Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

How Climate Change Will Impact Texas

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A Texas flag tattered by Hurricane Ike flies over a home September 13, 2008 in Texas City, Texas. Climate science says that stronger hurricanes will result from global warming, with Texas at risk.

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. 

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Waves from Hurricane Ike crash over a sculpture dedicated to the 6,000 who died on Galveston Island from a 1900 hurricane September 12, 2008 in Galveston, Texas.

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.



  • the uncertainty surrounding drought is a tricky thing. soil moisture is a complex beast governed by a lot of factors. it should be noted that a significant risk exists that Texas will be the epicenter of just devastating drought… in other words, it could all be downhill from here….

  • oneWaysign

    The Models I have seen predict that Texas will be pretty-much uninhabitable in about 50 years. It will be over 100 Degrees on most Days from April thru October for most of the State – and CROPS cannot survive THAT; even if there were water available – which there will not be.

  • nick_empiricalmag

    In Empirical Magazine’s January 2013 issue, contributor Hugh
    Mercer Curtler quotes a study conducted by Mercer, one of the largest
    investment consultants to corporate and public trusteed assets, along with 14 global
    institutional investors. The study found “The cost of impacts on the
    physical environment, health and food security could exceed $4 trillion.”
    The study also found “Investment opportunities in low carbon technologies
    could reach $5 trillion.” To read an excerpt of Fiddling While Rome Burns,
    follow our link:

  • Wendy G.

    But it’s not just hurricanes. It’s the insidious rise in sea level that will cause even higher storm surges. Just look at what happened with Sandy. NY Harbor is more than a foot higher than it was a century ago.

  • lola ledezma

    so can a hurricane happen in austin ,tx

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