Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

climate change

Yes, it’s been an especially hot summer

Record-breaking, in fact.

Average high temperatures in Houston so far this summer have outpaced previous historically hot summers on record, according to the National Weather Service.

In the months of May, June and July, temperatures in the city averaged 95.1 degrees, ranking first in average high temperature at this point of the year, NWS meteorologist Josh Lichter said.

Houston’s hottest summer on record — the summer of 2011 — registered an average temperature of 94.4 degrees in the same months, Lichter added. The data sets go back to 1889.

Weather experts predicted an above normal July and August after a historically hot June saw temperatures reach an average of 86.7 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. Those temperatures surpassed the previous record average of 86.2 degrees set in June 2011.

Although some thunderstorms have come to the region within the past week, the weather pattern right now above Houston is one which “suppresses” rain and exasperates droughts, he said.

“Once once you get that pattern going where we have, you know, a week of 100-plus degree temperatures and you only have a couple days where you get rain but then you go back another week or two of 90 to 100-degree temperatures with little rain again, you’re going to increase the risk of droughts.”

It’s not just Houston, it’s all over Texas. And there’s a lot of drought, with some Texas cities beginning to experience real water problems. Like 2011, only hotter. Anyone feel like defending the position that climate change isn’t real today?

UPDATE: San Antonio, too.

TxDOT sued over its enviromental impact assessments

Very interesting.

After college, Michael Moritz got a job in Houston analyzing fatal car crashes. Moritz, a 27-year-old native of San Antonio, stood on Interstate Highway 45, one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the country, and documented how cars collided. One day in the fall of 2019, he learned that the Texas Department of Transportation intended to expand I-45, supposedly to fix congestion and make the highway safer.

“More lanes just doesn’t equal safety,” he said.

And then he learned about all the other negative impacts of the $7 billion expansion project, which would remake Houston’s downtown and demolish more than 1,000 homes, nearly 350 businesses, five churches and two schools.

He got involved with a grassroots group called Stop TxDOT I-45 and started spending nights and weekends fighting the expansion. Gradually, he met people fighting freeway expansions across the state, including in the capital city of Austin, and joined a regular Zoom call to discuss strategy. He signed up for automated emails from TxDOT to find out when new projects were proposed and approved.

In 2021, just a few days before Christmas, he got two emails from TxDOT. The agency had issued a “finding of no significant impact” — or FONSI, pronounced like Fonzie, the “Happy Days” character — for two segments of a $6 billion project to rebuild and expand Interstate Highway 35, which passes through the heart of Austin. “Really?” he thought. “No impact?”

Moritz was alarmed by the idea that adding lanes to an interstate running through one of the fastest-growing cities in the country was considered to have no environmental impact. The expansion of the north and south segments of I-35 would consume 30 acres of land, affect more than a dozen streams and creeks, and add millions of metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere over the coming decades.

Moritz called up a few activists he knew in Austin. Together, they wondered: How often was TxDOT declaring that its projects had no impact on the human or natural environment? Moritz decided to find out. He searched TxDOT’s online archives for every environmental review published since 2015, as far back as TxDOT’s records extend.

Moritz quickly noticed that many projects that were physically connected had been spliced into segments, as I-35 was in Austin. Loop 88 in Lubbock, notably, had been evaluated in four segments stretching across 36 miles. Collectively, those segments would consume 2,000 acres of land, displace nearly 100 residences and 63 businesses, and cost almost $2 billion. Yet all four segments received findings of no significant impact, three on the same day.

Overall, Moritz discovered that between 2015 and 2022, 130 TxDOT projects were found to have no significant impact after an initial review, while only six received full environmental analyses detailing their impacts. Cumulatively, those 130 projects will consume nearly 12,000 acres of land, add more than 3,000 new lane miles to the state highway system, and displace 477 homes and 376 businesses. The total projected cost of those projects was nearly $24 billion, almost half of what TxDOT spent on transportation projects during that time and twice as much as the amount spent on projects that received full environmental reviews.

“It can’t be argued with a straight face that these big, multihundred-million-dollar projects don’t have significant impact,” says Dennis Grzezinski, an environmental lawyer in Wisconsin who has worked on National Environmental Policy Act cases for three decades and who was not involved in Moritz’s study. He called Moritz’s analysis “a giant red flag” that TxDOT was approving projects in violation of NEPA.

“If TxDOT is producing environmental assessments that result in FONSIs over and over and over again, on large-scale interstates and major highway expansion projects, there is clearly something major that’s wrong and not in line with NEPA requirements,” he says.

Now, a group of activists is suing TxDOT, saying that the agency split the I-35 project into segments in order to obscure its full impacts and “circumvent” the requirements of NEPA. The case, filed in U.S. district court, raises larger questions about the federal government’s decision to give TxDOT the authority to approve its own environmental reviews.

“I think the words ‘no significant impact’ have meaning,” Grzezinski says.

Under NEPA, a 1970 law, any state agency receiving federal funding for a project must document how the project impacts the human and natural environment. That documentation is categorized in one of three ways, depending on the project’s perceived impact. Actions that “significantly affect the environment” require a comprehensive environmental impact statement, which quantifies those impacts, includes specific ways the agency would mitigate them and asks for significant public feedback. (The final environmental impact statement for the Houston highway expansion exceeded 8,000 pages.)

On the other end of the spectrum, relatively minor projects — like repaving an existing road or repairing an interchange — can receive what’s called a categorical exclusion, essentially an exemption from NEPA. Everything in between is considered through an environmental assessment, a relatively concise document, typically a few hundred pages. An environmental assessment leads to either a full environmental review or a finding of no significant impact, which allows the agency to proceed with land acquisition and construction.

But because NEPA covers a broad array of government actions, the law doesn’t define what makes an environmental or social impact “significant” — whether it’s acres of land taken or people displaced — and thus what triggers a full environmental review.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest; the story was originally published by Grist. I’ve blogged a couple of times about the proposed I-35 expansion, the design for which makes I-45 look almost sedate. It would not be surprising to me if TxDOT had been playing fast and loose with the impact assessments under NEPA – they are allowed some discretion in coming to their assessments, and it would be a lot easier on them and everyone involved with the subsequent construction if they gave certain projects the “no significant impact”. It’s more than a little hard to believe that could be the case with I-35, and if the end result is a full and rigorous examination of TxDOT’s operations, that’s fine with me. This is a federal lawsuit so expect it to take years to come to some kind of resolution, but I’ll try to keep an eye on it.

We are getting serious about the flood tunnel idea

Now the question is how could we pay for this?

Japanese flood tunnel

A network of eight massive storm water tunnels that drain upstream of and into the Houston Ship Channel could be the key to alleviating flooding in Harris County, flood control engineers announced this week. The scheme looks at how storm water management has traditionally worked here and re-imagines, at a steep cost, how the system could be drastically expanded.

The Harris County Flood Control District, formed in 1937, has long dealt with flooding in two ways: Engineers built channels to move water away and dug detention ponds to store it temporarily. But those methods are increasingly challenging to implement, they say, because so much of the area has been developed. Texas prairie is covered with asphalt, concrete and buildings.

Climate change is also broadening the scale of what the region faces: Rains are likely to be more intense. Hurricanes are likely to be stronger.

And so Flood Control staff for several years studied how tunnels might work to lessen the storm water buildup that accompanies heavy rainfall. On Thursday, the agency released its findings in a detailed report that explains why a $30-billion, 130-mile network of tunnels could be worth the investment. The team says it has more research to do before committing to the idea fully, but the concept checks out so far.

“We have determined that a large-diameter underground tunnel system would significantly reduce flood risk and the number of instances of flooding,” said Scott Elmer, assistant director of operations for the flood control district. “And, as we consider expanding our current flood damage reduction toolkit by investing in a tunnel system, we would gain an additional tool to use in the many areas of our county where the land is densely populated.”

A question ahead is whether people here will support it. Residents and advocates recently called for consideration of a tunnel below Buffalo Bayou instead of a vehemently-opposed federal proposal to dig the bayou deeper and wider. The flood control district’s proposal, of course, takes the tunnel idea much further, marking a shift toward massive, costly solutions that could protect Houston better from worsening weather. It raises familiar issues of risk and environmental harm. It highlights the same complexities of how planners prioritize who to help.

A case in point is the project plan finished last year and making its way through Congress that would create the so-called Ike Dike, featuring a series of towering gates that would cross the mouth of Galveston Bay to defend against hurricane storm surges. Advocates in that case lament the lack of attention to nature-based solutions and the reliance on a band-aid fix to the real issue of human-fueled climate change.

Both the Ike Dike and the tunnel system would require some federal funding and take years to build.

See here for some background, and go read the rest, there’s a lot more to the story. I will note that Austin and San Antonio have similar albeit much smaller tunnels, so this concept is not new or untested. Paying for this would be a challenge – look how long it’s taken to get federal funding for the Ike Dike, which is still not yet assured – and as with the Ike Dike there are questions about how long it would take to build this, what its environmental effects might be, and what other things we can and should be doing right now regardless of whether this thing eventually happens. (For a discussion of that in re: the Ike Dike, listen to this recent CityCast Houston episode.) I’m intrigued by this idea, I think it has promise, but we all need to hear more, and we don’t have a lot of time to spare. Whatever we do, let’s get moving on it.

This could be a really bad hurricane season

Anytime the year 2005 is used as a point of comparison, it’s bad news.

The Atlantic hurricane season starts on June 1, and the Gulf of Mexico is already warmer than average. Even more worrying is a current of warm tropical water that is looping unusually far into the Gulf for this time of year, with the power to turn tropical storms into monster hurricanes.

It’s called the Loop Current, and it’s the 800-pound gorilla of Gulf hurricane risks.

When the Loop Current reaches this far north this early in the hurricane season – especially during what’s forecast to be a busy season – it can spell disaster for folks along the Northern Gulf Coast, from Texas to Florida.

If you look at temperature maps of the Gulf of Mexico, you can easily spot the Loop Current. It curls up through the Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba, into the Gulf of Mexico, and then swings back out through the Florida Strait south of Florida as the Florida Current, where it becomes the main contributor to the Gulf Stream.

