In mid-June, Texas and several other states saw record high temperatures ranging from the upper 90s to 100s. As residents battled the scorching heat, many concerns were raised regarding how the heat could impact future weather patterns and if these extreme summer heatwaves are here to stay.
Heatwaves in Texas and Beyond Could Become More Common
Just before the summer season officially began, the National Weather Service (NWS) announced that more than 40 million people in the southern and western regions of the United States were experiencing excessive heat. At least 11 states in the U.S. reported experiencing temperatures in the triple digits – well above what is normally anticipated in June. Accordingly, the NWS urged residents in the affected areas to avoid extended periods outside and to stay as hydrated as possible.
Although extreme heat may not seem to be as devastating as a hurricane, tornado, or flood, the NWS has deemed heatwaves to be the deadliest weather phenomenon in the nation on average over the past 30 years.
Heatwaves form high-pressure systems known as anticyclones, where atmospheric pressure above an area builds up. This buildup creates a sinking column of air that compresses, heats up, and dries out. The sinking air then acts as a cap or heat dome that traps the latent heat already absorbed by the landscape. This high-pressure system pushes cooler, fast-moving air currents and cloud formations out, giving the sun an unobstructed line of sight to the ground. With the ground then baking in the sun during longer periods of daylight, heat energy accumulates and temperatures rise.
Heatwaves are most commonly seen in arid areas such as the desert areas of the Southwest and in high altitudes where high-pressure systems can readily form. While moisture in the ground can effectively blunt the effects of heat, with little water available there isn’t as much to soak up the heat besides the air itself.
When these recent heatwaves began in the U.S., Texans quickly felt the temperatures rise into the upper 90s, with some areas seeing numbers in the 100s. While Texas residents are generally used to experiencing high temperatures in the later summer months, this early influx of heat proved to be unbearable.
As many retreated inside for relief, the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) requested that residents conserve energy to avoid rolling blackouts. This announcement came just months after the power grid failed during Winter Storm Uri. Instances like this were anticipated back in late March when the state’s grid operator warned extreme summer heat could impact grid operations.
According to a recent USA Today article, advocacy group Commission Shift expressed concerns regarding the continued ERCOT disruptions. The organization stated that because it was apparent the grid had difficulties handling a power strain in June, well before Texas was nearing its peak summer temperatures, it is concerning for what’s to come later on this summer as well as in the years ahead.
Additionally, researchers who study drought and climate patterns say that those experiencing increased temperatures should expect to see more of the same in the future. University of California Los Angeles’ climate and fire scientists have noted that because the soil in the Southwestern regions of the U.S. has become drier over time, heatwaves are becoming more concerning. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), heatwaves are occurring more often than they used to in major cities across the nation. This frequency has increased slowly over time from an average of two per year during the 1960s to six per year in the 2010s.
Heatwaves Can Create Stronger Hurricanes
Although heatwaves aren’t known for their propensity for structural damage, oceanographers have found hurricanes forming in the Gulf of Mexico can be considerably strengthened through extreme weather events, including heatwaves. According to a 2020 study conducted by the Texas A&M Galveston Department of Marine and Coastal Environmental Science, during the summer months, solar energy has the potential to increase air temperature and surface water temperature so much that the entire ocean water column – from the surface to the bottom – cannot absorb heat from the atmosphere.
The finding comes after examining conditions that created Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm that impacted the Florida Panhandle. At the time, Michael was preceded by Tropical Storm Gordon, which mixed cold water at the bottom of the ocean with warm surface water. This lowered the surface water temperature and increased the ocean’s capacity to absorb more heat. After Gordon and before Michael, a heatwave had formed in the area and created a marine heatwave due to the water’s ability to absorb more heat energy. This heat energy was found to have directly contributed to Michael’s strengthening to a Category 5 storm.
According to the study, the water in the Gulf of Mexico is especially prone to these conditions. The findings showed that if the marine conditions are just right, a storm or hurricane has the potential to become stronger before it makes landfall. This is true for more recent storms like Hurricane Sally and Laura, which also experienced a compounding effect of heatwave conditions and water temperature changes.
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