Extreme Texas Drought & Wildfires Sharpen Contrast Between Texas Congressional Delegation's Climate Views and Conditions at Home

On Thursday 7 April 2011, all but one of the Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas voted for H.R. 910 to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases.  One Texas Republican (Rep. Michael Burgess) abstained and one Texas Democrat (Rep. Henry Cuellar) also supported the measure.  The measure passed the House (255 Ayes, 172 Nays), with no Republicans voting against it. They were joined by 19 Democrats.

EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act rests on an "endangerment finding" (Endangerment and Cause or Contribute Findings for Greenhouse Gases under the Clean Air Act [PDF]) that determined that emissions of those gases threatens the health and welfare of Americans with a wide range of impacts, including more frequent and severe droughts and wildfires.  See our 23 March post, In Texas Field Hearing, House Subcommittee To Attack EPA as State Faces Another Year of Devastating Drought, for additional details on what the EPA had to say about drought and wildfires.

Drought Intensifies and State Climatologist says “it is likely that drought frequency and severity will increase”

The vote came immediately after Texas experienced its driest March on record (see first figure below); and as nearly 98% of the state is experiencing drought conditions -- including 60% in "severe" drought and 5% in "exceptional" drought (the most extreme category) (see second figure below).

March 2011 Statewide Precipitation Ranks

 

Texas Drought Conditions, 5 April 2011

The National Drought Summary from the National Drought Mitigation Center on 5 April reports: 

 "The first USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] soil moisture reports are out and they don’t paint a pretty picture, with 86% of Oklahoma showing short or very short topsoil moisture conditions. Texas is reporting 90% short/very short as well.  Other statistics provided by the National Weather Service (Austin/San Antonio WFO) show that Del Rio has reported only 0.31 inches of precipitation for October-March, the 2nd driest since 1906. Austin reported its 5th driest October-March since 1856 and San Antonio came in as the 12th driest October-March since 1871."

Conditions are likely to deteriorate further.  The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook issued on 7 April and valid through June 2011 indicates that drought is likely to persist or intensify in Texas.

And in the long term?  The Texas State Climatologist, John W. Nielsen-Gammon, says “it is likely that drought frequency and severity will increase in Texas” (from Chapter 2. The Changing Climate of Texas in (The Impact of Global Warming on Texas, 2nd edition, Edited by Jurgen Schmandt, Judith Clarkson and Gerald R. North).

Only a year ago, on 18 February 2010, Nielsen-Gammon reported in a press release (Texas Drought Officially Over) that the drought that began in 2007  -- one of the State's worst droughts ever -- was over (see his August 2009 report, An Assessment of the Meteorological Severity of the 2008-09 Texas Drought through July 2009).  Three months later, in Areas Of Texas Facing Drought Again (13 May 2010), he announced the beginning of the current drought.

Texas Forest Service: "A Perfect Storm for Wildfire"

By Friday (Conditions in Place for Dangerous Wildfire this Weekend, 8 April 2011), the Texas Forest Service warned that "critical drought conditions, high temperatures and high winds are combining to create a perfect storm for wildfire."  On Saturday, the Texas Forest Service responded to 16 fires that burned 65,181 acres, and it said in a press release (Wildfire Weather Imminent for Sunday, 9 April 2011) that wildfire weather conditions today (Sunday) "could shape up to be among the worst in Texas history." It added:

"Key weather factors include pervasive drought conditions, sustained winds of 30 - 35 mph - gusting up to 50 mph, high temperatures and low relative humidity. These weather conditions along with record-dry vegetation increase the potential for wildfires not only starting but also spreading quickly."

 

Early this morning, the National Weather Service issued a "red flag warning" for "all of the south plains...rolling plains... And extreme southern Texas panhandle ...damaging wildfires possible as an ongoing regional wildfire outbreak is likely to intensify this afternoon."

While this particular outbreak will eventually subside, the rest of the fire season promises more of the same.  In its Wildland Fire Outlook – April through July 2011, the National Interagency Fire Center on 1 April said that "[a]bove normal significant fire potential will spread north and west to encompass approximately the southeastern half of Arizona and persist over much of New Mexico into west Texas for May through July."  

After wildfires in late February burned over 88,000 acres and destroyed 58 homes in Western Texas, Texas Forest Service spokesman Lewis Kearney said: "With the drought pattern Texas has had, fire season now is almost running 12 months out of the year. I mean that's not normal." (see TX Forest Service: More than 86,000 Acres Burned Sunday, KTXS News, 28 Feb 2011)

As we noted in our 23 March posting, Forrest Wilder said on 24 Feb 2011 in the Texas Observer (Rising Seas Could Swamp Some Texas Cities By 2100):

"While Republicans in Congress, led by members of the Texas GOP delegation, work to defund and defang the EPA, climate change – and the science of climate – marches on. The GOP's willful suspension of trust in what ever-mounting evidence –and dare I say, common sense? –tells us is happening to the planet is not just short-sighted. It's reckless.”

Online Resources:

WWF Climate Change Blog:

Texas Drought Has Hit Critical Stage And May Worsen.  Texas A & M, 7 April 2011.

Societal Impacts of Climate on Texas: March 2011 Report.  Office of the State Climatologist, April 1, 2011.

Rock House and Brewster Fires in Southwestern Texas.  NASA "Fire and Smoke" Web site.

Wildfires in Central Texas. Image from NASA's Earth Observatory, 11 Apr 2011.

Driest March in Texas history fueling huge fires.  Jeff Masters' WunderBlog, 12 April 2011.

Texas Forest Service:

Texas Climate Initiative

Texas Climate News:

The Strange Case of Ralph Hall, by Chris Mooney at desmogblog.com.

Global Boiling: Population Flight From Growing Desert Of Central Texas, by The Wonk Room’s Brad Johnson.

The Project on Climate Science:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

 

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