Data Shows Texas’ Weather Is Changing — and Texans Should Prepare

Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon and Margaret Spellings

March 5, 2020

Data makes hard conversations easier, and few conversations have been as difficult as the one around climate.

It was important to us — as, respectively, Texas’ state climatologist and the CEO of a non-profit organization focused on Texas’ future — to bring a new lens to this issue. We wanted to take a data-driven look at extreme weather trends to get insight into the future that Texans need to prepare for.

The data shows that Texas’ climate has been changing. That’s the conclusion of a scientific report by Texas A&M University researchers, funded in part by Texas 2036, that observed and analyzed historical meteorological and climate data for Texas.

If, as expected, current trends continue, our changing climate will pose more challenges to Texans living here in 2036 — the year Texas turns 200 — than today in several ways:

  • The number of 100-degree days will double over the next couple of decades.
  • The expected average temperature in 2036 will be about 3 degrees warmer than the average over the second half of the last century.
  • By 2036, extreme rainfall is expected to be 30-50 percent more frequent than the 1950-1999 average, causing more flooding — especially in Houston and other Texas cities where impervious surfaces increase rainwater runoff intensity.
  • Higher temperatures and increased rainfall variability will cause more intense droughts.
  • For some parts of the Texas coast, the storm surge risk may double by 2050 due to sea level rise and more intense hurricanes.

This data, which is consistent with data produced by climate prediction models widely used by scientists, shows that as Texas prepares to add 10 million more people by 2036 and build an economy with 7-8 million more jobs, Texas policy makers and business leaders need to prepare for a future that looks different from the past.

Big cities like Houston need to prepare for more frequent episodes of extreme rainfall and flooding, as the city is doing through its recently released Resilient Houston plan. At the same time, rural communities in West Texas should plan for more intense droughts.

Our growing state needs to leverage this data — and our innovation, talent and leadership — to strategically plan for what a changing climate will mean for our water supply, infrastructure and economy. Given the long-term horizon of 2036, our strong economy can help position us for the future as we rethink everything from growing crops to creating resilient infrastructure to pre-empting new government budget problems.

At the same time, we can harness the state’s vast leadership and expertise to slow or even reverse these trends. Yes, Texas leads the nation in carbon emissions — largely because we have played such a vital role in supplying energy to the nation and the world. But we are also the world’s epicenter of energy innovation.

Already, business leaders in Houston and elsewhere across our state are thinking comprehensively about economically productive ways to position Texas for a low-carbon future. As the President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank, Rob Kaplan, told the Houston Chronicle recently: “It’s unusual to find a company that is not thinking about (the energy transition). It’s happening faster than people think.”

In recent years, Texas has experienced the worst one-year drought of record, its wettest year, its costliest hurricane, and its highest storm rainfall total. To extend its prosperity into future generations, Texas has both the responsibility to prepare for extreme weather, and the opportunity to lead on innovations that the world needs to address coming climate challenges.

The data is in: our growing population and thriving economy will face more extreme weather by our state’s bicentennial. So, the question is, what are we planning to do about it?

Dr. Nielsen-Gammon is a Regents Professor at Texas A&M University; he was named state climatologist by then-Gov. George W. Bush in 2000. Spellings is President and CEO of Texas 2036; she also served as U.S. Secretary of Education for President George W. Bush.