“If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute,” has been the Texas punchline for decades.
Having lived in the state for over twenty years, I can attest to the wild swings in temperature. Every January, I got used to the week where we’d hit 80 degrees Fahrenheit and, overnight, a cold front would rip through plunging us back into freezing temperatures.
I first noticed this pattern while camping with my son’s Cub Scout troop. We were at an orienteering event, sweating it out on a balmy day as we searched the scrubby woodlands for navigational flags.
That evening, the tents were bending low to the ground as a cold front howled outside. By morning, they’d earned their “polar bear” patch — a rare accomplishment for a Texas troop — for spending the night in sub-freezing temperatures.
That was over ten years ago. This month, I’ve experienced that same wild swing three times.
The first was shortly after arriving. An atmospheric river had swallowed the West Coast dumping snow in areas not accustomed to it and absolutely burying higher elevations. Portland and other areas throughout the Pacific Northwest were blanketed and even areas around San Francisco saw a rare dusting.
This same front blasted across 1700 miles and caused us to pull up stakes where we’d spent the holidays in Oklahoma before it continued all the way to the East Coast, losing little momentum.
The West Coast had already experienced an atmospheric river mid-October last year. It drove us out of the Sierras where we’d perched above Mono Lake. As passes closed, we had to keep rerouting further south, finally able to cross over toward Nevada at Death Valley.
That event dropped seven feet of snow at the higher elevations. The more recent one dumped seventeen.
As nomads, my wife and I are getting accustomed to both the seasonal migrations and the planning necessary to stay ahead of inclement weather. Driving in high winds, snow, ice, even intense rain isn’t ideal in a 26,000 pound rig shaped like a brick. In 2020, a similar front chased us from Montana to New Mexico. We finally holed up in Santa Fe and got caught in a rare mid-October accumulation of snow and ice.
In most cases, these are normal seasonal changes. However, over the years, they’ve become stronger, more frequent, and trickier to avoid.
We’ve only been on our adventure for three years. I’d like to chalk these experiences up to just a greater personal awareness of normal patterns. But coming back to the place we once called home for over twenty years tells us things have changed.
Instead of one cold snap this month, we’ve had one each week. None have been quite as devastating as the one last winter that knocked out power across the state. Still, we came prepared.
I installed a solar array over the holidays. With an onboard diesel generator and a tank full of propane, we’ve got plenty of ways to keep warm and electrified if the grid decides to shut down. It’s a reality we’re designing our lives around and not some far-off, conspiracy-laden event.
When we first began our travels, the idea was to simply take advantage of modern technology and live the life we chose. Travel. Visit friends and family. Eventually figure out a place to put down roots for good.
Now, this roaming lifestyle seems to have become a mechanism for survival. An early warning of things to come.
The summer preceding this chilly winter also saw records broken as a heatwave engulfed the West. More grid failures. Extreme drought. Deaths. Places like the Pacific Northwest where central air used to be optional are finding it a necessity.
Instead of searching for a place to stay long-term, we’re often on the move, from one habitable zone to the next. At our current rate, we’ll have fewer and fewer of those places left.
To confirm my experiences weren’t hyperbolic or simply anecdotal, I went searching for actual data.
Texas A&M last year released a study on extreme weather, linked from this summary on the Texas Tribune. According to the data, despite the winter chill I’ve experienced, the climate in Texas has gotten dramatically warmer. Those fluctuations are part of the overall warming and increase in erratic, extreme conditions.
The number of 100 degree plus days in Texas is expected to double by 2036. Coupled with these winter cold snaps currently on hand, it’s hard to see how an aging electric grid can cope with demand.
On top of this, severe storms are projected to worsen. Heat and drought won’t be alleviated by this rain. Precipitation will fall more often as flash flooding events, wreaking havoc in low lying areas in the east.
Hurricanes are expected to decrease in frequency but will greatly increase in intensity. These will batter the coast even as the Gulf rises, consuming the land at an alarming rate. Chances of storm surges, like the ones that have flooded Houston streets, will double for the hardest hit areas. Once claimed by the Gulf, the shores will struggle to return.
The biggest problem is that these changes happen gradually. So gradual, they’re tough to see. But the accounting slowly adds up. A bad debt, unpaid. The bill you keep moving to the bottom of the stack until, one day, it’s compounded into bankruptcy.
Living more exposed to the elements as my wife and I do, we’re becoming more aware of the true cost of inaction. Over time, though, we’ll all understand it.
I’m not sure what becomes the tipping point for my home state. Climate change denial was long a platform of the majority party. Recent trends have softened that stance, but every level of government is still deeply entwined with the fossil fuel industry.
You’d think the toll on humanity would be enough. The projected heat waves will kill thousands. The cold killed 246 people in last year’s winter storm. Hurricanes and flooding will threaten and displace thousands more.
Yet, even as the state’s leaders plan for the inevitable outcome of a climate warped by human activity, they try to avoid any mention of the cause. As recently as 2018, Governor Abbott was reviewing plans to adapt to climate change and claiming ignorance about why he might be doing so.
When asked directly whether or not man-made climate change was the culprit he said, “Listen, I’m not a scientist. Impossible for me to answer that question.”
In the years since this admitted ignorance about science hasn’t stopped him or his colleagues from entertaining legislation in support of creationism, control of women’s bodies, or politicizing academic topics such as critical race theory and health emergencies like, say, a global pandemic.
They’ve even passed a law this December which prevents state agencies from investing in or working with companies who do not support fossil fuels.
As a “business friendly” state, however, Texas should fully acknowledge what precisely is contributing to the ongoing climate disaster. A short term investment in more oil, more gas, more coal, is quickly becoming a massive liability on any balance sheet. Building storm barriers, shoring up the grid, buying out and elevating at-risk homes all feel like yet another subsidy when the root causes aren’t addressed.
At the moment, it’s 6 a.m. and twenty-two degrees outside. The temperatures started dropping midday Wednesday and never fully recovered. While Texas weather is weird, it isn’t normally this weird.
Oh, and a gas company in a move stolen from Russia’s playbook is threatening to shut off the gas to half a million homes.
Thankfully, we leave again next week. Off to our next stop. I have no remorse except for my friends and family caught between a changing planet and a willfully ignorant, entrenched leadership they may not be able to change.