When a tropical storm passes over the Loop Current or one of its giant eddies – large rotating pools of warm water that spin off from the current – the storm can explode in strength as it draws energy from the warm water.

This year, the Loop Current looks remarkably similar to the way it did in 2005, the year Hurricane Katrina crossed the Loop Current before devastating New Orleans. Of the 27 named storms that year, seven became major hurricanes. Wilma and Rita also crossed the Loop Current that year and became two of the most intense Atlantic hurricanes on record.

I have been monitoring ocean heat content for more than 30 years as a marine scientist. The conditions I’m seeing in the Gulf in May 2022 are cause for concern. One prominent forecast anticipates 19 tropical storms – 32% more than average – and nine hurricanes. The Loop Current has the potential to supercharge some of those storms.

It’s been a super warm month of May, so the conditions have not abated any. There’s only so much we can do about this right now except be prepared and hope for the best. At least now you know.

UPDATE: Just in time for more season predictions.

Hurricane season along the Atlantic Ocean is expected to be more active than usual this year, with a higher probability that major storms will make landfall in Texas and other areas along the eastern coast, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday.

The Atlantic hurricane season officially starts June 1, and the national agency’s findings are consistent with other scientific organizations’ predictions. According to NOAA, there is a 65% chance the hurricane season will be more active than usual and only a 10% chance that this year will have below-average activity.

NOAA expects this season, which extends until Nov. 30, will have 14 to 21 named storms. Six to 10 could become hurricanes — including three to six major ones with winds of 111 mph or higher. The average season has 14 named storms.

If the prediction comes true, 2022 will be the seventh consecutive above-average season for Atlantic hurricanes in the U.S.

Factors like La Niña, warmer sea surface temperatures and an enhanced West African monsoon will all likely contribute to an above-average season this year, NOAA officials said. Climate change has contributed to make those phenomenons more intense, NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said Tuesday.

[…]

A Colorado State University study similarly found that probabilities for major hurricanes this season are higher than average, with a 71% chance of at least one major hurricane across the continental U.S. coastline, compared to an average 52% chance. The study also found that the Gulf Coast, from the Florida Panhandle to Brownsville, has a 46% chance of at least one major hurricane this season, which is 16% higher than last century’s average.

“Essentially everything is pointing toward an active Atlantic season,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist and director of the Texas Center for Climate Studies at Texas A&M University. “It doesn’t guarantee one but it makes it quite a bit more likely.”

Nielsen-Gammon said anywhere along the coast that’s less than 25 feet above sea level is potentially vulnerable to a storm surge, and that hurricane-force winds can be felt in Texas even hundreds of miles inland.

As I said before, maybe we need to redefine what an “average” season is now. In the meantime, get your supplies and have an evacuation plan in mind. And hope for the best.

Rough times for oysters

It’s bad for oyster fishers, too. But if there just aren’t enough oysters to support harvesting them, well…

Currently, 25 of the state’s 27 harvesting areas are already closed. The season normally runs from Nov. 1 through April 30, but many of the areas have been closed since mid-December – a move the state says is necessary for future sustainability.

But those in the oyster business worry about the sustainability of their industry and livelihoods — and it’s set up a clash between state officials and oyster harvesters over how the resource should be managed.

[…]

The Gulf Coast region produces 45% of the nation’s $250 million oyster industry, according to NOAA fisheries. In Texas, the industry contributes an estimated $50 million to the state economy.

The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department decides when to close areas for harvesting using a traffic-light system that went into effect in 2015. If samples taken by state biologists come back with too many small oysters or too few oysters in general the agency closes the area.

[…]

Texas oysters have been having a rough decade, enduring hurricanes, flood events, and drought, says Jennifer Pollack with the Harte Research Institute.

“Oyster reefs really just aren’t able to recover from the things that we see happening to them,” Pollack says.

Across the Gulf Coast region, an estimated 50-85% of the original oyster reefs have disappeared, according to a report by the Nature Conservancy. They’ve been hit with hurricanes, flood events, droughts and the BP oil spill.

In Galveston, Hurricane Ike in 2008 was particularly devastating, destroying more than 6,000 acres of oyster habitat there, according to TPWD.

We have all these disturbances that knock the reefs back, we have harvesting that continues, that probably keeps them at maybe a lower abundance level of oysters in the bay,” Pollack says. “They just can never climb back out so they’re a little bit less resilient next time something happens.”

A lot of these conditions – droughts, heavier rainfall – are only expected to be exacerbated by climate change.

Beyond the temporary closures, Texas Parks & Wildlife is also studying the permanent closure of three bays.

Oyster harvesters argue with the methodology that the TPWD uses to determine when bays should be closed, but it feels like we’re just rearranging the deck chairs. If oyster populations are declining like that, we need to take action now to ensure they don’t go away permanently. That’s rough on the people who make their living fishing them, but I don’t know what a better alternative is.

The New Orleans perspective on the Ike Dike

Of interest.

Kelly Burks-Copes braces herself against the wind and marches past the ruins of Fort San Jacinto, a strategic spot on a sandy, wave-battered point where Spain, France, the Republic of Texas, the Confederacy and the United States have all taken turns building coastal defenses to protect Galveston Bay.

Now it’s Burks-Copes’ turn. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager is leading an ambitious effort to build the “Ike Dike,” a $30 billion storm protection project that’s been in the works since its namesake hurricane roared through the bay almost 14 years ago. The project will dwarf the one built around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and perhaps even the immense coastal barriers in the Netherlands that inspired both Gulf Coast projects.

“If it’s not the largest surge barrier in the world, it’s certainly the world’s longest,” Burks-Copes said, pointing at the 2.5-mile-wide channel between the old fort site on Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

By comparison, the Lake Borgne surge barrier between New Orleans East and St. Bernard Parish, once considered the world’s largest, is 1.8 miles long. Had the New Orleans system been built today, it’d cost about 70% as much as the Houston system.

“It’ll be like a 10-story building all the way across,” Burks-Copes said of the Galveston Bay surge barrier. “It’s something that you can barely imagine. But what do they say in Texas? ‘Go big or go home.’”

The project aims to harden 70 miles of coastline with artificial dunes, sea walls and vast steel gates, making the bay a veritable fortress that could be sealed when hurricanes threaten.

It’s ambitious and expensive, but it still may be woefully inadequate — just like New Orleans’ system.

Neither project is likely to hold up against the worst hurricanes. The New Orleans collection of levees and floodwalls is designed to withstand storm surges with a 1% chance of occurring in any given year, a so-called 100-year storm. The Ike Dike may not even meet that level of protection, the Corps admits.

Climate change is increasing the likelihood that 100-year storms and floods could occur every few years, with monster 500-year storms popping up every 50 to 100 years. The Houston area has seen no fewer than three such events, including Hurricane Harvey, between 2015 and 2018.

“Look, (the Ike Dike) needs to be built,” said Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer who teaches at Rice University in Houston. “But it needs to be built for the bigger storms to come. It will be way outdated once it’s constructed.”

See here and here for the most recent updates. I know we’re in for a long haul here, but I hadn’t thought of it before in the terms Blackburn expresses, that we’re going to have to keep going, and maybe even start over at the drawing board, when this thing is built. That’s more than a little daunting, and maybe a bit discouraging, but we can’t let up. Even an outdated Ike Dike is going to be better than no Ike Dike, and it will serve as the starting point for Ike Dike II: The Next Generation. What other choice do we have? Read the rest, there’s a lot more.

It’s hurricane forecast season

Gonna be busy again. You should know what to do about it by now.

Another above-average hurricane season is in the forecast for 2022. A prediction issued Thursday by scientists at Colorado State University says there will be at least 19 named storms and nine hurricanes — four of which will be Category 3 or higher.

An average season normally has 14 named storms, around seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes.

Residents living along the U.S. coastline and in the Caribbean should be prepared for “an above-average probability for major hurricanes making landfall” near their homes, researchers said. Hurricane season begins officially in June and lasts through November.

“As is the case with all hurricane seasons, coastal residents are reminded that it only takes one hurricane making landfall to make it an active season for them,” the researchers said. “They should prepare the same for every season, regardless of how much activity is predicted.”

The busier-than-average predicted season continues a trend that researchers have seen for some time. Last season, CSU scientists predicted 17 named storms and four major hurricanes.

It ended up being the third most active season on record, with 21 named storms. There were seven hurricanes last season — four of which were considered major.

Hurricanes are likelier to be larger and more powerful as they form over hotter ocean water. Thanks to climate change, global sea-surface temperatures are rising.

Not all storms make landfall. But those that do can lead to more than $1 billion in damage, especially as these storms continue to cause more severe flooding.

You can see the CSU forecast here. There will be others – the NOAA will get into the act as well – but I doubt they’ll disagree too much. And look, years with below-average activity are increasingly the exception these days. At least until the move up what “average activity” means. So yeah, get used to it.

Metro electric bus update

Some new details here.

Within the next year or so, you’ll see electric-powered buses buzzing around Bayou City.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) recently awarded a $22 million contract to Saint-Eustache, Canada-based Nova Bus for the production of 20 battery-powered electric buses. The contract includes an option for another 20 buses.

The first 20 buses, to be manufactured at the Nova Bus factory in Plattsburgh, New York, are expected to be on local roads sometime in in late 2022 or early 2023. They’ll run on the 402 Bellaire Express (Quickline) and 28 OST-Wayside routes.

METRO also plans to test three to five electric buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Furthermore, METRO is a member of the Automated Bus Consortium, a national organization of transportation agencies working toward development of a full-size, electric-powered automated bus.

METRO is moving toward the purchase of only zero-emission buses by 2030. It eventually wants to operate more than 1,200 electric buses throughout its system. All types of buses account for 1 percent of transportation-caused greenhouse gases in Houston, according to METRO.

See here and here for the background. The late 2022/early 2023 timeline is new information, as is the designation of the routes. The bit about testing hydrogen fuel cell buses is also new, and sent me scurrying off to Google to look for other information.

Battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have similar propulsion systems. Both store energy to power an electric motor. However, in the latter, energy stored as hydrogen is converted to electricity by the fuel cell, rather than being stored in a rechargeable battery.

Electric car sales reached 3 million in 2020, up 40 percent from 2019, with some 10 million electric cars now on the world’s roads. Registrations of hydrogen cars remain three orders of magnitude lower than this, and there are just 26,000 on the road globally, concentrated in three countries: Korea, the US (largely California), and Japan. While there remain several hydrogen fuel cell cars available on the market, made by the likes of Toyota and Hyundai, they tend to be more expensive than battery electric cars and can currently be difficult to fuel: Hydrogen is costly to buy, and there are far fewer refueling stations than recharging points in most places.

But when it comes to larger vehicles, the picture is not quite so clear. As vehicles get bigger, it becomes harder to electrify them, with increasingly large batteries needed. For energy-intensive applications like long-haul trucks, some experts say hydrogen may be the best option.

Buses lie somewhere in between cars and trucks on this spectrum. “The massive issue is the mass of the buses,” says James Dixon, a researcher in modeling energy and transport systems at the University of Oxford. “Batteries have an energy density that is comparatively small: The energy density is around 1/40th of the energy density of a liquid hydrocarbon fuel, like petrol or diesel.” Hydrogen also has a relatively low energy density (the amount of energy that can be stored per unit volume mass or area)—around four to five times lower than petroleum fuels, but far higher than electric batteries, he adds.

China already has around 5,300 hydrogen fuel cell buses on its roads, the vast majority of the global fleet, but other countries are investing in the technology. Neil Collins, managing director of Northern Ireland-based bus manufacturer Wrightbus, says his company is technology agnostic and is making both battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell buses. It feeds journey data from its bus operator customers into a tool to model different driving cycles for its vehicles, to help them find the best technical solution for that particular route.

Advantages of hydrogen include shorter refueling times and an often larger tank range. But hydrogen technology and infrastructure is more expensive, says Collins, while the skill sets in the industry for using electric buses are also likely higher than for hydrogen. Dixon also notes that one concern about hydrogen has always been its safety. “It’s got quite wide flammability limits, and it’s notoriously difficult to keep in a pressurized container without it leaking,” he says. “In terms of infrastructure, electricity is a lot easier, because you don’t need liquid fuel trucks driving around.”

Still, hydrogen may be a better option in a city with lots of hills, like Hong Kong, where it’s also very warm and humid, says Collins. “That’s going to be a problem for electric buses, because the cooling and the hills are just going to drain the batteries,” he says. “But if the city is relatively flat, and the journey times are relatively short, and it’s not either significantly warm or significantly cold, battery electric can do a very good job.”

The, uh, flammability issue sounds like a concern, but otherwise it seems like there may be good reasons to at least try this out and see how they work. I’ll be very interested to hear more.

Climate change and freezing weather

A little science for you.

It was the coldest February Texas had seen in more than four decades, and the sustained blast of arctic air knocked out much of the state’s power grid for several days, causing hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in damage.

Yet 2021 also brought the planet’s 16th-warmest February since records began. On average, winters are getting more mild because climate change has increased temperatures worldwide. How could a warmer world bring such a severe cold snap to Texas?

Scientists say they are still working to understand the relationship between climate change and extreme winter weather patterns. Many factors can influence localized cold snaps, and evidence suggests that climate change is affecting longstanding climate patterns in new ways.

“The way those kinds of events occur involve a lot more complicated atmospheric processes,” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist and acting deputy director for Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Francis and other scientists said there’s a significant body of research that can help explain why Texas — and other areas of the U.S. — may still experience extreme cold from time to time amid an overall warming of the planet.

“Maybe there was some nuance that was missed when people started talking about winters disappearing and how we’re never going to see snow again,” said Judah Cohen, a leading scholar on winter weather and climate change and the director of seasonal forecasting at the climate analytics company Atmospheric and Environmental Research. “People say, ‘I was told one thing and I’m experiencing something else.’”

Several factors impact the frequency and severity of cold spells in Texas, from the strength of the polar vortex — a seasonal, swirling mass of cold air that circles high above the Arctic — to whether we’re in an El Niño or a La Niña year, which influences whether Texas has a wet or dry winter, to the natural patterns that influence the position and strength of the jet stream, which can determine the path and duration of weather systems.

Here’s what factors scientists say can cause an extreme cold snap to hit Texas — and how such storms may be influenced by climate change.

You should read the rest, because it’s pretty interesting. The science is still being developed, and so there’s disagreement about some of the findings, but the big picture is there. You might familiarize yourself with the concept of a “polar vortex”, because it’s a key factor. Hope for the best and be prepared, whatever happens.

Our cow poop future

It’s a resource we have a lot of, to be sure.

TotalEnergies plans to build its first biomethane plant in the Texas Panhandle to produce renewable transportation fuel from cow manure.

The French oil major on Tuesday said it has partnered with California-based Clean Energy Fuels Corp. to construct a biomethane plant on the Del Rio Dairy Farm in Friona, Texas, where it plans to produce more than 40 gigawatt hours of biomethane every year. The biomethane produced at the dairy farm will be distributed across the country through Clean Energy’s fueling station network, supplying renewable natural gas to as many as 300 trucks a year.

“We are pleased to consolidate our entry into the U.S. biomethane market by jointly developing this first production unit on the Del Rio Dairy farm, through our joint venture with Clean Energy,” said Laurent Wolffsheim, TotalEnergies’ senior vice president of green gases and growth. “This project marks another step in TotalEnergies’ transformation into a multi-energy company, and in the implementation of its ambition to be a major player in renewables.”

Oil and gas companies are increasingly investing in biogas and alternative fuel projects as they face mounting pressure from governments and investors to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. TotalEnergies said it expects its Texas biomethane project will divert 45,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually by substituting fossil fuels with renewable natural gas made from cow manure, a significant source of methane emissions.

You can supply your own Ted Cruz joke here. I don’t actually know how much of an improvement biogas is over other options, from a climate change perspective. I hope it’s worthwhile, if only for the long term humor potential. And that’s your important cow poop news update for the week.

The 2021 hurricane season is now over

It was another bad one, even if it maybe didn’t feel so bad from our local perspective.

The 2021 Atlantic Hurricane Season [ended] Tuesday with 21 named storms, four major hurricanes and a new addition to the list of costliest U.S. hurricanes.

Ida, which hit Louisiana on Aug. 29 as a Category 4 hurricane, is now the fifth-costliest storm on record since 1980, with $64.5 billion in damages. It follows Hurricane Katrina from 2005 at $178.8 billion (adjusted based on the 2021 Consumer Price Index), Harvey from 2017 at $138.8 billion, Maria from 2017 at $99.9 billion and Sandy from 2012 at $78.7 billion, according to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information and the National Hurricane Center.

The 2021 hurricane season was the third-most-active year on record in terms of named storms — and it marked the first time that two consecutive hurricane seasons exhausted the list of 21 names. Last year had a record 30 named storms, which prompted the World Meteorological Organization to stop using the Greek alphabet for naming the additional storms. These letters had been designated for especially active seasons when the list of 21 pre-selected names was exhausted.

Of this year’s named storms, seven were hurricanes with winds of 74 mph or greater and four were major hurricanes with winds of 111 mph or greater.

One storm directly affected the Houston area: Hurricane Nicholas made landfall Sept. 14 near the eastern part of Matagorda Peninsula. It did so as a Category 1 storm that brought wind gusts and power outages but it, for the most part, left Houston unscathed.

You can see the NOAA press release here. With everything else that’s been going on, I confess that I haven’t given much thought to hurricanes since mid-September, which is the usual point at which the local risk of a big storm declines significantly. We made it through another season more or less unscathed, which is not something many other folks can see. If we can continue to be this lucky for, oh, the next 20 years or so, we’ll probably be fine. If not, well, I’d rather not think about it right now.

Metro approves electric bus purchase

We should have them in a few months.

Metro is charging ahead with its plan to add electric buses to the local transit fleet.

Board members Thursday approved a $22 million contract for 20 new buses and chargers that will operate along two routes that cross at the Texas Medical Center. They will be the first all-electric buses the Metropolitan Transit Agency has added to its roughly 1,200-bus inventory.

“Getting the ball rolling is important,” board member Chris Hollins said.

Officials will spend the next few weeks finalizing the contract, and barring any delays or a lack of progress on a federal grant that could pay most of the cost, the new buses will arrive and start carrying passengers in late 2022, officials said.

Ten buses will operate on Route 28 along Old Spanish Trail and Wayside, and 10 would be deployed to the Route 402 Bellaire Quickline. The buses are built by NOVA, one of four vendors that submitted proposals to Metro.

“We are going to get some real-world operating experiences,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

Importantly, Lambert said, the buses are going to routes that serve communities where improving air quality is critical.

The routes were chosen because they operate at the right distances for testing electric buses and both stop at the Texas Medical Center Transit Center for drivers to take breaks, said Andrew Skabowski, chief operations officer for Metro.

Metro is buying the buses but could defer its own costs so federal money picks up most of the tab. The agency has a $20 million grant proposal in the process with the Federal Transit Administration that, if approved, would virtually pay for the new buses.

See here and here for the background. Electric buses currently cost about twice as much as diesel buses, but the grant will mostly offset the purchase of these buses, and with future investment spurred by the infrastructure bill and the need to fight climate change, the price gap will narrow. I look forward to seeing these buses in action.

Rolling coal

From last week.

A teen who struck six cyclists while allegedly blanketing them in black smoke along a Waller County road faces six felony counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

“One for each of the people he almost killed with his reckless and violent behavior behind the wheel,” said Rachael Maney, national director for Bike Law Network, which is representing the riders, in a statement.

Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis presented the case to a grand jury last week, with the recommended charges.

“Earlier today the juvenile voluntarily surrendered himself, and was detained by representatives from the juvenile justice department where he will be held in custody until further orders of the juvenile court,” Mathis said in a statement.

