There’s a meme circulating on the internet that’s popular with sweaty, climate-conscious doomscrollers. In the top panel, a distraught-looking Bart Simpson laments, “This is the hottest summer of my life.” In the bottom panel, Homer wags a finger at Bart. “This is the coldest summer of the rest of your life,” he says. D’oh!
The idea, of course, is that though this endless summer may be miserable for millions of people from the United Kingdom to Texas, it’s just a warm-up act for the heat waves to come. Or to be more precise: heat waves will no longer be waves; they’ll just be “summer.” Meanwhile, plenty of other Texans are comforting themselves with the notion that extreme heat is a fact of life in our capricious climate and there’s nothing unusual about the current heat wave. Lord willing, it will rain again and the calendar will eventually turn to autumn, bringing freshets of cool air from up north.
In other words, we are all coping in our own polarized ways. But memes and wishful thinking aside, what does the science say our future holds? Is this the new normal? Is Homer right?
First, it’s important to note just how historic this heat wave has been. Summer 2022, June through August, could be the hottest on record for many parts of Texas. Austin and San Antonio, for example, are in the middle of the hottest summer on record by quite a bit. That’s right—hotter than 2011, the summer from hell that many supposed was a black swan event. Each city’s average high is more than a degree hotter than its second-warmest summer on record.
Ah, well, at least it’s cooling off at night, you might say. Ehhh, not so much. In Dallas, the low temperature last Monday of 86 degrees Fahrenheit tied five other days for the all-time record high-minimum temp (the warmest morning, basically), and a quarter of the summer days so far “have seen daily record high low temperature records either set or broken,” according to Victor Murphy, a Fort Worth–based meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Galveston didn’t drop below 85 degrees for a week straight earlier this month, and set a record morning-low temperature for July of 86 on four days this month. And this is a single data point, but try this one on for size: last Tuesday, it got up to 116 degrees in Vernon, near Wichita Falls. Which is insanely hot, but what’s really crazy is that it was still 98 at midnight and only briefly dropped below 90 overnight.
All of this is consistent with the effects of human-caused warming. We’ve experienced tremendous summertime warming in Texas in recent decades. This summer is running about 6 degrees higher than the twentieth-century average, according to John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist and a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M. He estimates that roughly one quarter of that abnormal heat is attributable to climate change. “Climate change is making droughts worse by increasing the temperatures and thereby increasing how rapidly everything dries out,” Nielsen-Gammon said.
In the past four and a half decades, the number of triple-digit days has doubled, according to a 2021 report authored by Nielsen-Gammon for Texas 2036, a nonprofit think tank. But it’s actually nighttime summer temperatures that are rising fastest. A new report from Climate Central found that summer nights are warming twice as fast as daytime temps. El Paso is among the U.S. cities to experience the most overnight warming since 1970, with nighttime lows now 8.1 degrees warmer than fifty years ago.
So how does this summer (so far) stack up against projections of future Texas summers? In his study last year, Nielsen-Gammon projected that by 2036—the two-hundredth anniversary of Texas’s independence from Mexico and just fourteen years from now—the number of 100-degree days is expected to double again. He divided the state into four quadrants—Coastal, North Central, South Central, and Northwest. In the past two decades, the South Central part of the state, which includes San Antonio, has averaged about fourteen days of triple-digit temperatures each year. By 2036, the typical summer will see closer to thirty days of such extreme heat. The North Central portion—Dallas–Fort Worth and portions of East Texas—has averaged twenty days of 100 degrees or higher each year; by 2036, that will be forty.
Keep in mind we are talking about the typical summer. Some years will be cooler; some quite a bit hotter. But in general, as average temperatures increase so does the likelihood of long strings of triple-digit days. Climate Central projects that by 2100 summers in Abilene, Austin, and El Paso will resemble Dubai, where the average August high is a cool 106 degrees. Dallas–Fort Worth will be more like Ciudad Obregón, Mexico. Houston’s sister city: Lahore, Pakistan, where it is decidedly not a dry heat.
I put the Homer question to Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. He began his analysis with a question: What is the probability of a June hotter than the hottest June from 1950 through 2022 occurring in any given year through the end of the century? Using an ensemble of climate models, he looked at ten Texas cities, projecting average temperatures for June in the coming decades if we don’t aggressively cut carbon emissions. By the middle of the century, extreme summer heat of the kind we are experiencing now will become not uncommon, and by century’s end it will be fairly typical.
Around 2060, for example, Dessler projected that Houston will have roughly a one-in-three chance of seeing a June hotter than the Bayou City’s hottest on record, which was 1998. (June 2022 ranked as Houston’s fourth-warmest on record.) Another way of thinking about this: in the 2060s, every third June in Houston will be hotter than June 1998.
For Austin, the odds are one in five that June in 2060 will be hotter than any on record. (June 2022 tied with 2008 as the hottest on record for the Capital City.) Ditto for Abilene, Amarillo, Dallas, Midland, Tyler, and Wichita Falls. For Corpus Christi, 2060 will bring almost a 50 percent chance of a June hotter than any on record (beating 1998), and for Brownsville, the odds are two out of three.
And by the end of the century, summer 2022 starts to look almost mild. Around 2100, Brownsville, for example, will experience a June cooler than June 1998—its hottest—only one out of every five years. Corpus Christi will get a “cool” June—cooler than 1998—about every third year. For the rest of the cities, hotter Junes than any in the last seventy years will come every one to two years. In layman’s terms: unless the world dramatically cuts emissions—and soon—our future is gonna be really hot.
“The good news is that it’s not like every summer is going to be like this one,” said Dessler. “But ten years ago we had 2011 and that was really unpleasant. And now, eleven years later, we have another 2011. And the next one might be eight years and then six years and so on. You kind of get used to it, but you don’t want to have to get used to 103 degrees, which is basically what it is every day this summer, it seems.”