Texas is dry and hot. Global warming?

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Texas is dry and hot. Global warming?

On Oct. 17, a cold front blowing through Lubbock, Tex. raised a red dust cloud that recalled the awesome Dust Bowl of the 1930s, an epoch of drought, enormous dust storms, poverty and social upheaval that depopulated the Great Plains.

The 2011 dust storm served as an exclamation point on a cruel Texan summer, with drought, wildfires, and temperature records that would not quit. On Oct. 19, the Lower Colorado River Authority, source of much water in the Southwest, warned customers that the drought was likely to force another 20 percent cut in water supplies.

In Austin, “Every major Texas heat record was broken,” reported KXAN news of Austin, including:

Hottest summer ever

Hottest month ever

Hottest July

Hottest August

Most 100-degree days

Most consecutive 100-degree days

Most 90-degree days

Most consecutive 90-degree days

Hottest average monthly high

Highest average monthly low

ENLARGE

A huge dust cloud rolls over city rooftops, blocking the camera for a few seconds

Courtesy Eric Bruning, Texas Tech University Atmospheric Science
The cold front that blew through Lubbock, Texas on Oct. 17 raised a dust storm not seen since the 1930s Dust Bowl. The dust storm, seen in this movie, is called a “haboob,” an event more common to Saudi Arabia than Texas.

On Oct. 18, Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst instructed the state legislature to study drought-related problems like helping homeowners protect against fire, and ensuring that utilities would get enough water to cool their generators.

As far as we could tell, the multi-pronged assignment did not mention something that many observers think contributes to heat waves, fires and droughts: climate change.

Many recent “natural” disasters have raised the same question: Is the no-sense-denying-it-any-longer human-caused planetary warming intensifying devastating hurricanes, giant rainfalls and snowfalls, or the deadly heat waves in Europe (2003) or Russia (2010)?

Despite political skepticism in the United States, the scientific study of changing climates has grown exponentially for 20 years. In 2009, almost 14,000 research reports focused on climate change, and 20 scientific journals are devoted to the issue.

UPDATED NOV. 18: Today, the New York Times reported that a United Nations panel has concluded that “At least some of the weather extremes being seen around the world are consequences of human-induced climate change and can be expected to worsen in coming decades. It is likely that greenhouse gas emissions related to human activity have already led to more record-high temperatures and fewer record lows, as well as to greater coastal flooding and possibly to more extremes of precipitation, the report said.”

Enough introductory blather. Let’s ask some experts: Is the hot, dry weather in Texas a reflection of global warming? Or is it just proof that the essence of weather is its natural variability? The Why Files talked to seven climate scientists. Peruse their viewpoints in the box above.

– David J. Tenenbaum

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Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Jenny Seifert, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive