robert Mendelsohn. Generating a database of tens of thousands hurricanes as they evolve over the next hundred years, the two then applied those predicted hurricanes to a range of properties across the East and Gulf Coasts. The question they were after is when a global warming “signal” starts to appear in hurricane damage in the U.S. Their conclusion? Anywhere from 25 to 100 years. “So, in the next few decades, I would say, we should really start to see a well-defined signal emerge in hurricane damage if this modeling is correct.”
If you’re in Austin, you can hear Dr. Emmanuel present his findings linking stronger hurricanes to climate change tonight at the University of Texas. He’ll be speaking at the Student Activity Center (SAC) Auditorium (2201 Speedway, Austin TX) at 7 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public.