There were few days during this past summer when I did not hear from friends and family in Texas about the miserable heat they were suffering through. The state endured temperatures of 100° plus for weeks on end and many places saw a record number of days over 90°F.
Of course, Texans are no strangers to prolonged, intense summer heat. I love many things about the Lone Star State, a place I called home for over 34 years, but summers were never one of them. Fifteen minutes of walking your dog on an August afternoon meant coming back into the house drenched in sweat.
The 1950s in Texas were notorious for extreme drought and some of the hottest temperatures in its recorded history. That period was the backdrop of a famous sports novel, "The Junction Boys," later made into a T.V. movie. In this true story, newly-hired Texas A&M football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant took his football team to summer training camp in Junction, Texas to "toughen them up" before the 1954 college football season. The conditions were so bad, some of the players fell ill with heat strokes, and most of Bryant’s original squad quit the team. Texas Monthly even did a retrospective on those unpleasant years:
But the drought that changed Texas forever occurred from 1950 to 1957, when severely deficient rainfall plunged the entire state into an agonizing water shortage. Crops shriveled, creeks turned to sand, thirsty cattle bawled, and reservoirs and wells dried up. When the water finally returned, the state had been irrevocably scarred.
The article goes on to describe the terrible consequences of that period and how both animals and human suffered. It left an indelible mark on the Texas, expediting its conversion from a mostly rural expanse into the more urbanized state of today.
Even though summers in the 1950s were extremely hot, Texas also experienced some very cold winters during that decade. The thermometer registered -19°F in Dalhart in 1951 and later hit a record of -21°F in January of 1959.
And state has suffered through some very warm summers in the interim, including 1980 – a summer I remember well – and 2011, which was one of the hottest and driest on record. So how anomalous was 2023? To provide some perspective, I referred to more than a century of monthly average temperature data for Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) and Houston.
The graph for DFW plots the four warmest months of the year (June, July, August, and September) from 1899 through 2023, and the annual average through 2022:
A closer examination of the data reveals some interesting observations. From 1899 through 1997, the annual average trend shows no increase in temperature at all. In fact, it is exactly zero. In the years since 1997, the data also has a flat trend with an intercept shift of two degrees. Similarly, the trend for the warmest month, August, is 0.0074°F/year for the period 1899 through 1997, which is almost flat, and the trend line is flat with an intercept shift of three degrees for the period 1998 to the present. It is unclear why 1997-1998 is an apparent discontinuity between four essentially flat trend lines. Revision in measurement gathering is one possibility.
Now, on to Houston:
Here the average August temperature trends slightly upwards over 1907-2023, while the average annual temperature line from 1907-2022 is nearly flat. Neither of these two graphs show alarming trends, and they do not account for phenomena like the urban heat island effect, which development and sprawl since the early 20th century has undoubtedly exacerbated.
Texas's summer temperatures this year (shown on the far right end of each plot) were certainly among historical outliers, but unbeknownst to most laymen, the unusual warmth was not entirely unexpected. Warnings were sounded well before, in anticipation of the possible effects of the massive 2022 Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption, which blew an enormous amount of water vapor into the normally dry upper atmosphere. There is a known link between warmer temperatures in the lower atmosphere and increased upper atmospheric water vapor. We are also currently entering an El Niño phase – warmer water temperatures off the Pacific Coast – and the sun is approaching a solar maximum. Convergence of these three warming phenomena were strong indicators that 2023 was not going to be an average summer.
Coincidentally or not, the scorching summers of 1980 and 2011, visible in the graphs above, were also preceded by notable volcanic eruptions with very significant water vapor content. Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, sending large amounts of ash and water vapor into the stratosphere, and the 2010 eruptions of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, at a latitude where the troposphere is lower, melted glaciers into steam and water vapor that was sent skyward. 1980, 2011, and additionally, 1999, another warm year, also closely coincided with peaks in the solar cycles.
Predictably, throughout the summer, the media ran the usual stories designed to provoke climate alarmism, but as University of Alabama-Huntsville climatologist, Dr. Roy Spencer, and data scientist Kevin Dayaratna communicated recently, the warm weather was unnecessarily sensationalized. As they put it, "The details behind the dramatic headlines are unremarkable, and certainly no reason to panic."
Texans are a hardy bunch, not prone to panic, and they know quite well the summers are what they are – hot. That suggests that if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of Texas.