Scorched Earth

This summer’s hot topic? Weather.

September 1998By Comments

FROM MY OFFICE WINDOW I can see in the distance a few low, white clouds. Thin and flat, they hang in the sky as if they were ghosts of UFOs. I can’t help staring at them. They are an interruption to what I have been seeing for weeks and weeks—a clear blue sky, as blue as a postcard, empty and blue. In five minutes, without ever seeming to move, the clouds are gone, and once again there is nothing but the solid, irritating blue.

Perhaps you have noticed how hot it’s been this summer. One statistic can tell the whole story, since the statistics are similar throughout the state: Temperatures in Dallas went over 100 degrees for 29 days in a row. That’s well short of the record of 42 days in 1980, but still, that’s a lot of hot days. And there is the drought. San Antonio and Houston have had the driest April-to-July growing season on record. Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth have had the second driest. When normal rainfall and livable temperatures will return is anybody’s guess—assuming they do return. Right now, I find the weather depressing in a way I had never imagined. The song says, “Blue skies smilin’ at me . . .” Blue skies are usually associated with fine days, with a humming, pleasant, well-ordered world. But now they are oppressive, the sign of unrelenting heat, of foliage turning brown, of dust and dry cracks in the ground. Where are those halcyon days when the sky is nothing but low, black clouds and the wind blows cold rain right into your face?

Each day the news is filled with the consequences of the weather, some of it tragic, some of it amusing in a heat-addled way, but none of it good.

There have been more than one hundred deaths in Texas caused by this summer’s heat. The East Texas forests are already in their fall colors. The heat and the drought have baked the green away. And we’ll be feeling the effects at least until Christmas, since the seedlings on Christmas-tree farms are especially vulnerable to heat.

The Kansas National Guard agreed to deliver nine truckloads of free hay to Texas. Two Kansas ranchers, sympathetic with Texas’ woes, collected the hay. But even well-meaning charity can become a political dispute. Comptroller John Sharp, who is the Democratic party’s candidate for lieutenant governor, said he thought the Texas National Guard should deliver the free hay. But Governor George W. Bush and agriculture commissioner Rick Perry, who is Sharp’s opponent, agreed that the guard could deliver the hay but said they expected private companies to step forward to do the job.

The City of Irving employed a professional wrestler named Reid Downs, who puts a ring in his nose and uses the name Bullman, to patrol the streets at night to catch any home owners or businesses that violate watering restrictions.

On July 5 the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, a national park near Amarillo, burned up in a wildfire. Grass, mesquite, cacti, and a building on park grounds were all destroyed.

On August 4 the temperature reached 101 degrees in Houston, breaking the existing record for that day. Even in the heat, more than a thousand people stood in line for hours to get federal heat-relief aid. Some collapsed and had to be treated. Houston Metro sent seven air-conditioned buses as temporary relief stations. A few intersections nearby were blocked off, and fire hoses sprayed wa ter into the air. About four thousand people got an average of $500 for utility bills or repairs to air conditioners.

United States border officials estimated that at least fifty illegal immigrants had died from the heat on their way to or from crossing the Rio Grande. One man sought refuge in a Border Patrol checkpoint north of Laredo. He was dazed and stumbling and begging for water. The Border Patrol gave him Gatorade and a sandwich.

There were so many grass fires around Dallas in early August that with the temperature at 106 degrees, the sky over downtown turned black.

The Austin American-Statesman reported the plight of Larry Gilbert, a zoologist with the University of Texas who runs an experimental program to import phorids, tiny flies that prey on fire ants. The phorids inject their eggs into a fire ant’s thorax. Then the eggs hatch, and larvae eat their way to freedom, killing the ant. But this year the fire ants stayed deep underground to avoid the heat, and the imported phorids died. “I don’t want to whine,” Gilbert told the paper, “but I haven’t had the best of luck with the weather.”

The heat has dried the ground in Fort Worth, causing it to shift. The shifting broke a ninety-inch water main that carried almost half of Tarrant County’s water supply.

