This wretched summer’s triple-digit temperatures and smoke-stained sunsets are both an unavoidable part of life in the Lone Star State and, in my mind, a personal attack on me. To be sure, my summer seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, which can be inflamed by rising temperatures, is partly to blame. But I’m also mad that it’s not 40 degrees out. I’m a winter person. Until I was eleven, I lived on the East Coast, where snowy winters and scraping ice off the driveway were a rite of passage. Years after we moved to Texas, when I was in high school, I got my first “adult” winter coat—a black, hooded North Face that I still have. I relish the chance to fetch it from the back of my closet each year. While Texas’s endless sunny days might seem, well, endless, there is some respite coming. Atmospheric scientists suggest that Texans will experience a calmer and wetter winter this year. And I couldn’t be more ready.
Since 1818, the Farmers’ Almanac has been recording and tracking weather patterns using a “secret” formula developed by its first editor, David Young. And this year, the Farmers’ Almanac predicted that Texas will see an “unseasonably cold” winter. It also forecast a possible—third!—major storm in January 2024. But the Farmers’ Almanac isn’t foolproof—a 2010 study found its predictions were correct roughly half the time. And the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center gives Texas equal chances of a warm or cold winter. Meteorologists and atmospheric scientists told me that whether average temperatures will end up below normal for the winter is hard to predict because of two competing factors affecting weather: climate change and El Niño. Due to the movement of warm water across the equatorial Pacific, which messes up normal weather patterns, Texas’s winter could be cooler, but with fewer extreme swings in temperature, John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist, told me. “The typical pattern for El Niño is cooler in [the] southern U.S. and warmer in [the] northern U.S,” he said. “So we think of El Niño here as being cool and rainy, but since it’s warm in the north, we don’t get as much as the severely cold air that we might otherwise. So we don’t hit the cold extremes.”
Over the last several decades, though, Texas’s winters have gotten decidedly too mild. The southern swath of the United States, including Texas, is becoming increasingly warmer. Bodies of water that dot the region are drying out. As climate change cleaves the frequency and intensity of snowfall in Texas, to my dismay, extreme cold and snow will both become even less frequent. In the American South, an iconically summer-loving part of the world where summer revolves around finding swimming holes and making sure your car’s AC is running steadily, the rapid loss of these chilly days may not seem important—but this loss serves as a bellwether for some of climate change’s most visible effects worldwide.
The winter storms of the past two years might have some Texans thinking that winters overall are getting colder, but that’s not true. “The coldest temperatures in Texas have actually gotten warmer, so winters have gotten milder over time,” said Ramalingam Saravanan, the department head of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. By 2036, the average temperature in Texas is expected to be about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 1991–2020 average. In Texas, that means snowstorms are likely to become both less common and less intense—leaving residents mostly unprepared for the ones that do occur. “What we saw in 2021 and to a lesser extent in 2022 were not cold winters, per se. They were cold outbreaks during winter,” Nielsen-Gammon said.
But despite the Farmers’ Almanac prediction of a major winter storm in January, during an El Niño year, that sort of extreme cold event is less likely, according to Nielsen-Gammon.
What’s more certain is that this winter will be a rainy one because of El Niño, which typically leads to wetter-than-normal conditions across the southern United States. So why haven’t we seen the rain yet? El Niño has a substantial effect on Texas rainfall only during the colder parts of the year, when it pushes the Pacific jet stream, a band of air flowing from west to east around the Northern Hemisphere, south of where it usually flows (El Niño’s summertime effect in Texas is mainly to reduce the number of hurricanes that are likely to develop). According to Troy Kimmel, a senior lecturer in the department of geography and the environment at the University of Texas at Austin and the school’s incident-response meteorologist, rainfall here won’t pick up until fall, when the jet stream gets dragged by those Pacific Ocean water temperatures into Texas.
As both pundits and farmers know, predicting the future is a perilous business. Given what we know about both El Niño and climate change, though, there’s both good and bad news for Texans. The good news (knock on wood!), according to Nielsen-Gammon, is that we shouldn’t expect a massive winter storm to repeat the terror of 2021, when millions of Texans—living in the so-called energy capital of the world—shivered in the dark when the electric grid failed, unable to turn on the lights or run their heaters during some of the coldest days in decades. (Other states handled that freeze without worry, but in Texas, which failed to require energy facilities to winterize, every cold spell is met with anxiety.)
Although winter rain could help ameliorate the extreme drought gripping much of the state, timing is everything. If there’s no rain before Texas’s first cold front—assuming it has gusty winds—fall wildfires could burn bigger, Kimmel warned. “I need to see precipitation and I need a good soaking of two to four inches of rain over a good part of Central and South Texas. We need that. We’ve got to have that or else something else is going to get us.”
On the precipice of my next Austin winter, I am still waiting for that New England–level snowfall. Part of me hopes that the Farmers’ Almanac is right about an “unseasonably cold” winter. But I’ve been in Texas long enough to know my nostalgia won’t change this decidedly not wintry climate. For now, I’ll enjoy the fact that summer is almost over and that rainy and chillier days will be here soon enough, when I’ll pleasantly sip my ginger-and-lemon tea and enjoy the cooler temperatures for the few months I’m allowed to experience them.
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