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The summer of 2023 will go down as Texas’ second hottest ever, with an average temperature of 85.3 degrees between June and the end of August, the state’s climatologist said, just behind the blistering hot and extremely dry summer of 2011 when the average temperature hit 86.8 degrees.
A crushing heat wave that blanketed much of the state in late June lingered through the summer, frequently pushing daytime temperatures into triple digits with little relief at night. And the lack of rain late in the season pushed much of the state into severe drought.
Some cities, including El Paso and Austin, went more than 40 days without a single day that didn’t reach 100 degrees.
Amid the hottest July globally since record-keeping began in 1850, record after record was broken in Texas: According to The Texas Tribune’s analysis, 79 of the state’s 254 counties had their hottest summer on record, while the July average water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico was the hottest ever recorded. Then, August clocked in as the second hottest month in Texas since 1895 when the state began keeping records.
Heat waves are becoming more common, severe, and lasting longer than they would otherwise due to climate change, scientists have found.
Global average temperatures have already risen at least 1.1 degrees Celsius, or about 2 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial times. Scientists recently warned that without action to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions, the planet may within five years exceed a key warming threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius. At that point, international climate scientists have warned, heat waves would likely become widespread, while other climate change impacts that Texans have already begun to experience — from water supply shortages to sea level rise — would intensify.
In the last 10 years, Texans have experienced an extra 1,000 days of record-breaking heat, at least, compared to a normal decade. And it’s been almost two decades since Texans had a summer with nights cooler than the summer nights of the 20th century.
John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, said this summer’s high temperatures were particularly driven by climate change, an usually warm Gulf of Mexico, and the weather patterns that led to dry conditions in July and August.
The impacts of the extreme heat were felt across the state — from an increase in emergency room visits for heat-related illnesses to repeated warnings from the state’s electricity grid operator that Texans must cut back on power use or risk outages as demand soared.
At least 97 Texans have already died from the heat, or hyperthermia, according to an early analysis of death certificates by the Texas Department of State Health Services (the number is almost certainly an undercount of total heat-related deaths).
It’s becoming more difficult to cope with the heat without air conditioning. Researchers at Duke University found in a recent study that temperatures are more frequently reaching a certain point — roughly 98 degrees or above — when fans actually increase heat on the human body. South Texas is at a particular risk for unsafe fan use, the research found.
It was also, again, one of the worst summers for air quality in Texas. The heat caused smog pollution to surge all over the state, as high temperatures accelerated reactions between vehicle and industrial pollution to form ozone.
From January to the end of August, Texas air monitors have recorded 61 days when ozone concentrations were high enough somewhere in the state to be considered unhealthy. That’s roughly the same number of unhealthy smog days that had been recorded by this point of the year in 2022 when Texas saw its worst summer air quality in a decade.
Late in the summer, a severe drought developed across much of the state, setting the stage for wildfires, especially in East Texas and West Central Texas. In August, Texas A&M Forest Service responded to more than 500 wildfires in the state, more than triple the typical number of fires for the month.
“We accelerated very quickly into a very active and notable summer fire season,” said Luke Kanclerz, a fire analyst for Texas A&M Forest Service. “We were going to fires that were larger than what we normally respond to.”
Triple-digit temperatures dry the moisture out of grasses, trees and brush, he said, and when the temperature of the fuel is higher, fires burn more easily. The temperatures also prompted more heat-related illnesses among firefighters this year, Kanclerz said.
“They’re dealing with the fire, but also with the heat itself,” he said.
The drought and heat are also hurting agriculture, a key sector of the state’s economy. Texas rice fields and pecan trees are both stressed, and cattle ranchers have been forced to cull their herds and sell calves early, according to a recent report on Texas crops from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
There are many social consequences of high temperatures, too, ranging from increases in crime and aggression to increased rates of depression and suicidal ideation, researchers have found.
In one new study, extreme temperatures were found to be associated with an increase in child neglect, according to a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. For children 0 to 4 years old, high temperatures were associated with reports of serious harm due to neglect — such as leaving children in hot cars or allowing children to play unattended outdoors.
Mary Evans, the lead researcher of the study and a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas, said that child maltreatment reports notably begin to increase when temperatures reach between 77 and 86 degrees, and continue to rise as temperatures top 95 degrees.
That could be due to changes in how parents behave in high temperatures, she said, or it could be that higher temperatures prompt more neglect reports. Regardless, she said, “[this] could mean that child protective service agencies are going to be dealing with larger caseloads during periods of particularly high temperatures.”
The full program is now LIVE for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 21-23 in Austin. Explore the program featuring more than 100 unforgettable conversations coming to TribFest. Panel topics include the biggest 2024 races and what’s ahead, how big cities in Texas and around the country are changing, the integrity of upcoming elections and so much more. See the full program.