Climate Change Has Sent Temperatures Soaring in Texas

The grid, for example, is stressed by higher demand when extreme heat causes more people to crank up their air conditioning. At the same time, when high temperatures arrive earlier in the spring and last later into the fall, power plants have smaller and smaller windows to make routine repairs.

“We have a lot of infrastructure that’s very, very sensitive to small changes in the underlying climate,” Doss-Gollin said.

Many dams are small, are privately owned and were built decades ago, when extreme rainfall events like the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 — which dumped as much as 50 inches of rain on some parts of the Gulf Coast over five days — were much less common.

“You don’t know what sort of conditions it’s designed for,” Doss-Gollin said. “It’s a huge challenge.”

But extreme heat isn’t impacting every part of Texas the same. While every county in Texas has seen an average increase in temperatures over the last decade, three areas of the state have seen the biggest jumps in record-breaking temperatures: West Texas, the Panhandle, and the Gulf.

Amarillo, for example, had 100 days of record-setting heat between 2013 and 2022 — the most recent 10 years for which data is available. That’s more than four times the number of record heat days expected for an average decade in Amarillo prior to 2013, according to the Tribune’s analysis.

El Paso saw 113 record hot days in the last decade — more than five times the expected number of records in an average decade in the state’s westernmost city.

As temperatures rise globally, places that have less rain and fewer trees to absorb excess heat are more frequently experiencing record-setting heat, experts said.

“Summers are getting drier faster in West Texas,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas’ state climatologist. “That can contribute to increases in record high temperatures.”

Areas of East and North Texas close to the Louisiana and Arkansas borders, with their forests and abundant rain, have seen comparatively fewer days of record-breaking heat.

For example, in Longview, less than 50 miles west of the Louisiana border, the Tribune’s analysis shows 27 record highs were recorded, slightly below the 30 that would be expected in an average decade there. At a weather station in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, only 35 record hot days were recorded between 2013 and 2022, just slightly higher than the 29 to be expected in an average decade there, according to the Tribune’s analysis.

But Nielsen-Gammon and other climate experts cautioned that precipitation, soil moisture and vegetation can’t explain all the variation in extreme heat trends. Other factors, like whether the weather pattern La Niña or El Niño is in effect and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico can also affect the number of days with extreme heat.

Lopez, the NOAA scientists, pointed out that the rapid growth in areas like Houston and Austin could be exacerbating the urban “heat island” effect, a phenomenon in which large cities tend to see more extreme heat than rural areas as buildings, driveways and roads absorb heat. Still, it’s “virtually impossible” to find a perfect correlation between weather, climate and extremes, he said.

And, as Nielsen-Gammon pointed out, the variation among locations “could just be random.”

Nielsen-Gammon added that the relatively slow pace of warming in wetter and forested regions “is not something that is expected to continue.” In other words, scientists have projected that those ecosystem buffers will not be enough to offset climate change in the future.

Politics still play a major role in perceptions of climate change: Some studies have observed Republicans and Democrats who experience the same extreme weather event characterize the impact of climate change differently. But Jennifer Marlon, a senior research scientist at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, said the program’s surveys show that an increasing number of Americans believe climate change is occurring.

“More people are accepting the problem — and it is a process of acceptance for a lot of people, because originally, they were skeptical,” Marlon said.

Almost three-quarters of Americans think global warming is happening, according to a nationally representative 2023 survey conducted by Yale and George Mason University researchers, compared with 15% who think it is not. And 44% of Americans say they’ve personally experienced the effects of global warming, according to the same survey.

“The weather changes are not the same as what we’ve been seeing in the past,” Marlon said. “The heat waves are hotter, the spring [temperatures] are ending earlier, and nighttime temperatures are higher than they used to be.”

“So experience is starting to play a bigger role,” she said.

Erin Douglas is the climate reporter for the Texas Tribune. Yuriko Schumacher is a news app and data visuals designer/developer at the Texas Tribune. Alex Ford is a designer/developer creating data visualizations for the Tribune. This story is published courtesy of the Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.