Climate Scientists Predict a Texas Drought "Worse Than We Imagined" And a Changing Coast

Localizing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's most confident, depressing predictions yet is no mean feat for journalists. Which is why it helps when actual experts do it for you. Texas Climate News sought out the state's finest climatologists, oceanographers and public-policy experts. If nothing else, their responses make clear that the Lone Star State is headed for a new normal. Pretending it isn't happening is not a viable option.

Thousands of the world's climate scientists have concluded that the warming identified in the atmosphere and in the oceans is primarily driven by humans, with a degree of confidence similar to the connection identified between smoking and lung cancer. The forecast is the same, but more specific: a warmer climate, more heat waves, a rising sea level, more heavy precipitation events and, in Texas and much of the central U.S., a tendency toward the dry.

What's interesting is that while forecasting a drier region, the report relies on a 2008 paper that found reduced drought. The ongoing drought completely changes the calculus. "This drought has almost singlehandedly put an end to the trend of reduced drought frequency and intensity that Texas had been experiencing," state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon told TCN. "The latest IPCC report is mostly just an incremental update of something we already knew. The [continuing] drought of 2011-20xx has taught us something we didn't know: Rather than being a thing of the past, Texas drought can be worse than we imagined."

Rising oceans too have dire implications for the Texas Gulf Coast. A global sea-level rise of 0.5 millimeters per year over the last 4,000 years has accelerated to 2.5 millimeters per year in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, according to Rice University oceanography professor and Shell Center for Sustainability academic director John Anderson.

"Regardless of where you are in that debate, the fact is that sea level, as measured at Pier 21 in Galveston, has risen two feet since 1908," says Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M. "Half of that was due to subsidence but the other half was due to climate change. Anyone who wants to stick their head in the sand about that reality is likely to drown if they keep it there too long."

Yet that is exactly what our state officials are doing. As Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Chair Bryan Shaw said during the Texas Tribune Festival, "What we see is greater and greater uncertainty."

He went on to say that it wasn't clear that carbon dioxide is making climate change worse.

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Brantley Hargrove

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