The March Madness of Texas Weather

Over the past week, Texas has endured two significant extreme weather events.  On Monday, March 21st, severe thunderstorms and tornado clusters tore across the Austin and Dallas areas, damaging homes and businesses.  Days earlier, in drought-stricken west and south Texas, over 100 wildfires erupted, threatening homes and agricultural communities.  On a day when some Texans braced for heavy rainfall and damaging storms, others raced to move family and livestock out of an incendiary calamity’s way.

Extreme weather events like these and others are becoming endemic to the Texas experience.  According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data, twelve major weather disaster events affected Texas in 2021.  These included nine severe storms, one hurricane, one flood, and Winter Storm Uri.  Combined, these extreme events inflicted between $20 to $50  billion in damages, making 2021 the third-most-expensive year for weather damage after 2017 (Hurricane Harvey) and 2008 (Hurricane Ike).

In light of the past week’s weather-related events and earlier winter storms, 2022 is already off to a rocky start.  Unfortunately, the data points towards more extreme weather on the horizon.

In September 2021, Texas 2036 and the Office of the Texas State Climatologist at Texas A&M University released a report on extreme weather trends in Texas.  The report projects that the likelihood for more extreme weather events will increase over the next 15 years.  According to Texas 2036’s report, the average temperature will increase by three degrees when compared to the end of the last century.  This warming trend will contribute to an increased likelihood for extreme rainfall events, including more days capable of producing severe storms with large hail and tornadoes.

Paradoxically, while state rainfall may intensify as more severe storms gather on the horizon, drought may become more severe.  Hotter average temperatures combined with greater rainfall variability suggest that future droughts may be more severe than the historic Drought of Record of the 1950s.  This dryness will contribute to an increased likelihood of wildfires, much like what we are seeing in Texas right now with fires burning in areas affected by severe to extreme drought conditions.

Just as past extreme weather events have cost Texans billions, future ones threaten to do the same.  While state policymakers cannot change the weather, the opportunity exists to calibrate some state programs, particularly those for water supply and flood control planning and project development, to address greater extremes anticipated for our weather patterns.  The first step for making this happen is to ensure the incorporation of extreme weather data into the planning processes.