Texas winter, if you could call it that, is now over, and this past one is in the books as the warmest on record. Texas experienced conditions that either broke records or were “much above normal,” with not an inch of the Lone Star State experiencing “near normal” weather.
Just how abnormal was this sweltering “winter,” and what does it mean?
“The average winter temperature across Texas was 53.0 Fahrenheit, which is a record by .9 degrees,” Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist, continuing to rattle off more superlatives. “It’s 4.8 degrees above normal, which is defined as the average from 1981 to 2010. It’s 5.7 degrees above the average for the twentieth century.”
Nielsen-Gammon notes that the DFW airport normally records its last freeze of the winter in mid-to-late March, with the earliest last freeze recorded on February 5. This year, DFW dipped below 33 last on January 7. “This would be so far earlier than the previous date, the odds of this happening are somewhere in the one-in-10,000 range,” Nielsen-Gammon says. “If there was no global warming.”
Our even warmer than usual winter puts us about a month ahead of schedule for spring, according to Nielsen-Gammon. Real-world manifestations were everywhere. I’ve been recording the first bluebonnets in my own Houston neighborhood since 2010. This year, I saw my first ones on February 8, about a week earlier than any I’d seen before. At least this year you can make your sweetie a truly Texas-style Valentine’s bouquet.
But the conditions that aided the early appearance of our revered state flower didn’t bode well for other flora. By the time Tyler’s famed Azalea Trail officially opened on March 24, organizers realized they would have a problem. Few, if any, azaleas remained, with most having bloomed weeks before. The event’s website noted:
“With our strange winter weather, spring has sprung a bit early…We hope that there will still be some azaleas by opening weekend of the trail. However, regardless of if there are azaleas, there will still be many beautiful spring flowers blooming, lots of events, and maybe even some roses during the trail.”
The optimism went for naught. The grounds of the historic home of Joan and Guy Pyron are traditionally the event’s crown jewel, but this year, all the Pyron azaleas had already withered by opening day.
Such early blooms can be catastrophic for migratory birds, says Richard Gibbons, conservation director at the Houston Audubon Society. “For resident birds, it’s not such a big deal,” Gibbons says. “For migratory birds, when the day length gets to a certain point, restlessness kicks in and they say it’s time to go. When you were a twentysomething, you probably experienced something similar.
“For those birds, the calendar forces that shape their arrival dates are very constricted. If you arrive too early you die because you are gonna freeze and there won’t be any insects for you to eat. If you arrive too late, the territories are going to be filled and you are gonna get a crappy piece of property and no one is gonna have anything to do with you. You are not gonna have any offspring and you will be an evolutionary loser.”
Gibbons calls it an “asymmetry of resources.”
“The blooms are coming out earlier, maybe the insects are coming out earlier. It’s going to be fruiting earlier, all post-peak when these birds come through. Birds will have to learn to adapt and migrate earlier, and it will take decades and decades to make sure that is happening.”
Shorebirds are as threatened as arboreal birds, albeit by different forces. Gibbons says more frequent and increasingly violent tropical storms— manifestations of a record-warm Gulf of Mexico, which is also the key factor in Texas warming all around—will gnaw away at the coastline, robbing species like plovers and terns, both of which nest in beach colonies, of habitat, or in worse case scenarios, drowning a generation of nestlings. Gibbons says the Tax Day flood of 2016 was a catastrophe for these species, and also points out that early spring Gulf storms are major killers of migratory species as well. Should the storm catch them mid-ocean, they can’t fight the winds and plummet, exhausted, into the waves.
In the longer term, should sea levels rise as the ice caps melt, the coastal landscape would naturally undergo a drastic alteration. “This would reshuffle the deck of coastal habitats with marsh migrating inland when pathways are available and vanishing when corridors or conditions no longer exist,” Gibbons says. “Ecosystem strongholds, with rich species interactions intact, are increasingly islands of habitat in a sea of human-dominated landscapes with poor natural representations.”
Ornithologists now regard many species of birds as climate-threatened and climate-endangered. “The ranges of most North American birds has been modeled for future climate scenarios and more than 300 bird species are predicted to have significant declines within 40 years as a result of the shifts in habitats,” Gibbons says. “Most of these species are already experiencing declines.”
Other flying creatures are thriving. Namely, mosquitoes—the pests love warm winters. Dr. Peter Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, says that the two short, sharp cold snaps East Texas experienced this winter were not enough to put more than a tiny dent in the mosquito population.
Hotez is concerned that will keep Zika marching northward. “We’ve already seen Zika transmission in South Texas,” he says. “It started at the end of last year and it seems to be continuing. While it’s not a lot of cases, but it says to me that there is ongoing transmission, and with this mild winter, I am quite worried that other parts of Texas, including Houston-Harris County and San Antonio, will be at risk of Zika transmission as we move into the spring and summer.”