Because the driver was 16, the charges are filed in juvenile court, but could be elevated to adult court. Charging someone under the age of 17 as an adult requires a process that must be certified by a County Court at Law judge. Mathis did not respond when asked whether prosecutors were seeking to elevate the case to adult criminal court.

Rick DeToto, a Houston lawyer hired by the teen’s parents, said because of the “confidentiality laws surrounding juvenile cases, we have no further comment at this time.”

“My client and his family continue to pray for the quick recovery of the injured bikers,” DeToto said.

The six cyclists on a training ride were struck Sept. 25 as they rode with dozens of others along U.S. 290 Business about two miles west of downtown Waller. Four of the injured were taken to area hospitals, two with significant injuries.

“We are happy to report that our clients continue to make advancements, no matter how small, on the long road of physical recovery ahead,” Maney said.

[…]

Maney, speaking for the other lawyers representing the riders, credited local officials for — albeit weeks later — treating the case seriously.

“I believe that … Mathis and special prosecutor Warren Diepraam have done their jobs to deliver what is a real step towards justice given what’s possible and what’s not within the Texas criminal justice system,” Maney wrote. “A system that does not favor people on bikes and generally provides far too much room for police and other prosecutors to endorse the marginalization of cyclists and other vulnerable road users through their historic inaction.”

Many cyclists, including those outside the area as the case drew national attention, heavily criticized local officials for not arresting or charging the teen at the scene and suggested the small-town politics of Waller led to a lax response.

“When law enforcement lets drivers get away with threatening and attacking people on bikes, they send a message that drivers own the road, and that anyone else is merely an obstruction,” said BikeHouston Executive Director Joe Cutrufo.

I don’t have a strong opinion on what an appropriate punishment for a 16-year-old should be in this instance. I’m just of the opinion that he cannot be allowed to get away with it, which it looked like he might at first. This malicious stunt could have easily had a death count with it, and he needs to feel some consequences for that, both for his own good and to serve as a warning to other idiots like him.

I’m willing to wait and see what happens with the criminal justice part of this, since it is at least on track. But there are other issues to consider as well.

Rolling coal is nothing new in truck-loving Texas. Videos of elaborately tricked-out pickups blasting diesel smoke are all over social media. But the recent incidents have raised questions about the practice of tampering with diesel engines.

Just a week or so after the Waller crash, an unidentified driver was seen on a now-deleted viral video rolling coal into a packed Whataburger in Cypress off of U.S. 290 after a high school football game. The person who took the video, Jayson Manzanares of Bridgeland High School, said he often sees drivers in his area rolling coal, but usually at a stoplight and not directed at people.

Local truck aficionados and environmental advocates agree coal rollers are an inexperienced, rogue minority of drivers who give diesel a bad name. But many who don’t roll coal do tamper with their diesel vehicles’ exhaust systems, often disabling the emissions control system or installing aftermarket defeat devices that help cheat emissions tests, as Volkswagen did in its scandal. The practice adds huge amounts of pollutants to the air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Modifying diesel exhaust systems is illegal, but drivers rarely are sanctioned for doing so, or for using diesel smoke to harass or harm pedestrians, bicyclists or other drivers. Until that happens, the practice is unlikely to stop, officials and safety and environmental advocates say.

I mean, this should be a total no-brainer. Put some real penalties into the crime of “rolling coal”, with actual enforcement, and do the same for tampering with diesel exhaust systems. I know we won’t get that with our current Legislature, but put it on the wish list for the future.

Ten years after the Bastrop fire

The headline on this story asks whether Texas is ready for the next big fire. I think we know the answer to that.

Photo by Chase A. Fountain/TPWD

Ten years ago, Texas experienced it’s worst wildfire disaster in the state’s history. Over 31 thousand fires burned more than 4 million acres of land in the state. This unprecedented fire season included the most destructive fire ever in Texas.

The Bastrop complex fire in September of 2011 was the most destructive wildfire in Texas history. Over thirty two thousand acres of forest burnt, 6500 homes destroyed, thousands evacuated. Several factors came together to cause the massive blaze, including the worst drought in Texas on record since the 1950s Dust Bowl era and high winds caused by Tropical Storm Lee, which made landfall on the Gulf Coast.

[…]

Brad Smith is a meteorologist with the Texas A&M Forest Service. He says unlike other areas of the country, Texas has wildfire seasons almost year-round.

“We can be in a fire season any time that we see three to four weeks of extended drying” said Smith.

Smith stops short of admitting climate change will drive more wildfires in the future. But Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said increased drought will definitely have an effect.

“We’re definitely going to have hotter droughts when they occur, which means things dry out faster and that by itself increases the risk of wildfire,” said Nielson-Gammon

The Texas State Climatologist’s Office recently released its report on future trends and extreme weather in Texas. The report says that the eastern area of Texas will be prone to more drought and wildfire, and the change could come on quickly as the climate gets drier from west to east.

“The way that plays out is trees die and they don’t get replaced, and the way large expanses of the trees get wiped out is through wildfire”, he said. “So that overall landscape transition that we expect to see happening over the next hundred years isn’t going to be the gradual transition. We might hope it will probably take place through wildfires from which the ecosystem doesn’t recover in the same way that it would have when the climate was cooler and wetter,” he added.

Back at Camp Swift, Kari Hines is worried that Texas residents may not be ready for the next major fire event in Texas.

“We have so many other disasters, whether it’s floods or ice storms or hurricanes that that get our interest, just getting people to realize that wildfires are something that happen and that they absolutely can do something to prepare for to decrease their chances of their home being lost or losing their lives. It worries me. I talk to a lot of people who don’t think wildfire is an issue,” said Hines.

See here and here for some background. The irony is that we had a wildfire protection plan in place, but it was a victim of the budget cuts from the previous legislative session, because that’s how we roll in this state. We did pass a constitutional amendment in 2013 to fund a water infrastructure fund as a drought mitigation effort. That was good and necessary (and I’d really like to see some reporting about how that is going), but it’s not about wildfires.

I think it’s fair to say that the professionals whose job it is to deal with wildfires are as ready as they can be, but our state leadership cannot bother their pretty little heads about it, and that’s even after taking concern about climate change out of the picture. We’ve obviously had our hands full dealing with flooding, and there was that little ol’ freeze last year that exposed all kinds of problems with our power grid. Why would be any better prepared for wildfires? The bottom line is that we’re lousy at investing in our infrastructure. The rest follows from there.

Climate change is bad for Texas

In case you were wondering.

Climate change has made the Texas heat worse, with less relief as nighttime temperatures warm, a report from the state’s climatologist published Thursday found.

Climate data also show that the state is experiencing extreme rainfall — especially in eastern Texas — bigger storm surges as seas rise along the Gulf Coast and more flooding from hurricanes strengthened by a warming ocean, the report says.

Those trends are expected to accelerate in the next 15 years, according to the report, which analyzes extreme weather risks for the state and was last updated in 2019. The report was funded in part by Texas 2036, a nonpartisan economic policy nonprofit group named for the state’s upcoming bicentennial.

The average annual temperature in Texas is expected to be 3 degrees warmer by 2036 than the average of the 1950s, the report found. The number of 100-degree days is expected to nearly double compared with 2000-2018, especially in urban areas.

“From here on out, it’s going to be very unusual that we ever have a year as mild as a typical year during the 20th century,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist who authored the report. “Just about all of them are going to be warmer.”

A hotter Texas will threaten public health, squeeze the state’s water supply, strain the electric grid and push more species toward extinction, experts told The Texas Tribune.

Read the rest, or see the Texas 2036 page for more. I don’t have anything useful to add here. Either you see this as an existential problem and there’s very little time to take the necessary action to make it less bad, or you’re part of the problem. Up to you.

It could have been worse

Just something to ponder, from Space City Weather.

First of all, if you can remember all the way back to Saturday, I presented three different scenarios for Nicholas’ track and eventual flooding in Houston. The first of these was the “Coast Hugger,” in which the storm remained close to the Gulf, brought 2 to 4 inches of rain to Houston and higher amounts along the coast, while keeping the heaviest rains offshore. This is largely what happened, with Nicholas remaining very close to the coast even after moving inland. If we look at satellite-derived precipitation totals for the last three days, the heaviest swath of 10-20 inches of rainfall came offshore.

A track even 40 or 50 miles further inland would have set up those heaviest rains directly across the Houston metro area, and created a much more serious flood situation. Hopefully this offers you some insight into the challenge of predicting these kinds of rain events. It was a very close call, a matter of miles, between significant inland rainfall flooding in Houston, and relatively clean bayous this morning.

The second factor is wind. Nicholas turned out to be a fairly nasty storm in terms of wind gusts, and pushed a larger storm surge—as high as 6.1 feet into Clear Lake—than predicted. This is a reminder of the power of a hurricane, even one that was “only” a minimal Category 1 storm. The truth is that the track of the storm was very nearly a worst-case one for Houston in terms of winds and putting a maximum storm surge across Galveston Island and into Galveston Bay.

It is September 14, the absolute peak of hurricane season in the Atlantic, and a time when sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are at their warmest of the year. So this morning I’m thinking about what would have happened if we had not had some wind shear over the western Gulf of Mexico yesterday, or if Nicholas had been able to consolidate a more well defined and consistent center of circulation. It would have been much, much worse for all of us had a significantly stronger hurricane made landfall last night. So while we pick up the pieces this morning, realize Nicholas could have been much more of a terror.

Not the first time this year that we averted a disaster by dumb luck. We’re four years out from Harvey, 13 years out from Ike, and we’ve had plenty of non-hurricane catastrophic floods in between, so it’s not like we’ve been living a charmed life here in Houston. Lots of people here have been hit very hard, and there’s a whole lot of talk about the trauma and stress that so many folks have experienced and still experience. This is life under climate change. There are things we can do to keep it from getting worse, and there are things we can do to make it better for those who have had the hardest time. But we can’t wish it away or ignore it, and we absolutely can’t deny it. It’s up to all of us.

