Sunday, March 22, 2015

The emerald city stinks

Oil and gas refinery? Or something else?
I've been thinking a lot about the future, in particular about how the world in which I retire will be different from the one I now inhabit. I'm at the point in my life where I'm seriously thinking about where I'll 'make my stand', buy a house, plant fruit trees... It's hard to plan for such things when you are very much aware that the world is changing, and you can't count on the place you settle staying the same over the coming decades. How do you put down roots when the Earth itself is shifting beneath your feet?

You may remember that I went to southeastern New Mexico over my winter vacation. High Country News recently published an article on oil and gas extraction titled "Lessons from boom and bust in New Mexico," which brought that trip back to mind. There, oil and gas exploitation dominates the landscape. There is no urban clutter to distract from the pump jacks and gas flares.  The night sky is orange from the natural gas burned off, relieving pressure on extraction equipment. The air stinks like cancer, and you drive past warning signs saying: "Danger: Toxic Fumes when lights flashing".

It's all your fault, car (not really).
Obviously, I was not so taken with the local industry as I was with the scenery. Oil and gas exploitation is one of those trades that is inherently extractive. Its nasty byproducts, and its contributions to our changing climate, make it an easy scapegoat. However, when communities have nothing else, how can you tell them not to mine the money stored in their shale piggy bank? Don't their kids deserve college as much as ours?

Additionally, one could argue that fossil fuels built Texas. Without oil, we'd be just another south central Ag state. Our economy might be more similar to that of Oklahoma. The Texas GDP, at $1.6 trillion, is second only to California in the United States. Our state's GDP is higher than that of Australia. This quick money does come at a public cost. Policy wonks call these "externalities." These costs are borne by those other than the organization which incurred them; and they include the poor air quality and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Climate Central's summer and winter projections for Fort Worth, year 2100
In a series of projections put out by, Fort Worth doesn't look quite uninhabitable by year 2100, but it's certainly less pleasant. Believe it or not, as hot as our summers get, the average temperature is only ~94F. We'll be adding ten degrees to that by the end of the century. This addition brings our temperatures to those of the Phoenix metro area, averaging 103F  (including nightly lows!). Indeed, our winters will warm too. Instead of 31 nights below freezing on average, we are likely to have only 8. I am tempted to console myself with "Well, at least I'll be able to grow avocados outdoors", but it isn't that simple. Changing global temperature averages shift the prevailing winds too. This changes precipitation regimes.

Projected precipitation changes (%) by year 2100
The map of projected precipitation shifts posted on the EPA's climate science hub suggests Texas will be drier, especially in the summers. Less rain + increased evapotranspiration (water lost to the atmosphere from plant exhalations and soil surface evaporation) is likely to shift our ecotype from Cross Timbers/Blackland Prairie into something much more arid. From our temperature projections, we could very well resemble the Sonoran desert. So: should we all plant saguaros and be done with it? While I'm tempted to move into an adobe with a cleverly crafted cistern system, there's still some hope. We could shift to renewable energy. Or perhaps we could hold industry accountable for its "externalities".

In a more basic, blind luck sense, precipitation changes are much harder to predict than temperature. While the scientific consensus is that the Earth will warm, the atmospheric eddies that determine rainfall are harder to model. You may notice that coastal areas are projected to increase in temperature more slowly than regions in the middle of the continent. This effect is due to buffering from the oceans. Water absorbs heat when it evaporates. Perhaps, if the air-stream shifts just so, we'll get enough moisture to prevent the "Arizonification" of Texas. Perhaps.

Don't be sad. Look at the pretty gypsum dunes!


  1. Chicago is supposed to get hotter summers and more precipitation in winter. In Chicago, more precipitation in winter typically means snow and shoveling. Snow reflects sunlight and insulates the ground allowing very cold air to stay colder as it travels from the north. The result is the hot parts of the year are going to get hotter and the cold parts of the year are going to be colder. Why couldn’t it be the other way around?

  2. Come to England! We don't have worse weather - we just have more of it! Well, we do up north anyways.