In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Tarrant County newsmakers, the National Weather Service’s Victor Murphy explains the factors driving the heat wave hitting Texas, how the weather is stressing the state’s resources and why he doesn’t believe the extreme temperatures will recede anytime soon.
Murphy, who serves as the climate service program manager for the weather service’s southern region, is based out of the agency’s Fort Worth office.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Haley Samsel: I’m talking to you on a very hot day in North Texas. Could you tell me a little bit about how this summer ranks in terms of some very hot summers in this area?
Victor Murphy: We had our second-warmest May on record for Texas, and June is certainly going to be top two or top three warmest. So you add in April, May, June – that’s going to be the hottest ever on record for the state of Texas going back to 1895.
The poster child, if you will, for the heat so far has been in the Austin area and the San Antonio area, where they didn’t get a whole lot of rainfall in May or June. As a result, their temperatures have really been sky high because there’s not really anything out there in the atmosphere to modulate temperatures a whole lot, other than clouds or rainfall. You don’t get rainfall, don’t get clouds, you just get the sun baking the ground. The ground heats up, and you get a loopback cycle between the heat baking the ground, the ground emitting all the heat and radiating all the heat up because there’s no soil moisture left.
Austin and San Antonio are on pace for far and away their hottest May-June on record or June on record – summertime on record, for that matter. They’ve all had a record number of 100 degree days so far.
In the DFW area, we had some decent rainfall in May. Of course, that all disappeared in June. At my house here in the west side of Fort Worth, I’ve had zero rainfall since June 3. And a lot of areas in North Texas can say the same thing. I think right now for the DFW, it’s about the fifth or so warmest June-July so far on record, but it’s definitely trending upward with a bullet.
Samsel: How are temperatures exacerbated by drought? You mentioned that rainfall seems to be the only way to really drive those temperatures down.
Murphy: You get what’s called the loopback or feedback cycle where plants and trees, etc., they all retain water and evaporate that out. The sun heats the grass or heats the ground. Through the process of evapotranspiration, or the release of that moisture, helps modulate or lower the temperatures in the lower part of the atmosphere near the surface. Ordinarily, those two go hand in hand and you don’t really get these extremely hot temperatures.
But when you get a period of time like what we have here in North Texas and much of the Hill Country, when you don’t get that moisture, the grass and ground quickly loses whatever soil moisture it has. The sun radiates through the ground and reflects right back up into the atmosphere.
Just like in (the 2011 drought), the combination in the summertime where heat begets drought, drought begets heat. Quite honestly for North Texas here, until we get some rainfall, I don’t really see an end to it. That’s going to be the big wildcard for us in getting out of this feedback cycle that we’re in right now.
Samsel: Texans are a bit worn out by the really extremely cold and then now having really extreme heat. What makes it difficult to forecast those kinds of things, or predict them?
Murphy: The bottom line is we’re seeing an increase in temperatures. The February 2021 cold spell was definitely a huge outlier on the cold side. We’re going to see less and less of those going forward. What we’re seeing right now is temperatures are gradually increasing, no doubt about that, on the planet. But we’re seeing more extremes in general.
For example, through (July 7), the DFW area had already set – tied or broken – 10 new record-high low temperatures. We have only broken the high temperature record once. For every record high temperature, we’re probably seeing about three or four record-high low low temperatures. That’s very common with global warming. We’re seeing probably a fraction of one with regard to record low temperatures being set, something much less than one.
I have data here for so far this summer. In DFW, the maximum temperatures have averaged 97.0 degrees from June 1 to (July 7), and that’s the sixth warmest on record. The highest we’ve had so far this summer has been 103, but we should be up around 104 to 105 (on July 9 and July 10). Of course, with no rain, that ranking for the summertime for DFW is going to be on the increase.
Samsel: Does Austin and Central Texas typically have more of these 100-degree days than the Dallas-Fort Worth region based on the 30-year averages of climate?
Murphy: The 30 year-average for Austin, beginning in 1990 and ending in 2020, was 29 (100-degree days). In DFW, that average is 20, and that number has held pretty steady in the 15 to 20 range as far as 100-degree days. DFW is not really showing the kind of increase in heat or 100-degree days that Central Texas is showing.
We’ve had our monster summers, like 2011 and 1980. In 2011, we had 71 100-degree days. In 1980, we had 69. In 1988, we had 56. So those are the three big hot summers that stand out in the last 40 years or so. You can counter that because, for example in 2021, we only had eight. In 2020, we only had nine. In 2019, we only had 14.
In DFW, your long-term average has stayed pretty steady. I feel pretty confident that we’ll break that this year. We’re already up to 14 and should easily have five more. The 30-year rolling average of 100-degree days in DFW should be met by (July 13).
That’s the scary thing. We still have half the summer and quite honestly that’s the hottest part of summer. That’s where a lot of the fear and trepidation is coming from as far as the severity of the summer, and I will say that if we don’t get any rainfall soon, these temperatures are going to keep increasing for the rest of summer.
Samsel: We’ve talked in the past about how much this can stress out the electric grid. I was wondering what you think about how these extreme temperatures can affect people’s lives and how people get through this summer.
Murphy: With Electric Reliability Council of Texas, its daily use record was something around 74,800 or 74,900 megawatts. They set a new record (on July 5), and they’ve broken that record numerous times this year. (Note: Total forecasted power demand was expected to surpass 79 gigawatts on Monday, according to ERCOT). Obviously, I think all eyes are turned to ERCOT and the Texas power grid. Hopefully it can stay up and going and stable, not just in the short term but in the case that Texas gets even hotter, in the longer term.
As far as impacts go, we’re seeing a big increase in wildfires. There’s all kinds of grass fires and as you know, on the Fourth of July, we had to cancel the fireworks show in Fort Worth. I think the fire danger right now is extremely high due to the crispy ground conditions. Like I said, a lot of North Texas has seen literally zero rainfall going on five weeks now. Thankfully, the winds aren’t that high, so if it’s a grass fire and something does start, it’s not going to spread very quickly.
Hydrology-wise and reservoir-wise, we’re OK. Statewide reservoir levels are at about 74% of capacity right now. In 2011, at the same time, we were at 72%. So we’re 2% ahead of that, which isn’t bad. From a water supply perspective, we’re in pretty good shape. And it might be a little premature, but if we don’t get any precipitation soon, I think we might see a lot of die-off in terms of vegetation, shrubs, landscape, etc. that are not watered. Of course, we did have a big die-off in 2011. We actually lost a lot of trees.
DFW escaped relatively unscathed in 2011, and so far, we’re doing pretty good this year. The biggest impacts are pretty much, like I said, in Central Texas in Austin and San Antonio.
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.
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