Another catastrophe averted, for us

Sooner or later our luck is going to run out.

If Hurricane Ida had veered west and hit Galveston, its 15-foot storm surge could have devastated the city and plowed up the Houston Ship Channel, smashing into residential communities and industrial facilities; its 150 mph winds could have left much of the Houston area without power for weeks, experts said.

The region dodged yet another bullet last Sunday when Ida made landfall in Louisiana, inflicting catastrophic damage on its residents, property and oil-driven economy.

But Houston’s streak of relatively good luck since Hurricane Harvey four years ago is unlikely to last as climate change is expected to bring about more destructive hurricanes and sea level rise. A Category 4 hurricane such as Ida — which brought a triple threat of wind, storm surge and torrential rainfall — would have wreaked havoc on the Bayou City.

Unlike New Orleans, which strengthened its levee system after Hurricane Katrina in 2007, Houston hasn’t completed any substantial projects to protect the region against surge from a major hurricane such as Ida. The stakes are high: The Houston area is home to 7.1 million residents, one of the busiest shipping ports in the country and the nation’s largest concentration of critical oil and gas facilities.

“We are sitting ducks right now for a storm,” said Bill Merrell, a Texas A&M University professor who began advocating for an “Ike Dike” coastal barrier system years ago that has yet to get congressional approval.

If Ida had hit Galveston instead of Port Fouchon, La., the hurricane could have caused devastating damage across the Houston region, meteorologists said.

Ida’s 15-foot storm surge would have been smaller than Hurricane Ike’s 22-foot storm surge, the worst of which hit Bolivar Peninsula and parts of Chambers County in 2008. The Port of Houston’s facilities, which are built 20 feet above sea level, likely would have survived.

[…]

Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation, said hurricane mitigation efforts should go beyond the barrier project. While the Ike Dike could help stop an Ida-like storm surge, the barrier system isn’t designed to withstand winds from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane or prevent major flooding inland from rain. Harris County has undertaken a number of projects since Hurricane Harvey to increase storage capacity for and conveyance of rainfall; a separate Corps project looking at addressing rainfall is still in the planning phase.

Just as power plants should be ordered to weatherize their equipment for winter freezes, Houston leaders should be urging the oil and gas industry to shore up thousands of chemical storage tanks along the Gulf Coast, which are vulnerable to spills in the event of storm surge and extreme winds. And more homes along the Ship Channel should be bought out or elevated, Stokes said.

“Even if you think the coastal barrier is a great solution, it shouldn’t be the end solution,” Stokes said. “Even if you had all the money in hand, it will take decades to build. We can be doing more in the short term that could make a big difference.”

This story is an advertisement for building the Ike Dike, but as it and this other story make clear, there has to be more. The Ike Dike is necessary but not sufficient. We have done some things in the Houston area, with the 2018 referendum helping out even as it has had its problems, but as always there is more to do.

I tend to look at problems like this through a cybersecurity lens. Anyone in that business will tell you that you cannot fully eliminate your risk – indeed, in the context of a large business network, it’s guaranteed that you will experience breaches and infections – but there are many things you can do to mitigate them. No one thing covers all scenarios, but the various solutions overlap and complement each other, with the idea being that if one thing doesn’t work then something else will, and if all else fails you can detect and respond to the situation quickly. It’s called “defense in depth”, and it’s sturdier and more resilient than any single solution, because if you just rely on one thing to keep you safe and that one thing fails in some way, you’re hosed. We need the Ike Dike and we’ve needed it for a long time, but even as we finally move towards getting it, we will continue to need more than that. The more we can do right now to bolster and complement the future Ike Dike, the better off we will be.

Here come those electric buses

Here comes the commitment to buy them, anyway.

Local transit officials no longer are blowing hot air about the emissions coming out of Metro buses.

Board members Thursday approved a plan for all new Metropolitan Transit Authority buses to produce zero emissions by 2030, setting one of the largest bus fleets in the nation on a path to pull away from diesel engines and toward electric, hydrogen or some other alternative.

“It could not be more vital to take this step forward,” Chairwoman Carrin Patman said. “We have the capability to do it and the expertise to do it.”

The commitment came with the board’s approval of the purchase of 20 electric buses — part of a pilot to further test battery-driven buses and how well they perform in the heat of a Houston summer. Setting a goal is part of Metro’s work to create an agency climate action plan, which will be written by a committee led by former Harris County Clerk and Metro board member Chris Hollins.

[…]

The change will not happen overnight, transit officials acknowledged. Metro, with a fleet of more than 1,200 buses, typically buys about 100 new buses a year.

Board members said in the interim they expect Metro to move aggressively but deliberately to new engines, either more natural gas, which is cleaner than diesel, or hundreds of new electric or hydrogen buses.

“Every step in that direction will be helpful,” Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said last week during a discussion of agency’s goals.

See here for the background. A bit of wiggle room in that commitment, which is more about phasing out diesel than onboarding a particular technology, but that’s fine. I look forward to seeing which way they wind up going.

It’s the quick intensification of the hurricanes for me

New things to keep you up at night.

It’s a nightmare scenario that keeps forecasters up at night: A tropical cyclone strengthens quickly over a 24-hour period.

It happened last year close to home with Hurricane Laura, which evolved from Category 1 to a more devastating Category 4 before striking near Lake Charles, La., sweeping buildings from foundations and killing seven people with surf and falling trees.

Researchers in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agree it’s likely that the tropical cyclones that formed over the past four decades increasingly went through such a period of rapid intensification. They also say a greater proportion of future hurricanes will very likely be Category 4 and 5.

Coastal communities need to prepare, experts say.

The trend toward a greater frequency of storms getting stronger fast may continue, according to Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. Unexpected high winds and storm surges can cause disaster. Strong winds leave communities powerless and storm surges kill.

But evacuating vulnerable areas requires time; doing so too hastily can be dangerous.

“That’s really the nightmare scenario for forecasters and emergency managers,” said Robert Rogers, a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who studies storm intensity changes. “Imagine a tropical storm that’s approaching landfall, maybe a 55 mph tropical storm, and it undergoes rapid intensification to become a 130 mph monster at landfall. That’s really what keeps the forecasters up at night. That’s really what a lot of our effort is going toward trying to better understand.”

[…]

Area residents may not have five or six days to prepare for and evacuate from a storm, said Jeff Lindner, meteorologist for the Harris County Flood Control district.

Three-quarters of storms that struck Texas developed and hit within 60 hours, he said. Rapid intensification can add pressure to that timeline. Hurricane Humberto in 2007 famously went from tropical depression to tropical storm to hurricane in 19 hours, hitting east of High Island.

Other memorable storms intensified rapidly too: Ike’s winds in 2008 went from tropical storm-level to Category 4 in a 24-hour period when it formed, according to satellite estimates, but weakened before hitting Galveston with deadly surge. Harvey in 2017 rapidly strengthened to a Category 4 before striking near Rockport and later drenching the Houston area, unleashing catastrophic flooding.

What terrifies environmental attorney and longtime climate advocate Jim Blackburn is the scenario where people feel equipped to handle what they think is coming and are caught off guard when it becomes something else. He worries about coastal residents dying because they prepare to ride out a small storm — and a much stronger one hits.

“People have assumed or have fallen into routines based on the past,” Blackburn said, “and that’s the whole point of climate change. You cannot depend on the past to predict the future.”

I don’t really have much to add to that. Have your emergency kit stocked and ready, know what your plan will be, and hope like heck forecasting ability continues to improve. And yeah, build the Ike Dike.

Actually, I do have one more thing, as I had drafted this a few days ago: Be ready to donate to Hurricane Ida relief funds. Louisiana will need all the help it can get.

Metro seeks electric buses

Proof of concept for now and contingent on a competitive federal grant, but hopefully the start of something bigger.

Transit officials in the self-proclaimed energy capital of the world are recharging their attempts to wean Metro off fossil fuels.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials, sensing both the technology and federal interest in funding are ripe, are preparing to buy up to 20 all-electric buses that would operate along two routes.

Though Metro has tried and failed to find an electric bus that can handle the hot Houston summer in the past, officials said they are growing more optimistic newer batteries have the necessary juice to keep the vehicles moving and riders cool.

Fears the region may not have much time before drastic action is needed to mitigate climate change with lower vehicle emissions, are prompting Metro to move faster on flipping the switch on its fleet, albeit gradually.

“Some of the recent weather events have made this a more urgent matter,” said Kimberly Williams, chief innovation officer for Metro, referring to the increasing frequency of major hurricanes along the Gulf Coast and flooding in the Houston area.

In addition to buying zero-emission buses, Metro officials also are forming a task force, led by board member and former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, aimed at modernizing Metro’s operations to meet local climate change goals.

The changes for Metro are likely to vary in scope and size. Some, such as replacing lighting with more energy efficient LED options, already are underway. Others, such as encouraging more transit use and less solo car and truck trips by travelers by offering more convenient bus routes or adding bus rapid transit lines, are included in the agency’s long-range plans.

[…]

The viability of the vehicles, however, remains uncertain. That is why Metro officials — who manage about 1,200 buses — plan to start with 20. Previous attempts to test electric buses in Houston did not lead to purchasing any because the buses could not pass a test to see if they could drive and keep air conditioning running enough to cool the interior at the same time.

The a/c test can be one of the most challenging parts of operating in Houston, Metro Chief Operating Officer Andrew Skabowski said.

“A bus, every corner, opens its doors,” Skabowski told Metro board members last week, explaining that taxes the components when it is 95 degrees with 96 percent humidity.

“It takes a lot of power, and it will remain a concern until we put a vehicle into service and see how they perform,” Skabowski said.

He said though the technology is emerging and advancements in the battery power and improved HVAC system made some of the newest electric buses meet Metro’s specs on paper, the true test will be when they hit the road.

As noted, there’s a federal grant that would cover most of the cost of those buses, but there’s no guarantee Metro would get it. It’s not clear if they would still pursue this at this time if not – there may be further opportunities for such funding after the infrastructure bill passes, for example. That previous attempt was from 2016, and it’s reasonable to think that the technology has improved enough to try again. Metro is right to have a plan to reduce emissions, and buses are their biggest source by far. It’s good they’re being proactive about it.

