NATURE NOTES:
At Jan. 18 Conference, State Climatologist Will Lay Out West Texas’ Climate Future

By Andrew Stuart

The central reality of climate change – that gases from the burning of fossil fuels are creating a “greenhouse effect,” warming the planet – has been known for decades. It’s been 40 years since the first World Climate Conference. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was formed in 1988, the same year NASA scientist James Hansen told Congress “the greenhouse effect is already happening now.” 

Though the world hasn’t changed course – on the contrary, annual global CO2 emissions have nearly doubled since 1979 – the fact of climate change now seems to have penetrated public consciousness. It remains politically charged in the U.S., but major institutions – from the U.S. military to oil-and-gas companies to state and city governments – long ago began preparing for the impacts.

Those impacts are underway. And intensifying effects are guaranteed.

Jan. 18, Alpine’s Sul Ross State University will be the site a conference on the implications of climate change for West Texas. State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon is a featured speaker. A Texas A&M professor, he’s studied Texas’ climate future.

The Earth is on track to warm by 1.5 degrees Celsius – or almost 3 degrees Fahrenheit – by 2050. What does that mean for temperatures here? 

Nielsen-Gammon said it’s important to understand that land surfaces warm faster than oceans. 

“The basic rule of thumb is add another 25 to 50 percent to the rising temperature projections for the globe,” he said, “and you’ll get a reasonable estimate of how rapidly temperatures are rising in West Texas. Basically, we’re on track to have easily well more than 4 degrees of warming in West Texas, and probably quite a bit more than that.”

Temperatures rose a degree in Far West Texas during the 20th century. Central and East Texas, along with the rest of the eastern United States, did not see comparable warming. Scientists now think that air pollution in the eastern United States, primarily from coal-fired power plants, effectively blocked out the sun – and muted warming effects. With successful efforts to reduce air pollution, the pattern has changed, and eastern Texas has caught up in terms of warming.

Significant changes are “baked in.” But that doesn’t equate with inaction or resignation. Unless drastic action is taken, Nielsen-Gammon said, temperatures in West Texas are expected to rise 8 degrees by 2100.

“Which means that a day that was in the low 90s would be a 100 or more,” he said. “You can almost add 10 degrees to everything and that’s what’s going on. Look around, find a place that’s 8 degrees warmer than West Texas, and you’re talking about some pretty hot desert locations.” 

Fort Davis would be as hot as El Paso today, El Paso and Midland hotter than Phoenix is now.

Dryness is a defining reality of West Texas now. And climate change is projected to create drier times ahead. A truncated monsoon may be part of the picture.

“Summertime seems to have the biggest risk of rainfall decreases, going forward,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “It’s not like the monsoon starts late and ends late, it’s not just a shift in time, it actually makes the monsoon shorter overall, with less rain falling during the monsoon.”

Natural variability, however, is a major factor in precipitation – and drying trends don’t mean there won’t be wet years, or wet decades.

Droughts are likely to become more frequent and more intense. But warmer air can also hold and release more water.

“So we still expect to see maintained risk of flooding,” Nielsen-Gammon said, “and perhaps an increased risk of severe flooding, even if overall rainfall decreases. Unfortunately, it is possible to have worse droughts and worse floods at the same time, because of the way climate change is working out.”

Wildfire frequency may ultimately decline – with decreased rainfall, there will be less and less to burn. But, in the short term, catastrophic fires could transform the landscape – consuming trees that, with drying conditions, won’t return. 

In Alpine, Nielsen-Gammon will talk about the projections for West Texas – and what climate change will mean for water here, for streams, rivers and aquifers. 

The picture is stark for this place, and the planet. But as the reflective species, it behooves us to face what we have done, and continue to do, to the only home we have.

The conference is hosted by the Big Bend Native Plant Society, Sierra Club, Big Bend Conservation Alliance and Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. Make reservations for this free event at npsot.org/bigbend.