The same Zika-carrying mosquito—Aedes aegypti—also transmits Dengue fever, chikungunya, and yellow fever—that merciless scourge of nineteenth century Texas and much of the rest of the U.S. In 2013, Hotez co-authored a paper on the threat of yellow fever’s potential reemergence in America, and pointed out that Houston was especially at risk.
In his paper, Hotez notes that the combination of Nigerian expants—who are more likely to decline vaccination against yellow fever when traveling back to the country—Houston’s subtropical climate, and the presence of these Aedes aegypti mosquitos makes Houston a hotbed for potential yellow fever outbreaks. This is only furthered by the dense housing situation and poverty rates.
Chikungunya, however, is of more immediate concern. “We have all the ingredients needed for an outbreak,” Hotez says. “We’ve got the aegypti mosquito. We have a population that has never seen these diseases before—they are what is called immunologically naive. And you have that warm winter, and I am concerned that it could be a perfect storm.” And that’s not all. Hotez points out that Texas might also need to brace for the West Nile virus and, in non-mosquito related illnesses, Chagas disease, which is transmitted by kissing bugs.
So what, other than an elevated risk of catching a tropical disease in our own backyards, can we expect from the summer? If fall and winter were that warm, won’t summer be an inferno?
Not necessarily. We received a fair bit of rain over the winter. “Rainfall will help,” Nielsen-Gammon says. “It’s important because a warm winter, early spring helps the plants to really pump more moisture into the air.”
Still, Nielsen-Gammon thinks we are in for a scorcher. The Gulf is as warm as we’ve ever known it to be, for one thing, and that’s coming on top of a planet-wide general warming trend. But sunburns aren’t the only thing you need to worry about. That bathtub on our backdoor is primed for pop-up, early-season hurricanes.
“June hurricanes that form in the Gulf of Mexico are a real problem because you don’t have as much advance warning as you do from the late-season ones that show up in the Atlantic,” he says. “Lots of disaster managers say ‘Let’s do this five days in advance of landfall. But if the storm doesn’t form until one or two days before landfall, you’re sort of screwed.”
Nielsen-Gammon calls Hurricane Audrey the poster child for that variety of storm. Audrey popped up as a tropical wave in the Bay of Campeche on June 25, 1957. Two days later, it was a major hurricane, packing 125 mph winds and bearing due north towards the Texas-Louisiana border, where it made landfall on June 27. (Audrey was a storm with no adolescence: it developed so rapidly, meteorologists never recorded it as a tropical depression.) Louisiana got the dirty side, and that was where most of the 416 (or more) fatalities occurred. In the end, it was the sixth-deadliest hurricane since 1900, and the deadliest between 1957 and Katrina in 2005.
And the Gulf is even more of a stewpot now than it was then.
Nielsen-Gammon points out that Texas has not experienced and officially “severe” winter since the 1980s. But in the mean time, more and more Americans are accepting global warming as fact. In a Gallup poll released last month, 45 percent of Americans said they worried “a great deal” about global warming (an all-time high); 62 percent believed it had already begun (another all-time high); and 68 percent said they believed it was caused by human activities. (Yep, yet another all-time high.)
“What’s going on now is an interesting experiment in my humble opinion,” says Dr. John Geissman, who is the head of the geosciences department at the University of Texas at Dallas. “A very interesting, fascinating experiment. At no point in Earth’s history did we have a group of organisms who relied so heavily on burning carbon for their existence.
“We are perturbing Earth’s system. We are now seeing the potential for dramatic changes to the Earth’s system play out. Dramatic and almost unpredictable changes.”
Geissman’s expertise lies in the earth’s crust, and he is alarmed by what could happen if humans continue to use up Earth’s resources at the same rate we are now.
“A high school graduate could easily do this math, but we now know, pretty much, how much carbon-based energy resides in the crust of our planet. If we were to utilize all that carbon-based material for energy and transportation purposes, we would easily get to 600 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere.” (It is currently at 400 ppm, and even that number is freaking scientists out.)
“This is a problem,” Geissman continues. “Yes, you can make the argument that the CO2 levels in the earth’s atmosphere were much higher at certain times, but the fossil record tells us very clearly—we weren’t around then. There was nothing like us, organisms that needed a certain range of climate to exist.”
I am not a science guy, but I am something of a fan of science fiction. I’ve long held the belief that Earth was turning into Venus, where the atmosphere is 99 percent CO2 and surface temperatures average a mere 600 degrees Celsius. I ran that theory by Geissman, an esteemed scientist, and expected a laugh.
“You know, I was getting ready to say you made this comment that ‘I’m no scientist, I’m just a writer,’ but you are doing a darn good job.”
So yeah, I’ll take that, but what will that mean when all our descendants are living (or more likely, not) on a gumbo-pot of a planet? If present trends continue, every single one of us seems primed to be as much an evolutionary loser as that late-arriving warbler nesting on the wrong side of the tracks. And then the early blooms won’t seem as welcome.