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Extreme Winter Weather

Texas is known for its relatively mild winters, but freezing conditions have caused much turmoil for the state over the past couple of years and may continue to do so in the future from climate change1,2. The masses of cold and low-pressure air surrounding Earth’s poles are known as polar vortexes, which are relatively stable and confined to higher latitudes thanks to strong winds3. When these winds weaken, cold air can escape from the arctic into the northern and central United States4. This is a normal and natural part of seasonal winters.

What’s abnormal is the severely weakened winds that caused the arctic polar vortex to dip more than usual into Texas in February of 20215. Winter Storm Uri has hence been labeled the most severe Texas winter storm on record, causing widespread electrical failures and over 240 deaths1. These extreme winter weather events are happening due to warming conditions in the arctic, where average temperatures are increasing three times as quickly as anywhere else on the planet. The warmer conditions lead to weaker winds, allowing more cold air to escape and travel farther south5,6,7. The severely low temperatures caused much damage and turmoil to Texans everywhere2.

Texas’ electrical grid operates independently from the other two federally managed major grids that span all the eastern and western states of the contiguous United States. This means it’s challenging to direct additional power from outside the grid during widespread power-failure events. But this isn’t the reason Texas’ grid failed in the first place. Having an independent grid means that Texas produces all its electricity through various sources. Winter Storm Uri impacted each of the primary sources: coal, nuclear, wind turbines, and, most of all, natural gas. Natural gas is stored and transported through pipelines using water vapor, which froze during exceptionally frigid conditions. All these energy sources can and are successfully used in extremely cold and hot environments, so the technology and power source itself are not at fault. The companies running all these operations were not prepared for such cold conditions. Previous extreme winter storms in 1989 and 2011 inspired the state of Texas to recommend ensuring reliability under extreme circumstances, but these requirements were voluntary for energy and power companies, leading to the widespread failures of 20211,2,8,9

In the near future, winters are expected to become shorter and milder across Texas10,11. However, cold temperatures will probably also be more variable in the coming years, so extreme winter weather events are still possible but likely less frequent6,12. While warmer arctic conditions can cause more cold snaps, the air in the artic is also warming, so the air spilling down into Texas over the next decades will be less intense13-15. Texas should continue to prepare for overall milder winters with less precipitation, with occasional extreme winter weather events that will test the limits of state and local infrastructure9,11,16.

Explore the maps and links below to learn more about extreme winters in Texas. 

Texas's power disaster is a warning sign for the US (Vox)

References

  1. Doss-Gollin, J., D. J. Farnham, U. Lall, and V. Modi. 2021. How unprecedented was the February 2021 Texas cold snap? Environmental Research Letters 16. IOP Publishing: 064056.
  2. Glazer, Y. R., D. M. Tremaine, J. L. Banner, M. Cook, R. E. Mace, J. Nielsen-Gammon, E. Grubert, K. Kramer, and others 2021. Winter Storm Uri: A Test of Texas’ Water Infrastructure and Water Resource Resilience to Extreme Winter Weather Events. Journal of Extreme Events. World Scientific: 2150022.
  3. Kim, B.-M., S.-W. Son, S.-K. Min, J.-H. Jeong, S.-J. Kim, X. Zhang, T. Shim, and J.-H. Yoon. 2014. Weakening of the stratospheric polar vortex by Arctic sea-ice loss. Nature communications 5. Nature Publishing Group: 1–8.
  4. Lindsey, R. 2021. Understanding the Arctic polar vortex. climate.gov.
  5. Cohen, J., L. Agel, M. Barlow, C. I. Garfinkel, and I. White. 2021. Linking Arctic variability and change with extreme winter weather in the United States. Science 373. American Association for the Advancement of Science: 1116–1121.
  6. Francis, J. A., and S. J. Vavrus. 2012. Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes. Geophysical research letters 39. Wiley Online Library.
  7. Pedatella, N., J. Chau, H. Schmidt, L. Goncharenko, C. Stolle, K. Hocke, V. Harvey, B. Funke, and others 2018. How Sudden stratospheric warmings affect the whole atmosphere. American Geophysical Union.
  8. Busby, J. W., K. Baker, M. D. Bazilian, A. Q. Gilbert, E. Grubert, V. Rai, J. D. Rhodes, S. Shidore, and others 2021. Cascading risks: Understanding the 2021 winter blackout in Texas. Energy Research & Social Science 77. Elsevier: 102106.
  9. Gearino, D. 2022. One Year Later: The Texas Freeze Revealed a Fragile Energy System and Inspired Lasting Misinformation. Inside Climate News.
  10. Kluver, D., and D. Leathers. 2015. Winter snowfall prediction in the United States using multiple discriminant analysis. International Journal of Climatology 35. Wiley Online Library: 2003–2018.
  11. Nielsen-Gammon, J., S. Holman, A. Buley, S. Jorgensen, J. Escobedo, C. Ott, J. Dedrick, and A. Van Fleet. 2021. Assessment of Historic and Future Trends of Extreme Weather in Texas, 1900-2036. OSC-202101. Texas A&M University.
  12. Overland, J. E., T. J. Ballinger, J. Cohen, J. A. Francis, E. Hanna, R. Jaiser, B.-M. Kim, S.-J. Kim, and others 2021. How do intermittency and simultaneous processes obfuscate the Arctic influence on midlatitude winter extreme weather events? Environmental Research Letters 16. IOP Publishing: 043002.
  13. Cohen, J., J. A. Screen, J. C. Furtado, M. Barlow, D. Whittleston, D. Coumou, J. Francis, K. Dethloff, and others 2014. Recent Arctic amplification and extreme mid-latitude weather. Nature geoscience 7. Nature Publishing Group: 627–637.
  14. Cohen, J., K. Pfeiffer, and J. A. Francis. 2018. Warm Arctic episodes linked with increased frequency of extreme winter weather in the United States. Nature communications 9. Nature Publishing Group: 1–12.
  15. IPCC, 2021: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.
  16. Kloesel, K., B. Bartush, J. Banner, D. Brown, J. Lemery, X. Lin, C. Loeffler, G. McManus, and others 2018. Chapter 23: Southern great plains. Impacts, risks, and adaptation in the United States: The fourth national climate assessment, volume II. U.S. Global Change Research Program.