Texas is freezing, but the Arctic is hot

Well, hotter than normal.

That is the temperature for Wednesday 17 February, referenced to a 1979-2000 base, from John Englander’s blog.

Some parts of the planet’s surface are 15 – 20 degrees Celsius colder than we would expect, and other parts are 15 – 20 degrees Celsius warmer.

However, with climate change one of the big effects is destabilisation of the weather.


    As the world warms, the greatest effect is to destabilize the patterns that we consider “normal.” This is critical because it is normal weather patterns enable farmers to plant and harvest crops with proper temperature and rainfall.

    The “normal pattern”, however, lulled Texas energy planners to only design for warm/hot temperatures and very, very moderate winters.

    When freezing temps, ice, and snow arrived in force, the grid folded without even a fight. (again, as it did back in 2011)

    But science makes clear that these disruptions to the normal weather pattern will continue, become more frequent, and likely continue to get worse.

    The really simple explanation is that climate is changing profoundly.

So where to now?

    We must do three things:

      1. Work to slow the planetary warming from the extraordinary level of carbon dioxide emissions ASAP.

      2. Design our infrastructure to handle a wider range of extreme weather events. We need to build in greater resiliency.

      3. Begin to engineer for real adaptation to the new realities of climate, rising sea level, and weather.

Englander’s big thing is sea level rise. His forthcoming book is Moving to Higher Ground: Rising Sea Level and the Path Forward. He says sea level rise is unstoppable for many centuries due to excess heat already stored in our oceans profoundly affect more than 10,000 coastal communities world-wide as soon as 2050.

It seems to me that we urgently need cooling rather than just slowing the warming. I’ll repeat here an update I posted at the end of the 2019 post Climate emergency – ecological sustainability within planetary boundaries, and a safe climate.

[Update 17 December 2019:

When I wrote this post I completely forgot a post Assessing dangerous climate change I had written in December 2013 based on a paper by James Hansen and 17 other authors Assessing ‘‘Dangerous Climate Change’’: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature.

It’s Hansen’s answer to the climate emergency. It calls for a 6% reduction in emissions each year, starting immediately, that is, in 2013. They warn:

    If emissions continue to grow until 2020, as seems likely, emissions will need to reduce by 20% pa thereafter.

    In addition, we will need to remove 100 GtC from the atmosphere and hold other greenhouse gases to net zero.

That’s carbon, not CO2. For CO2 multiply by 3.67.

100 GtC is roughly 10 years of emissions.

They suggest an initial carbon tax of $15/tCO2 with a rise of $10 each year to change behaviour, and border taxes for embedded carbon imports.]

We were warned.

Big freeze in Texas

I heard that over 240 million people in the US were affected by the big freeze, but Texas was especially ill-prepared.

This is what happened as residents turned on their heaters, placing much more demand on the power grid than is typical for winter:

    In general, Texas has a generating capacity of about 67,000 megawatts in the winter, compared with 86,000 megawatts in the summer, when temperatures soar and the state’s energy demands usually peak.

    But when the polar weather system hit, 28,000 megawatts from natural gas, coal and nuclear plants and 18,000 megawatts from wind and solar sources fell offline, as gas supply lines froze and some turbines stopped spinning, according to the AP. In cold, northern states, these power sources are routinely protected against winter weather and energy reserves are stored in advance of storms; Texas did not apply these same winterization guidelines, AP reported.

Carbon Brief has a comprehensive explainer of the whole thing – what happened, impacts on the oil market, media reaction, the links to climate change, and Ted Cruz doing a runner to Mexico with his family.

There is no running from the ‘new normal’ which in reality is change and instability.

14 thoughts on “Texas is freezing, but the Arctic is hot”

  1. In case some people think the big freeze in North America signals the end of global warming, I thought the graph in Englander’s post puts that one to rest.

  2. Lethal Heating republishes an article from Bloomberg Green Ice, Fire, Floods: Extreme Weather And Climate Change, mostly inspired by the recent cold event.

    Basically, the poles are warming twice as fast as the tropics. This has weakened the jet stream and made it wobbly.

    In general:


      Studies by reinsurers Munich Re and Aon both show weather-related natural disasters around the world increasing over the years, while damage from other events such as earthquakes and volcanoes has remained the same.
  3. Brian: Add population growth to this mix and our capacity to deal with these climate driven crisis by moving people and crops is diminished.

  4. Brian: “Indeed, and it’s why Paul Hawken saw educating girls and family planning as a top priority.” Other things can make a difference. For example:
    -Old age pensions and other social security measures mean that people don’t need children to support them in their old age or when they get sick, lose their job etc.
    -Reduced child mortality means that you don’t have to have “Replacement children” to ensure you do have descendants.
    -Availability of birth control.
    Unfortunately governments and their big business donors see growing population as a easy way of growing company profits. (Who gives a stuff about the problems of urban spread and damage to the environment?)