There sure were a lot of named storms this year

Thirty of them, in fact.

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season had a record 30 named storms. Twelve made landfall in the continental U.S., including five in Louisiana.

Hurricane season ends Nov. 30 (that’s next week, so fingers crossed there isn’t a Thanksgiving surprise), but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its end-of-season report on Tuesday.

“The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season ramped up quickly and broke records across the board,” Neil Jacobs, acting NOAA administrator, said in a news release.

There were a record nine named storms from May through July. Then 10 named storms formed in September; the most for any month on record.

On Sept. 18, Tropical Storm Wilfred exhausted the pre-selected 21 names for this Atlantic hurricane season. For only the second time in history, the Greek alphabet was required to name subsequent storms.

Hurricane Laura was the strongest storm to make landfall in the U.S., coming ashore near Cameron, La., on Aug. 27 as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph.

Nicaragua was hit with two Category 4 storms: Hurricane Eta on Nov. 3 with maximum sustained winds of 140 mph and Hurricane Iota on Nov. 16 with maximum sustained winds near 155 mph.

A “normal” year has 12 named storms. We’re in a period of warmer sea surface temperatures, and that’s a phase that can last a couple of decades. So it’s probably not going to get much better any time soon, and that’s before we bring up that pesky climate change thing. And the US got off relatively easy while places like Nicaragua got slammed. Since Donald Trump couldn’t find Nicaragua on a map if you drew him an arrow pointing to it with a red Sharpie, let’s hope that the Biden administration will offer some support and relief. And also that we’ll get started on building that Ike Dike. Here’s a timeline if you want to relive the 2020 storm season.

Houston’s hottest neighborhoods

That’s temperature hot, not realtor hot.

This summer, Houston joins 13 other cities in a massive, community-driven, heat mapping project. More than 80 volunteers like Powers and her son, dubbed “street scientists” by the organizing groups, covered roughly 300 square miles in 32 different polygon-shaped areas.

The project, which is taking place when Houston and Harris County are usually at their hottest, will give scientists, public health officials and community leaders the data necessary to try to cool Houston down. Local leaders hope the heat maps will help direct policy and planning within neighborhoods for things like cooling center locations, greenspace, green rooftops and tree planting. Continuously rising temperatures within cities like Houston can usher in a host of health and environmental problems, and may disproportionately affect lower-income neighborhoods that tend to have less green infrastructure.

As the third largest county in the nation, Harris County’s efforts represent one of the biggest single-day community-led heat mapping events ever held. Scientists say Houston heat mapping has been done before, but this appears to be the first that will provide readily available, comprehensive data.

“This is something that, frankly, is a little bit overdue,” said Jaime González, Houston Healthy Cities program director at The Nature Conservancy in Texas, one of organizations participating in the project.

Indeed, last August was Houston’s second hottest on record, and experts predict it will continue to get hotter this year. By 2065, the number of days above a heat index — which is how hot it feels outside with added humidity — of 105 degrees is predicted to septuple. Houston is already at least 13 degrees hotter than nearby rural areas, according to Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization that analyzes and reports on climate science, and increasing temperatures put undue pressure on power grids.

Houston is undeniably hot, but some areas may be hotter than others. Infrastructure — treeless tracts, packed concrete apartment blocks, busy streets — can create conditions that could result in pockets with higher temperatures. Studies show that temperature discrepancies within a city can differ by 15 to 20 degrees, with more extreme heat often occurring in lower-income neighborhoods.

These heat maps will show quantitative data about urban neighborhoods, and specifically, which ones are more directly impacted by extreme heat.

This is a serious matter of public health, and it’s something that can be addressed by public policy if there’s sufficient data to inform that policy. The simple act of planting trees where they are most needed helps. Let me tell you, as someone who is responsible for walking a dog every day, I am very grateful to live in a neighborhood with a real tree canopy, because it’s the only thing that keeps me from turning into a pile of soot and ash on these brutally hot July and August days. Everyone should have such an amenity available to them. This is also a reality of climate change, in that our failure to address the causes of global warming means we have to take action to try to mitigate its effects, so we can live with them. I hope this effort is a great success.

(I should note that the “Powers” mentioned in the first paragraph of the excerpt is my friend and neighbor Rachel Powers, executive director of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition. Nicely done!)

When Houston is more like Austin

In a climate sense. Which is to say, drier because of climate change.

A new study predicts that Texas’ climate is going to get drastically drier because of climate change. The journal Earth’s Future recently published the study looking at historical drought records, and it projected that the second half of the 21st century could be Texas’ driest of the last thousand years.

One of the study’s authors, Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, spoke with Texas Standard host David Brown on Tuesday about the future of the states’ climate and water supply.

“Conditions, on average, would be drier than we’re used to, and when we get extreme droughts, those will be drier as well,” he said.

Nielsen-Gammon said that could initiate a westward shift in the state’s climate – meaning, San Angelo’s climate becomes more like Midland’s; Houston’s climate becomes more like Austin’s, and so forth.

Reducing carbon emissions is the long-term solution to the problem that comes from a warming planet. But Nielsen-Gammon said that requires massive changes on a global scale that haven’t happened yet.

So Texans would be wise to prepare for drier conditions. And that includes planning for possible water shortages.

I’ve blogged about water issues and the challenges our state faces, as it sits at the crosswords of rapid growth, climate change, and a lot of people living in very dry places to begin with. Water conservation, wastewater recycling, desalinization, and on and on. The challenges we already face will be greatly exacerbated by climate change, and it’s going to change the state at a fundamental level.

The study highlighted a slew of looming problems for the state’s water supply. First, climate change will lead to even more megadroughts. In the latter half of the century, those droughts are likely to be worse than any of those previously on record.

“Our study shows that the drier conditions expected in the latter half of the 21st century could be drier than any of those megadroughts, depending on how you measure dryness,” lead researcher and A&M professor John Nielsen-Gammon wrote in a press release.

Second, the higher temperatures brought about by climate change will lead to more evaporation from the surface lakes that many parts of the state rely on. This problem will be particularly pronounced for Dallas, which relies entirely on surface water for its water supply, the study says.

Third, the state’s population is continuing to grow — from just under 30 million now to a projected more than 50 million in 2070 — meaning the demand for water will go up as the state gets drier.

“We’re warming up the atmosphere; that’s been happening and is projected to make the droughts more severe, but in cities like Austin, Dallas, Houston, the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio, we know that populations are continuing to grow at a rapid pace,” said Jay Banner, a professor at UT-Austin who co-authored the study.

Merry Klonower, a spokesperson for the Texas Water Development Board, which offers water planning assistance to municipalities, said that each of 16 regional water planning areas throughout the state is required to take into account population projections for the next 50 years when making water supply decisions.

“And if there is a shortage, then the very next step is they have to determine how they are going to meet their water supply needs for that growing population,” she said. “So we have been doing this since the ’90s and it is a very robust process. So the state is well-prepared and is looking at future populations and water supply needs for municipalities.”

I’m sure we have been preparing and planning for years, but I’m also pretty sure we’ve been underestimating the scope of the problem all along. I mean, if we took it with an appropriate level of seriousness, we’d have a very different set of government leaders in place and would have had a much different set of priorities in this state. It’s still not too late to try to reduce the effects of climate change, but every day that passes is one day less we have for that, and one day closer to the future studies like this predict. What are we going to do about that?

More like Ike than Harvey

Not sure this is a choice I want to have to make, but here we are.

Hurricanes are expected to blow through Texas more quickly during the last 25 years of this century.

A study led by Rice University researcher Pedram Hassanzadeh found that climate change will make future hurricanes fast-moving storms like Ike in 2008 rather than slow-moving rainmakers like Harvey in 2017.

“We find that the probability of having strong northward steering winds will increase with climate change, meaning hurricanes over Texas will be more likely to move like Ike than Harvey,” Hassanzadeh said in a news release.

Hurricane Harvey caused an estimated $125 billion in damage, matching 2005’s Katrina as the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, according to the news release. Ike’s coastal flooding and high winds caused $38 billion in damage across several states. In 2008, it was the second-costliest U.S. hurricane. It has since moved to sixth.

The study is here. Ike cost less than Harvey, though that’s partially an accident of geography – had Ike stayed a bit more to the west it would have made a direct hit on Houston, in what has been described as a “worst case scenario” (at least pre-Harvey) for our town. Point being, neither is a good option. Maybe we ought to, I don’t know, do something about climate change so we don’t have to face choices like this in the future. Just a thought.

Houston’s Climate Action Plan

We have one, with goals for 2050.

Houston’s first Climate Action Plan calls on the city’s 4,600 energy companies to lead the transition to renewable sources, while residents are asked to swap car rides for mass transit and work to cut down on the estimated seven pounds of waste each person discards every day.

The plan also calls for the city to adopt a new building code and develop a long-range plan for its waste collection system as part of a broad-based effort to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

The 97-page plan, in the works for more than a year and published online Wednesday, is a strategy, not an ordinance, so it does not enforce any new rules. Instead, it identifies four areas to target emission reductions: transportation, energy transition, building optimization and materials management. It also identifies goals, strategies and targets for residents, businesses and the city to follow in each of those areas.

For example, the section on transportation, which accounts for nearly half of emissions here, includes a goal to shift the regional fleet to electric and low-emission vehicles. It lays out targets to get there, such as converting all non-emergency municipal vehicles by 2030, and increasing incentives and infrastructure for the private sector to do the same.

The section on energy transition includes the production of 5 million megawatt hours of solar power by 2050. It calls for the city to power municipal operations entirely with renewable sources by 2025, and it proposes training private businesses and property owners on how to adopt solar power on their rooftops.

Nearly all of the 34 million metric tons of carbon that Houston emitted in 2014, the baseline year for such calculations, came from transportation and energy that powers homes, businesses and institutions, the plan says.

