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Parts of Texas in ‘extreme heat belt’ will experience temperatures of 125 degrees by 2053

Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT

The impact of climate change on average temperatures already affects many parts of the world, and those effects are sure to escalate. But a new study warns that “an extreme heat belt” across the U.S., including parts of Texas, could mean that effective temperatures climb as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit on at least one day a year by 2053.

Jeremy Porter is chief research officer at the First Street Foundation, the nonprofit organization that conducted the study. He told Texas Standard that these increases in temperature will lead to other extreme events, for which the affected areas should prepare. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Hotter temperatures as a result of climate change been predicted for some time. Tell us a little bit about how this analysis is different. 

Jeremy Porter: We are building off of a NOAA report that just came out a couple of months ago that actually showed that we’re about two degrees Fahrenheit above where we were on average at the mid-century, around 1950. And it seems like a small number, but oftentimes when we communicate those numbers of averages, people have a hard time understanding exactly what they are. And the other side of that is when people say that we’re going to continue the increase in temperatures out to 2100 – that’s also very abstract for people to understand.

So we focused on near-term population impacts out only 30 years, and we did focus on extreme heat events like that extreme heat that you mentioned.

Let’s talk about how that looks on a map: Where does this heat belt extend to, and how is Texas included? 

The East Texas, Louisiana [area], all the way up through southern Wisconsin and a lot of Illinois is part of this extreme heat belt. And this area of the country is actually notoriously vulnerable to extreme levels of heat. If you go back just this year and look at some of the relentless heat waves that we saw throughout the summer, you would notice Missouri, Arkansas, western Kentucky and Illinois are all part of that area. And it has to do with the topography of the country there. The high plains are on the west, the Appalachian Mountains on the east. And there’s almost a low bowl of elevation where humidity is able to settle. And that humidity then interacts with rising temperatures to create these extreme heat indices.

But I would imagine that extreme heat itself would tend to wreak a certain degree of havoc upon past weather patterns. 

Yeah, the heat itself is sort of the foundation for a lot of different extreme events that we’re seeing. So as temperatures rise, we see more extreme precipitation events; we see higher likelihood for hurricanes as sea surface temperatures increase; we see a higher likelihood of wildfires out west. So the extreme heat really, when you start to think about a changing environment, is really the foundation for a lot of the different changing perils that we’re seeing.

What does this mean as a practical matter? What are the new risks associated with being a part of this heat belt? 

Well, first of all, the National Weather Service has a 125-degree heat index as the top threshold on their warning level. They actually call it their Extreme Heat Warning. And it seems like a huge number, but 95-degree air temperature and 80% humidity gets you to 125 in the heat index. So it’s not that hard to sort of fathom a day where you could have at least one day with those two indicators.

What it means for local communities is that in the short-term, we need to be able to prepare emergency responses for extreme heat events; individuals need to prepare for not just one day at 125 heat index, but maybe prolonged exposure to extreme heat events. And there are things to consider around the infrastructure, the power grids, the ability to supply enough energy for the air conditioning and cooling if needed. So just understanding what that risk looks like today [and] how it’s going to change into the future will allow people and communities to best prepare for those events.

What’s your goal with the release of this report? Are you sounding an alarm saying, ‘hey, this is happening now’? 

Our goal really is to show people that it’s already happening. Lots of climate science communicates this risk out to 2100, and people sort of think about it as something they’re not going to have to deal with. If you just look back historically, you can tell it’s already been happening. In the near term, we can also see that is something that is going to continue to increase [and] we’re going to continue to have to deal with. Our goal at the First Street Foundation is really to quantify and communicate these risks in an easily accessible, easily digestible way that allows people to understand the climate science in a way that’s personal to them.

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