  5. John, I don’t have time to follow up the population growth story, but it seems there is no single narrative that applies to the whole world. Here are two articles which show that the action concentrates in some regions and continents:

    World Bank 2015 – The future of the world’s population in 4 charts

    Pew on UN 2019 – For World Population Day, a look at the countries with the biggest projected gains – and losses – by 2100.

    There doesn’t seem to be any calculus taking into account climate change or sea level rise in particular.

  6. Texas Crisis Exposes A Nation’s Vulnerability To Climate Change:

      The week’s continent-spanning winter storms triggered blackouts in Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and several other states. One-third of oil production in the nation was halted. Drinking-water systems in Ohio were knocked offline. Road networks nationwide were paralyzed and vaccination efforts in 20 states were disrupted.

      The crisis carries a profound warning. As climate change brings more frequent and intense storms, floods, heat waves, wildfires and other extreme events, it is placing growing stress on the foundations of the country’s economy: Its network of roads and railways, drinking-water systems, power plants, electrical grids, industrial waste sites and even homes. Failures in just one sector can set off a domino effect of breakdowns in hard-to-predict ways.

      Much of this infrastructure was built decades ago, under the expectation that the environment around it would remain stable, or at least fluctuate within predictable bounds. Now climate change is upending that assumption.

    Examples abound, including last September in Washington when a sharp downpour saw sewerage back up and pour into peoples homes out of toilets and drains.

    Roads, railways, dams, bridges, nuclear power plants etc are vulnerable, and there is concern that Biden’s approach is deficient in terms of building resilience.

  7. Brian: “There doesn’t seem to be any calculus taking into account climate change or sea level rise in particular.”
    I don’t think either of these things necessarily affect population growth unless they reduce a country’s ability to produce and buy food. My point about population growth is that it reduces a country’s choices t respond to climate change.

  8. “Did wind power ‘fail’ during the Texas blackout? A deep dive”
    Interesting article if you want to look at the details. Conclusion: “The discourse around whether wind “caused” the event intentionally flattens a very interesting and important point: it is in fact possible to build out new energy technologies so they become redundant to a network of failing fossil fuel infrastructure. It means figuring out integration of wind and solar far quicker than expected, but as is becoming increasingly clear, we need to prepare for a world dominated by intermittent, unreliable fossil fuels with reliable, firm zero carbon power.” https://reneweconomy.com.au/did-wind-power-fail-during-the-texas-blackout-a-deep-dive/
    “If you’ve followed the clean energy debate for some time (and you’re on this website, so it’s likely) you’ll know of a familiar gambit to critique wind and solar – creating an impossible failure and always claiming that it’s failing. The blackout in Texas has caused a resurgence of many of these old ideas, and it’s worth exploring them, because they highlight exactly what role wind power will play in increasingly stressed world grids.”
    “What Texas shows is that the absence of any agreed meaning of “performance” for wind and solar causes massive problems when discussing events like this.
    One recurrent problem on Twitter coverage of the blackout was asserting that renewables either over or under performed based on charts of power output compared to ERCOT’s hourly forecasts.”

  9. John, the Carbon Brief explainer puts the situation clearly on Texas blackouts for those of us who struggle with technical detail:

      a piece in Bloomberg warned against pointing “too many fingers at Texas wind turbines, because they’re not the main reason broad swaths of the state have been plunged into darkness”.

      It reported that wind “only comprises 25% of the state’s energy mix” at this time of year and that wind shutdowns accounted for less than 13% of the 30-35GW of total outages seen across Texas. [The 25% figure refers to power generation rather than overall energy.]

      Instead, the piece added that the “main factors” instead have been “frozen instruments at natural gas, coal and even nuclear facilities, as well as limited supplies of natural gas”.

    Most of the power in Texas still comes from fossil fuels and nukes:

    The basic problem is that the authorities did not prepare for the weather conditions that showed up.

  10. On sea level rise, food production, displacement of populations, each one of those has immense complexity and uncertainty.

    For example, two metres of sea level rise could displace between 179 and 632 million people, we don’t actually know.

    And then as said recently, SLR will not be uniform, but will vary considerably from place to place.

    Celia McMichael et al (2020) look at A review of estimating population exposure to sea-level rise and the relevance for migration with a shorter version here.

    With fertile river deltas flooded, and places like the grain-producing northern plains in China in the frame, as well as warming and uncertain seasons affecting staple foods grown in mid-latitudes, it seems producing food may be more difficult.

    I imagine we will grow more food in controlled conditions like greenhouses, and maybe manufacturing foods from constituent components, including artificial meats, but I haven’t investigated the area.

    My overall feeling is that the future is going to be more complex than we can imagine.

  11. Brian: “Fragile cities are being inundated with people fleeing the impacts of climate change. How can they cope?” The Somali internal refugees sort of survived because Somalia/world as a whole had enough capacity and sense of obligation to help the displaced.
    World wide decline in capacity and sense of obligation…

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