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Experts predict the number of days of extreme heat in Texas will triple by 2050

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By Terri Williams September 11th, 2019
4 min read
For business

The number of days of extreme heat in Texas will continue to increase.

The 2019 summer season was unbearably hot for many Texans, with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. However, this year was just the tip of the iceberg, according to experts. The Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Oakland, CA, recently published a report titled “Killer Heat in the United States,” revealing that the number of days with extreme heat in Texas will likely triple by 2050.

Dr. Kristina Dahl, co-author of the study and senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Oakland, CA, explains, “The results of our Killer Heat analysis show that with no action to reduce global heat-trapping emissions, Texas would go from having an average of 5 days per year with a heat index (or “feels like” temperature) above 105 F historically, to 44 such days per year by mid-century.”

“The reason for this is that as we continue to burn fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas, heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide accumulate in the atmosphere,” Dahl says. “Global emissions of these gases have been rising since the Industrial Revolution, and unless we make concerted efforts to switch to carbon-free energy systems, they will continue to rise and warm our atmosphere.”

One of the consequences of this warming is the increased frequency and intensity of extreme heat in Texas and other states.

The study examines the heat index patterns of several U.S. cities. For example, Austin historically has 5 days with a heat index over 105 degrees in an average year. If no action is taken, the city will have 59 such days by mid-century. If slow action is taken, the city will have 42 days with a heat index above 105 degrees.

On average, Dallas has 8 days with a heat index over 105 degrees annually. If no action is taken by mid-century, the city will have 100 such days. If rapid action is taken, the city will have 48 days with a heat index above 105 degrees.

Common effects of heat on the body

The severity of this prediction extends beyond being uncomfortably hot. “When exposed to such conditions, our bodies’ temperature rises, and heat-related illnesses can occur.” Dahl says these illnesses can range from mild heat cramps to a life-threatening heat stroke.

According to the report, heat can affect the body in a variety of ways. Among the most well-known results of extreme temperatures are intense thirst and a dry mouth, heat cramps, muscle spasms, and weakness in the arms and legs. Other common effects include profuse sweating, flushed and clammy skin, and heat rash.

However, extreme heat can also lead to kidney disease and failure, liver injury, worsened allergies and asthma, worsened chronic obtrusive, and pulmonary diseases. Headaches, dizziness, loss of coordination, and confusion could also occur, as well as seizures, irregular heartbeat, reduced blood flow to the heart, stroke, and even coma and heart attack.

Some population groups are more susceptible than others. For example, young children, seniors, and people who are sick or have mental or physical disabilities are at greater risk. In pregnant women, extreme heat could lead to a reduced blood flow to the uterus and result in preterm delivery or stillbirth.

In addition, low-income groups are particularly susceptible since they are less likely to be able to afford reliable air conditioning. Military personal and those who routinely work outside are also more vulnerable.

While tornadoes and hurricanes garner a lot of media attention, according to the National Weather Service, the top weather-related cause of death is exposure to extreme heat.

What can be done to avoid this problem?

“Our research shows that in order to limit the amount of extreme heat we experience in the future, we need to take rapid action to drastically reduce our carbon emissions,” Dahl explains. “By doing so now and by limiting future warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, we would be able to limit the expansion of extreme heat across the country.”

How can this be accomplished? “Actions to reduce emissions should include putting an economywide price on carbon and policies to reduce transportation emissions such as increasing vehicle fuel economy standards and deploying more electric vehicles.”

Unfortunately, even with rapid emissions reductions, Dahl says we will likely still see an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme heat in Texas and across the country. “So, we also need to focus on limiting the harms associated with extreme heat,” she says. “That would entail measures such as developing a national extreme heat warning system, and implementing national heat health protective standards for worker safety.”

Terri Williams is a freelance journalist with bylines at The Economist, USA Today, Yahoo, the Houston Chronicle, and U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.