The prolonged high temperatures have caused sun kinks in railroad tracks. The heated tracks expand, shift, and even come loose. In early August sun kinks caused the derailment of 13 cars on a 112-car train near Fort Worth. Twelve cars on a 126-car train carrying coal derailed near Hillsboro. Union Pacific reduced train speeds by 10 miles per hour and patrolled tracks daily, but company officials acknowledged that it was impossible to find every kink in time to prevent accidents.

The Dallas Academy, a private school, moved its summer football practices to 6:45 in the morning.

Bernard Weinstein, the director of the Center for Economic Development at the University of North Texas in Denton, said that the drought will not have a significant effect on the Texas economy unless it lasts several years. The reason is that agriculture is only one percent of the Texas economy. Other economists, including Jared Hazelton, the director of the Center for Business and Economic Analysis at Texas A&M, and Thomas Saving, the director of the Private Enterprise Research Center at Texas A&M, agreed. Speaker of the House Pete Laney and Senate Finance Committee chairman Bill Ratliff, both of whom represent rural districts, said the economists were simply wrong. And election opponents John Sharp and Rick Perry agreed long enough for them both to criticize the economists. “Economists aren’t talking to families,” Sharp said. Perry said agriculture will lose about $1.75 billion. That and the resulting loss to businesses related to agriculture will be about a $5 billion loss in Texas.

The reason for this summer’s weather is both simple and unknowable. Each summer a high-pressure area usually settles over Texas. This is nothing more than a mountain of air. Seen from above, the mountain of air turns clockwise, and the air rolls down the sides, much as rocks roll down the side of a geological mountain. The air that rolls away is replaced by air from high in the atmosphere, which is dry. The mountain thus produces hot, dry days and will sit where it is until something comes along with enough force to move it or break it up. That usually happens after a week or so. Sometimes it’s a tropical disturbance from the Gulf of Mexico that, because it has been over water, often produces rain. Sometimes it’s a front from the north carrying relatively cooler air. Sometimes the jet stream increases its velocity and breaks the mountain of air apart or moves it on. This year nothing came along and, as I write this, still hasn’t come along. That is the simple part. But why has nothing come along to disturb the mountain of air? We do not have a clear answer to that question because we do not understand the chaotic and complex global weather dynamics. Consequently, we do not know why the weather this summer has been the way it is.

Of course, the ultimate question is whether this summer’s weather is an aberration or whether there has been some fundamental change, so that such heat and drought have now become our normal weather. If you believe Al Gore, the answer is that there has indeed been a fundamental change. On August 10, sounding very much like a biblical prophet, he said, “Every month this year has set a new record for average global temperature for that month, and July was the hottest of any month in nearly one hundred and twenty years. Scientists say we are warming the planet, and unless we act, we can expect even more extreme weather—more heat waves, more flooding, more powerful storms, and more drought.” This apocalyptic warning is, like last July, overheated. Since temperature records are usually kept in cities, whose concrete and asphalt make them little islands of heat, the real temperature of the earth is not that clear-cut. We have reliable records of that going back only twenty years. And, even among scientists who believe that the earth is warming, some may say that we are warming the planet, but others say we don’t have that much to do with it.

In Texas the opinion among the scientists I talked to was uniform—we don’t know and can’t know if there has been a change, and nothing in the data from the past shows any trend one way or another. John Griffiths at Texas A&M is the Texas State Climatologist. He maintains extensive records on Texas’ weather. He says that if you plot rainfall and temperature in Texas for the past one hundred years, there is no trend at all. “The chart looks like a shotgun blast,” he says. “From 1890 to 1940, temperatures did seem to be rising. But from 1940 to 1992, they seemed to go down. Now, who knows? The closest summer we’ve had to this one was way back in 1917.”

That I found particularly comforting. Drought and heat, unpleasant and even as deadly as they are, do come and go. Eighty-one years ago Texas made it through a summer like this and didn’t wither and blow away.

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