Living at the Center of the Bulls Eye: Drought, Heat, and Wildfire Ravage Abilene, Texas
It’s been a hot and dry year for people living in Abilene, TX, and the surrounding West Texas countryside. The region was scorched during its hottest summer on record, from June to July. At a record-setting 80 days with temperatures past 100°F, Abilene smashed its previous record of 46 days with extreme temperatures in 1969.
Rainfall has been scarce. From June 23 to August 12, Abilene had 52 consecutive days without any measurable precipitation. August 2010 through July 2011 marked the driest 12-month period for Texas since measurements began, ranking it as the second worst drought in history. It’s not over yet, according to Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon who says the Texas drought could continue until 2020. That’s right, for another 9 years.
Meanwhile, fires in Texas have scorched 3,852,575 acres since November 10, 2010, leading Gov. Perry to request federal disaster assistance for 252 out of 254 Texas counties. The Cooper Mountain Ranch Fire raged in the vicinity of Abilene, stretching fire-fighting resources to their limits.
Recognizing the Signs of Climate Change
Most articles in the local papers point out that Texas has had many droughts before or blame La Nina for this one. These points are true, but fail to tell the whole story.
We did have a moderate to strong La Nina that ended around April, and contributed to the drought conditions in Texas last winter. But we’ve been in neutral conditions for the late spring and summer, all the while Texas drought and heat have persisted.
To understand the full story of what’s happening in Texas, you have to consider climate change. Over the last several decades, mean summer temperatures in the area around Abilene have increased by slightly more than 1°F. Now, when an episodic drought comes along, the temperature baseline is higher.
This is important because the water available for people, plants, and wildlife is determined by the difference between how much water a region receives (from precipitation, rivers, etc.) and how much water it loses to evaporation and other uses. Warmer air temperatures ratchet up the evaporation rate leaving less water than would be present if we didn’t have climate change.
Impacts on Local Communities and Livelihoods
West Texans on the frontlines of this current drought are dealing with its consequences every day. Here are a few examples of the effects of the drought on wildlife:
- Texans have lost $5.2 billion in crops and livestock already.
- One in ten ranchers has gone out of business this year. Much of the grass used for grazing is dead. Ranchers have sold off 40% of their herd this year (compared to 5-10% in a normal year).
- Wildfire damages could exceed $100 million for homeowners.
- Residential watering is restricted to just one night a week in Abilene.
- Gardeners forced to replace plants lost in the drought.
- Quail populations are at a record low, forcing wildlife managers to consider creating mini-oases.
- Monarch butterfly migration through Texas at risk.
Future: More of the Same
Abilene finally got some rain in early October, but residents shouldn’t get used to that. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting that the current La Nina will continue and strengthen into 2012. Current temperature outlooks indicate warmer than average conditions for Texas until next fall and drier than average through about April.
The long-term climate projection for the northwest Texas is also more of the same. Average temperatures in west Texas are projected to increase 5-6°F by the end of the century, if steps are taken to curb carbon pollution, and 9-10°F if we don’t. Under this higher emissions scenario, years like 2011 with more than 100 days where temperatures hit 100°F would be typical, not exceptional.
Droughts are going to become even more commonplace in the region, too. Climate models project that the Southwest will receive less precipitation and become more arid and desert-like over the next century and beyond. In other words, what is a temporary condition right now could become the new normal in our children’s lifetime.