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Hell and high water stoke Texas blaze: “No one on the face of this Earth has ever fought fires in these extreme conditions

Here is irony befitting a Shakespearean tragedy. Gov. Rick Perry finally got what he called on all Texans to pray for — some rain – but it was almost entirely dumped elsewhere and the winds of Tropical Storm Lee merely served to stoke the most brutal wildfires anyone had ever seen.

This unprecedented climate impact is, indeed, Hell and High Water. Time‘s headline is, “Texas Burns as the Rest of the Country Drowns.” But, of course, they have no mention of climate change whatsoever.

How bad is it in Texas? CBS reported this morning:

Since December, wildfires have consumed 3.6 million acres of Texas — an area the size of the state of Connecticut.

Unfortunately, there is no rainfall in the forecast for the foreseeable future.

The Texas Forest Service put out statement saying, “This is unprecedented fire behavior. No one on the face of this Earth has ever fought fires in these extreme conditions”….

Tom Boggus, director of the Texas Forest Service: ”It’s historic. We’ve never seen fire seasons like this. We’ve never seen drought like this. This is that we’re living in, and so people know and understand they’ve got to be extremely careful.”

So much for the standard denier claim that the weather extremes we’ve been experiencing now are nothing special.

Mr. Boggus obviously has one of the hardest jobs in the country, particularly working for a governor whose dual adaptation strategy is prayer coupled with cutting the budget of the Texas Forest Service. So I hate to be the one to disappoint him — BUT this is going to be the briefest ”historic time” in history. In a few decades, assuming we keep listening to people like his Governor, this will be a pretty average summer for Texas (see here). Heck, next summer could be worse!

If only scientists had warned us decades ago it would get hotter and drier with ever worse heat waves, droughts, and wildfires if we kept burning all that Texas Tea…..

Actually Andrew Freedman of the WashPost‘s Capital Weather Gang has a nice run through of the climate science. But first Freedman directs us to yet more jaw-dropping statistics of just how grim things are down in Perry-land, courtesy of state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon on his too-aptly named Climate Abyss blog:

The preliminary numbers from the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) are in: the Texas average temperature in August was 88.1 F, 2.4 F above the previous warmest August (1952). This also breaks the all-time record for hottest month in Texas history. The records go back to 1895, but the previous record, 87.1 F, was set just last month. Whatever the contribution from urban warming and poor station siting, it’s quite small compared to the temperature extremes we’ve been seeing this year.

Combined, the three months June-August averaged 86.8 F. This sets the all-time record for hottest summer in the lower 48 states. Oklahoma was running neck and neck, but came in at 86.5 F. Both shattered the previous record, 85.2 F, set by Oklahoma in 1934. Oklahoma can be consoled by the fact that it still owns the record for hottest individual month, 88.9 F in July 2011.

I call it a Pyric (rather than Pyrrhic) victory because the drought and heat have turned the Lost Pines of Bastrop into their own funeral pyre, the Bastrop fire being the largest of several fires that continue to burn out of control. The drought has produced the necessary fuel conditions, and the combination of T.S. Lee and the first strong cold front of the season provided the strong winds and low humidity needed for rapidly-spreading wildfires.

The most commonly-used drought index, the Palmer Drought Severity Index, is now at -7.75 according to NCDC. This is the second-lowest monthly value in Texas history, exceeded only by the -7.80 calculated for September 1956. This index is most sensitive to drought on a 6-12 month time scale; water supply impacts were generally worse in 1956 because that drought began in 1950. The present drought is the most severe one-year drought on record for Texas.

By comparison, the PDSI in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl spiked briefly to -6, but otherwise rarely exceeded -3 for the decade (see here). Yet Texas’s shocking PDSI is actually the projected PDSI for much of the U.S. by the 2060s (See NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path)!

No, it’s not too late to prevent that almost unimaginable catastrophe. But again, it would require the political system to reject everything Gov. Perry and the Tea Party stand for, and it would require the media to actually inform the public what is going on and how bad it is going to get if the disinformers triumph. As if.

Here’s Freedman schooling the rest of the media on how to talk about this:

A hotter drought because of global warming?

The drought, extreme heat, and wildfires are intertwined. For example, the dry conditions that help create dangerous fire weather conditions also make it easier for air temperatures to rise into record territory, since most of the sun’s energy can be directed towards heating the air, rather than evaporating soil moisture and raising temperatures.

It’s unclear exactly what role global warming may be playing in the current Texas drought, but it’s difficult to dismiss it as a contributing factor to the drought’s severity. La Nina, which is a natural source of climate variability, is the primary suspect for reducing precipitation in Texas during the past year. (La Nina was declared “dead” by the end of May this year, but suggestions that La Nina conditions may return this winter aren’t exactly good news for Texas).

Many climate change studies point to an increased likelihood of droughts in coming years, particularly in the Southwestern U.S. As air and sea temperatures warm, there is an increasing amount of water vapor in the air, which can be wrung out in the form of more intense rainfall events in some areas, but that water vapor is also wrung out of the soil through evapotranspiration, and those regions already at the margin of arid conditions are left high and dry, triggering a self-feeding cycle of drier soils and higher temperatures. In general, with precipitation and climate change, a good rule of thumb is that extremes will become more extreme – heavy rainfall and flooding will be exacerbated, but so too will drought events. Another way it is often explained, wet regions are likely to become wetter, dry regions drier.

Indeed, studies have shown that some of these trends are already evident. Given the extreme heat that has accompanied it, the Texas drought has the characteristics of global warming-influenced drought, even if – as always – it is hard to unravel the human and natural factors causing the particular conditions.

The bottom line is that as average temperatures increase due to climate change, drought impacts are likely to get worse, and we may be seeing this play out in Texas and other hard-hit areas. As NOAA researcher Marty Hoerling told the media in July, drought plus heat “is just going to make a bad situation that much worse,” since higher temperatures dry soils out much more rapidly. “We haven’t necessarily dealt with drought and heat at the same time in such a persistent way.”

Actually, there are great many studies that show some of these trends are evident — see here: Two seminal Nature papers join growing body of evidence that human emissions fuel extreme weather, flooding that harm humans and the environment

And there is a considerable amount of research on how we are already drying out. I have been reviewing much of it for an article I was asked to write and will be discussing some of the key articles in the weeks to come.

The bottom line: Hell and High Water is here but since we potentially face 10 times as much warming this century as we saw in the last half-century, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

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