Texans certainly complain about extreme heat during the hottest stretches of summer, but you’ll rarely, if ever, hear them express fear of the high temperatures that envelop our state each year. For many, the ability to endure heat-related discomfort is worn like a badge of honor—a twisted vestige, perhaps, of frontier grit. “Hot enough for ya?” is our greeting of choice when temperatures spike and shirt collars wilt.
If you’re like me, you can probably source this defiant attitude from within your own family. My grandfather, for example, grew up on a Central Texas farm and spent triple-digit summers picking cotton under a blistering sky. He talked about fearing the rattlesnakes he’d encounter, but never the heat. On scorching July days some eight decades later, you could still find him outside pulling weeds by hand, his only protection from the sun a pair of slacks and a long-sleeved shirt.
During brutal August two-a-days when I was growing up, my high school coaches didn’t take complaints about heat seriously, if at all, until a player had vomited more than once. And even today, when summer temperatures cross the century mark in Austin, the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail never has any shortage of determined runners eager to push their limits.
Extreme heat is baked into being Texan. It’s always been treated like an unremarkable, seasonal reality, one we’ve successfully tempered through our built environment over more than 170 years—dog-run houses, icehouses, an elaborate maze of climate-controlled tunnels spread across 95 city blocks. And don’t get us started on our favorite swimming holes.
Our success at keeping the worst ravages of the sun at bay may also partially explain our staunch resistance to acknowledging the worsening, and increasingly costly, reality of climate change. In a state still single-handedly capable of producing enough oil and gas to push the world beyond its global climate goals by the end of the century, one can’t help but wonder if our karmic bill is coming due and our fearlessness is beginning to look, undeniably, like foolishness. Though we’re less than a week into summer, it’s already abundantly clear that this year is notably different from any that have come before.
No matter where you look, the signs that Texas has entered a new era of extreme heat are everywhere. Last week in Dallas, a USPS letter carrier tragically collapsed and died on the job. Across the state in recent days, multiple hikers have lost their lives after being exposed to scorching temperatures on Texas trails. But the most compelling evidence that this year’s heat is different are the measurements. Across the state over the past few weeks, decades-old heat records have been not just broken but shattered, often by multiple degrees, according to Victor Murphy, the climate service program manager for the National Weather Service Southern Region.
In Junction, on the western edge of the Texas Hill Country, the town’s record high temperature dating back to 1948 (109 degrees) has been broken three times in the past eleven days, reaching as high as 111 degrees at one point. One hundred miles northwest, San Angelo—which is positioned on the upper rim of a dome of heat-trapping high pressure that stretches deep into Mexico—set an all-time record temperature of 114 degrees two days in a row last week, a shocking meteorological development. “We’re talking about a record dating back to 1907 being shattered by three degrees not once, but twice in the same week,” Murphy said. “That’s astounding.”
But ground zero for this year’s misery appears to be Del Rio, the border town 170 miles west of San Antonio, which has set a new record daily high temperature for nine days in a row (today would make it ten), peaking at 115 degrees on June 21. Murphy expects this devastating streak to break a previous record that included eleven straight days of record daily high temperatures in Dallas–Fort Worth and Wichita Falls during a historic heat wave in 1980 that locals are still groaning about. Both Del Rio and Corpus Christi are having their hottest June on record. In McAllen, another border community about 350 miles south of Del Rio, residents are sweating through the city’s second-hottest June on record.
What makes this heat even scarier is the heat index, otherwise known as the “feels like” temperature, which has met or exceeded records in San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas–Fort Worth. In Corpus Christi the index reached 125 degrees just over a week ago, a number that exceeded average June temperatures in Saudi Arabia by about 15 degrees. “Another sign of climate change is the ridiculously high dew point temperature, which refers to the amount of moisture or water vapor in the air,” Murphy said. “In Texas, what we’ve been experiencing lately is air that you’d expect to feel in South Florida, the Caribbean, or in a jungle near the equator.”
What makes the humid air even more dangerous is the length of time it has blanketed much of South and Central Texas, where millions of Texans are accustomed to drier air. Like with the record-breaking heat dome that descended over the Pacific Northwest for several days in the summer of 2021, spawning fires and killing wildlife, Texas has been gripped by a heat wave for nearly two weeks and counting. Unlike the Pacific Northwest, most Texans have access to air-conditioning, but we don’t have a reliable power grid. So far, experts say, the grid is holding thanks to increased access to solar and wind power. Renewable energy has accounted for as much as 35 percent of the state’s energy resources during peak demand, according to one estimate.
Unfortunately, the current heat wave is likely a preview of what Texans can expect in the future, says Jeff Goodell, a climate change expert and the author of a new book exploring the impact of extreme temperatures, The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet. It’s not just record-breaking heat that we need to worry about, Goodell said, but more weather events that arrive without warning, defying climate models and unleashing the sort of chaos that shocked the Pacific Northwest. “Seeing it get to 121 degrees in British Columbia was the equivalent of seeing snow in the Sahara,” said Goodell, whose book documents in searing detail the trees and wildlife fighting for survival during the heat wave. “And we’re essentially seeing a version of that in Texas right now as the expected weather patterns that a lot of people grew up with are gone. We’re in a new regime with new rules, and no one knows quite what those rules are.”