Those strategies are tailored to Houston, said Lara Cottingham, the city’s chief sustainability officer and lead author of the plan. The city, she said, does not have the same tools as the state or federal governments or even other cities, such as San Antonio and Austin, to combat climate change. It has very little authority to regulate the oil and gas industry, and it does not have a city-owned electric utility.

That means the plan requires buy-in from businesses and residents to take initiative themselves, Cottingham said.

“The Climate Action Plan is a good combination of ambitious goals and common-sense solutions,” she said. “We don’t have all the answers, and that’s OK. We do know that science is behind us and technology is on our side. What is important is that every single one of us does our part.”

You can see the plan here. The story notes that there’s a broad range of support behind the plan, but also a lot of emphasis from supporters that this is just a first step. I agree with the Air Alliance Houston statement on the plan, which urges the city to collaborate with Harris County to expand this into more of a regional initiative. In the short term, I’d really like to see some action on solar power, with options to make financing for home solar panels widely available. This is very much a collective action problem, and I’m glad to see the city commit to doing its part. It’s on the rest of us to make sure they follow through.

Resilient Houston

It’s good to have a plan.

No traffic deaths on Houston streets, 4.6 million new trees, and no more homes in the floodway. All by 2030.

Those are some of the lofty goals set in the master resiliency plan, “Resilient Houston,” that Mayor Sylvester Turner and city officials unfurled Wednesday, a 186-page document that spells out how the city and its residents can orient themselves to best prepare for future disasters like Hurricane Harvey.

The plan addresses resiliency at five scales — people, neighborhoods, bayous, the city and the region — and sets 18 targets, along with a corresponding set of 62 actions to make those happen.

“There’s a lot in there,” said Marissa Aho, the city’s chief resilience officer, who has spearheaded the production of the plan over the last 18 months. Aho was hired from Los Angeles, where she developed a similar framework.

About a third of the actions are initiatives the city already has in the works. Another third build on existing city projects, and the remaining actions are new.

They range from the immediate term, such as the appointment of resilience officers in each city department this year, to the more distant future, such as reaching complete carbon neutrality by 2050.

As noted in the story, the Resilient Houston plan document is here. It’s 186 pages, so I hope you’ll forgive me that I’ve only skimmed the beginning of it. The eighteen goals of the plan are laid out in the table of contents on page 3, and they include items that ought to have wide consensus like “We will support Houstonians to be prepared for an uncertain future”, “We will live safely with water”, and “We will modernize Houston’s infrastructure to address the challenges of the future”. I’d encourage you to look and get a feel for what it’s about. This is part of a worldwide effort called 100 Resilient Cities, of which Houston is now a member. It’s going to take me some time to process all this, and now I feel like I want to do an interview with Marissa Aho once primaries are over. At a high level, I think this is a good and necessary thing, and I think the goals are both desirable and achievable. How we get there will very much be the tricky part.

A little national press for the Railroad Commissioner race

Bloomberg News notes that the Texas Railroad Commission could have a significant effect on climate change, if it wanted to.

Booming oil and gas production across the Permian Basin of West Texas has made this little-known regulator, with three voting members, a pivotal decision-maker for the American contribution to climate change. The reason for this comes down to natural-gas flaring. Drillers in Texas, as in other places, are allowed to burn off vast amounts of natural gas that is a by-product of oil production. This is done, in part, because of the expense involved in capturing the gas, putting it into pipelines, and moving it to processing facilities.

And it happens with permission from the Texas Railroad Commission.

Burning off the gas prevents the unchecked release of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas that causes as much as 36 times more warming than carbon dioxide in the 100-year period after its release, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But allowing Texas drillers to burn their unwanted gas—something the Railroad Commission almost always does—is a harmful solution: Tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants enter the atmosphere, without yielding any useful energy.

Global gas flaring emits more than 350 million tons of CO2-equivalent each year, according to the World Bank. That’s equal to all the natural gas consumed in Central America and South America each year.

“This is the most important environmental race in the country,” says Chrysta Castañeda, 56, one of four Democratic candidates vying to become the first non-Republican commissioner in more than 25 years and the first Democrat to win statewide office since the 1990s. The commission “is not enforcing the laws” on flaring. “What’s going on in Texas is one of the biggest contributors to the issue worldwide.”

Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton said it’s “patently false” that the agency is not enforcing the rules on flaring. The state flares just 2% of its gas production, much less than most other major producing countries, according to a statement released by his office.

[…]

“It’s not an easy, black-and-white, ‘Well-why-don’t-you-just-tell-them-to-stop?’ kind of problem,” says Bobby Tudor, co-founder of Houston-based investment bank Tudor Pickering Holt & Co., which advises oil and gas companies. “But I think in general, a much firmer stand from the Railroad Commission and leadership from the most active companies can make a difference.”

Flaring is central to the campaign to unseat Sitton, and the issue is gaining more attention than ever. The race now includes Castañeda and three additional Democratic challengers: Dallas lawyers Roberto Alonzo and Mark Watson and San Marcos educator Kelly Stone. Watson and Stone both say they, too, want to crack down on flaring. Alonzo didn’t respond to requests for comment and does not appear to have a website.

“The prices paid for shale oil do not accurately reflect the true cost of production,” Watson says. “Flaring natural gas must be reduced very quickly, in a responsible manner.”

Stone takes it a step farther, siding with Democratic presidential candidates such as Warren and Sanders, who have come out in support of a ban on fracking.

“I’m a gal that wants to ban fracking,” says Stone, who taught at Texas State University until her class, Sexuality Across the Life Span, was canceled last year amid a spat with national conservative group Turning Point USA. “I realize that I’m saying that in the state of Texas, where people clutch their pearls when you say something like that.” (A spokesman for the university said it doesn’t comment on personnel matters, and Turning Point USA didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Castañeda says such a move would risk “huge disruption to our current economy and current lifestyle.” She accuses the Republican-dominated commission of failing to enforce the commission’s existing rules by putting limits on waste.

“If we are going to extract fossil fuels from the ground, we ought to use them productively and not wastefully,” says Castañeda.

Sitton frames the issue around preventing the economic waste of leaving oil in the ground. Halting flaring would “cost billions in terms of economic impacts and taxes to the state and Federal government” as well as raising energy costs, his office said in its statement. ​​​​“The energy produced in Texas provides affordable energy for people all around the world and it is produced more cleanly and responsibly than anywhere else in the world.”

Roberto Alonzo, who is a former longtime State Rep, does have a campaign Facebook page, which I was only able to find because he shared a post on his personal Facebook page, which I know how to find. Searching for “Roberto Alonzo” doesn’t get you there – you have to search for “Alonzo for Railroad Commissioner” or “Alonzo for Texas Railroad Commissioner”, neither of which gets auto-filled by Facebook. Once again, I never thought I’d be shilling for the joys of SEO, but here we are. Also, searching for either of those terms brings up Chrysta Castañeda’ campaign Facebook page as the second result. That, my friends, is how you do it.

Be that as it may, I’m glad to see Mark Watson respond to a question from the media with a perfectly reasonable answer, thus offering me some reassurance that maybe there aren’t any goofy candidates on the RRC ballot this year. All four would be a clear improvement over Ryan Sitton.

Sea levels rise, property values drop

Cool, cool, cool.

Sea level rise has cost Texas homeowners $76.4 million in potential property value, with Galveston hit the hardest, a new study released Tuesday found.

First Street Foundation and Columbia University analysts examined about 3 million coastal properties in Texas. Using a combination of real estate transactions and tidal flooding exposure, they found that from 2005 to 2017, homes in Galveston lost $9.1 million in potential value, followed by Jamaica Beach (which lost $8.6. million) and the Bolivar Peninsula ($8.1 million). It’s not necessarily that these coastal homes decreased in value by these amounts, the authors say, but that they didn’t appreciate as much as similar homes not exposed to tidal flooding. Researchers factored in square footage, proximity to amenities and economic trends like the 2008 housing recession.

First Street Foundation analyzed 18 coastal states from Maine to Texas, calculating a total $15.9 billion loss due to tidal flooding driven by sea level rise. The New York-based nonprofit studies the impacts of sea level rise and flooding. The report was released as the nation on Monday observed Earth Day.

“Sea level rise is not creeping up at the same rate, it’s accelerating,” said Jeremy Porter, a Columbia University professor and First Street Foundation statistical consultant. “This is an early indicator of what’s to come and the loss is already in the billions of dollars.”

Sea level off the coast of Texas is up to 18 inches higher than it was in 1950, and it’s accelerating, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For Texas, depending on the location, sea level rises 2 to 7 millimeters per year, said John Nielsen-Gammon, state climatologist at Texas A&M University. This is mostly due to sinking land as a result of the pumping of large volumes of groundwater and oil and gas, he said.

And the expectation is that global sea level rise will continue to increase, he said. “It’s not at all clear at this point by how much because we don’t have a lot of experience with ice shells collapsing, but the range is anywhere from continued 3 to 5 millimeters per year up to total sea level rise of 1 to 2 meters by the year 2100.”

Sure is a good thing global warming is a hoax, isn’t it? You can see the study details here. And you might consider buying your next house on higher ground.

Climate change and hurricanes

We’re living it now.

Photo: NOAA/NASA GOES-16

A group of top hurricane experts, including several federal researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, published striking new research Thursday, suggesting that hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean have grown considerably worse and that climate change is part of the reason why.

The study focused on rapid intensification, in which hurricanes may grow from a weak tropical storm or Category 1 status to Category 4 or 5 in a brief period. They found that the trend has been seen repeatedly in the Atlantic in recent years. It happened before Hurricane Harvey struck Texas and before Hurricane Michael pummeled the Gulf Coast with little warning last fall. Hurricane Michael, for example, transformed from a Category 1 into a raging Category 4 in the span of 24 hours.

The study, published in Nature Communications, describes its conclusion in blunt language, saying the Atlantic already has seen “highly unusual” changes in rapid hurricane intensification, compared to what models would predict from natural swings in the climate. That led researchers to conclude that climate change played a significant role.

“Natural variability cannot explain the magnitude of the observed upward trend,” they wrote. The research was led by Kieran Bhatia, who conducted the research as a graduate researcher at Princeton University and NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.

“There’s just a whole host of issues that come along with rapid intensification, and none of them are good,” said Jim Kossin, one of the study’s authors and a hurricane expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The increase in prevalence of rapidly intensifying storms, Kossin said, means both that there are more strong storms overall and that there are more risky situations near land.

“Rapid intensification is exceedingly dangerous because people, they’re not warned adequately, they’re not prepared, many of them don’t evacuate,” he said.

The findings come in the wake of two of the most damaging years for hurricanes and other extreme events. In 2017, according to NOAA figures, the United States saw $306 billion in disaster losses, largely driven by Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma. In 2018, Hurricanes Florence and Michael were major factors in a $91 billion damage total.

You can see the study here. People can believe whatever they want to believe about climate change. We’re going to experience the effects of it regardless.

El Nino 2018

Here it comes.

Houstonians can expect more rain than usual — and possibly street flooding — this winter, thanks to El Niño.

The National Weather Service forecasts an 80 percent chance for a weak to moderate El Niño this winter, starting around Christmas and lasting through February. In Houston, El Niño means a warmer and wetter winter that could have more severe storms and a higher risk of localized flooding.

Last week’s storm, which brought high winds and street flooding to the region, is indicative of an El Niño storm, said Ken Prochazka, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Houston.

“After our wet fall, the ground out there is saturated,” Prochazka said. “When we don’t get a chance to dry out, we’re more likely to have runoff and street flooding.”

El Niño occurs when the temperature of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America is warmer than usual. The warm Pacific water affects the atmosphere and causes changes in weather patterns around the world.

In the U.S., El Niño accelerates the North American jet stream, pushing storms from the Pacific across the the country at a faster speed. Storms can move across Texas every three to four days during El Niño, dropping more rain than usual.

Houston typically sees 3.6 inches of rain in January. El Niño can bring more rain than that, Prochazka said.

[…]

Houston last saw El Niño-related storms between 2014 and 2016. The city saw particularly strong El Niño storms in 1997 and 1998. El Niño, which occurs unpredictably, can last for a couple of years, Prochazka said.

It is what it is. All we can do is try to be ready for it.

Look out for lionfish

Hey, it’s another destructive invasive species, aided and abetted by climate change.

Scientists battling coral reef deaths caused by warming ocean waters 100 miles off the coast of Galveston might now have another climate change problem to fight in coming decades: a proliferation of zebra-striped lionfish.

Lionfish — brought to the U.S. from their Indo-Pacific home to stock aquariums and later dumped by owners unable to care for the constantly hungry vertebrate — have no known North American predators to stop their spread. As a result, they’ve been decimating reef populations from New York to Florida since the 1980s, arriving at the Gulf of Mexico’s Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in 2011.

And a recent study published in the Wilderness & Environmental Medicine journal suggests that venomous creatures like lionfish will become more prevalent as the oceans warm.

”They are the cockroaches of the sea,” said Michelle Johnston, a sanctuary research biologist. “They reproduce every four days and every four days they can release up to 50,000 eggs. Plus, nothing really eats them, they have venomous spines and the native fish are terrified of them.”

[…]

Between 2011 and 2017, researchers have recorded nearly 3,500 lionfish in the [federal Stetson Bank] sanctuary, NOAA stated, though experts believe that number is low.

And just as the lionfish did in household aquariums, they started eating everything in sight. A single lionfish can eat up to 5,000 fish per year, Johnston said.

In the Indo-Pacific, lionfish predators include sharks, grouper, frogfish, large eels and scorpionfish, according to Lionfish Hunters, a group that promotes the removal of lionfish from the Western Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf.

But fish native to the Flower Garden Banks don’t know lionfish are predators, Johnston said, which makes the venomous fish’s food gathering that much easier.

“The lionfish are virtually unchecked” in Flower Gardens, Johnston said. “The ones we’ve collected are extremely large, they’re obese, and some of them have fatty liver disease. They’re eating themselves into oblivion.”

Here’s the NOAA page on lionfish. The Chron article is long and detailed, and one we’ve heard before for other species. Scientists are looking for solutions to control the population so as to minimize the damage these invaders cause. (Turning them into human food is another idea.) In the meantime, if you or someone you know owns an aquarium, don’t add a lionfish to your collection, and if you do then for crying out loud don’t just dump it somewhere if you decide you’re done with it. Let’s at least not add to the problem.

Typhus in Galveston

An infectious disease update for you.

Typhus fever, a disease carried by fleas and once thought to be eradicated, is rearing its head in Galveston County, county health officials said on Monday.

The Galveston County Health District reported that 18 cases of typhus fever have been reported so far in 2018, up from 17 reported for all of 2017. The disease has rebounded in other parts of Texas in the last decade.

“I believe we are seeing an increase in reported cases because physicians now know what symptoms to look for,” said Randy Valcin, Galveston County Health District’s director of epidemiology and public health preparedness, in a written statement. “Typhus has been around for a number of years, but physicians are testing more and we’re seeing those results.”

Typhus symptoms, which include fever, headache, muscle pain, anorexia, rash, nausea and vomiting, are often confused with a number of viral ailments. People become infected when they come in contact with infected flea feces through open wounds, scratching and even breathing in the infected feces. Symptoms usually present about 7 to 14 days after exposure to the virus.

Murine typhus is a flea-borne illness, now believed to be carried mostly by opossums and other backyard mammals that spread them to cats and dogs, which then bring them indoors. Historically, typhus was carried by rats, before aggressive use of DDT, a pesticide, in the mid-1940s largely eliminated the problem in most U.S. areas. Before the use of DDT, typhus fever peaked in the United States with 5,400 reported cases. By 1956, there were less than 100 reported cases. The use of DDT has since been banned.

The disease is often mild, and treatable with antibiotics. But left untreated, severe illness can cause damage to one or more organs, including the liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and brain.

Over the last 15 years, typhus has been making a comeback in Texas. In 2017, the Chronicle reported the number of Texas cases rose from 30 in 2003 to 364 in 2016, and the number of Harris County cases from zero to 32. Eight Texas deaths have been attributed to the infection since 2003, with more than a quarter of cases reported to the state health department involve children from 6 to 15 years old.

See here for some background. Like Zika, typhus is a tropical disease, and one reason we’re seeing it here now is because of climate change. Basically, the conditions under which these diseases, and the insects that carry them, now exist in a much broader and less-equatorial range. We can accept that as the new normal or we can try to maybe do something about that, I dunno. Just a thought.

Rio Seco

This is not good.

By KmusserOwn work, Elevation data from SRTM, drainage basin from GTOPO [1], U.S. stream from the National Atlas [2], all other features from Vector Map., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Mario Rosales, who farms 365 acres along the Rio Grande, knows the river is in bad shape this year. It has already dried to a dusty ribbon of sand in some parts, and most of the water that does flow is diverted to irrigate crops, including Rosales’ fields of wheat, oats, alfalfa and New Mexico’s beloved chilies.

Because last winter’s mountain snowpack was the second-lowest on record, even that irrigation water may run out at the end of July, three months earlier than usual. But Rosales isn’t worried. He is sure that the summer thunderstorms, known here as the monsoon, will come.

“Sooner or later, we’ll get the water,” he said.

The monsoon rains he is counting on are notoriously unpredictable, however. So he and many of the other farmers who work 62,000 acres along 140 miles of the Rio Grande in central New Mexico may get by — or they may not.

“Nobody’s got a whole lot of water,” said David Gensler, the hydrologist for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, whose job is to manage the river water that is delivered to Rosales and the others through diversion dams, canals and ditches. “If we use it up early in the season and don’t get any rain further on, the whole thing’s going to crash.”

Parts of the state got some much-needed rain this week, which may help Gensler extend his irrigation water a bit. But whatever happens this spring and summer, the long-term outlook for the river is clouded by climate change.

The Rio Grande is a classic “feast or famine” river, with a dry year or two typically followed by a couple of wet years that allow for recovery. If warming temperatures brought on by greenhouse gas emissions make wet years less wet and dry years even drier, as scientists anticipate, year-to-year recovery will become more difficult.

“The effect of long-term warming is to make it harder to count on snowmelt runoff in wet times,” said David S. Gutzler, a climate scientist at the University of New Mexico. “And it makes the dry times much harder than they used to be.”

Nothing to worry about, I’m sure. I mean, that part of the river isn’t even in Texas. I’m sure it will all be fine.

From Harvey to drought

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

The Texas Panhandle has become ground zero in a drought that has crept into much of the state just five months after Hurricane Harvey — including areas that suffered massive flooding during the storm.

More than 40 percent of Texas is now in a moderate to severe drought, according to the latest data from the U.S. Drought Monitor. That’s compared to 4 percent on Aug. 29, a few days after Harvey slammed into the South Texas coast.

And dry conditions are expected to worsen over the coming months.

“As soon as Hurricane Harvey cleared Texas, then we almost immediately started going into the next drought,” said Mark Wentzel, a hydrologist for the Texas Water Development Board.

August was the wettest year in the state in 124 years, but every month since then — aside from December — has been considerably dry, he said.

Part of Beaumont, which saw nearly 50 inches of rain when Harvey stalled over southeast Texas as a tropical storm, is now in a moderate drought. And all of the city is considered “abnormally dry,” according to the drought monitor.

Drought conditions are particularly bad in North Texas and especially in the Panhandle, where all 26 of the region’s counties are in a severe to extreme drought and most have burn bans in effect. The outdoor fire restrictions don’t stop there, though: They’re in effect in more than one-third of Texas’ 254 counties, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Two bits of good news here. One is that Harris County is completely out of the drought zone, and two is that the longer-range forecast is for more normal rainfall beginning in May. One hopes that means a non-blistering summer. Be that as it may, this is what normal looks like now, one extreme to another. Maybe we should take climate change just a wee bit more seriously, you know, to try and cope better with this? Just a thought.