Get Ready for More Extremes: The Texas Storm Was No Black Swan

Photo by Thomas Black

By Peter Schlosser, Steven Beschloss, Clea Edwards and Jason Franz

When Jason Franz headed east from Phoenix on February 13, he didn’t plan on providing a first-person account of the catastrophic winter storm that struck Texas. He thought he was just driving his teenage son from Arizona to Texas for a 70-day adventure that was to start in San Antonio on Feb. 15. But he, like millions of others across Texas, saw his life turn upside down.

The first sign of major trouble was not the snowfall in El Paso on Valentine’s Day, the pileups of semi-trucks, or the shuttered 24-hour McDonald’s. No, the first real indication of Texas’ pending infrastructure collapse was when my son and I arrived at our ad hoc hotel in Del Rio, after realizing we would not make the additional 150 miles to San Antonio. With nary a snowplow or state trooper in sight, the town was nearly dark, including the stoplights.

The following afternoon, as we came upon the western outskirts of San Antonio, the second-largest city in Texas, the lack of services was stunning. Major roads were still largely covered in snow. Billboards and neon signs were dark, as were the traffic lights. Our downtown hotel also had no power, forcing the hotel’s maintenance person to pull apart the automatic doors. From there, things got worse fast as the rolling blackouts became longer and more frequent, and water was shut off. All of Texas was in a panic.

The overwhelming scale and deadly impact of this winter storm in Texas and across most of the Midwest may feel unique for those who lived through it and those who are recovering from it. But more and more people in the US and around the world are experiencing an increasing number and intensity of extreme weather events. In 2020 alone, there were 22 different billion-dollar events in the US related to weather extremes, according to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, representing some $95 billion in damages.

Looking back, between 1980 and 2020, the US experienced 285 $1 billion events, causing a cumulative loss of nearly $1.9 trillion and nearly 15,000 lives. And globally, between 2000 and 2019, 7,348 natural disasters were tallied around the world, leading to over 1.2 million deaths and $3 trillion in economic losses.

We have every reason to anticipate the scale of loss will continue to increase. The 2020 hurricane season alone caused over $60 billion in economic damage. And since 2001, the planet has witnessed 18 of the 19 warmest years on record.

These facts offer little comfort to the people of Texas, who discovered that their state’s and its power grid and water systems were woefully unprepared for a winter storm of this magnitude. That includes four million Texans who were without electricity during peak outages and nearly nine million whose water taps stopped or were forced to boil their tap water — still a reality for many.

The immediate impacts have rippled across the region: As of Feb. 21, more than 70 people died from the cold, with more than half of these in Texas. COVID-19 vaccinations were stopped until basic systems could be gotten up and running again. And the disruptions hit the poorest and most vulnerable communities hardest, exacerbating existing inequalities; exorbitant electricity prices, both during and after the storm, will cause continuing harm.

Why did this happen? Or, more specifically, why was this allowed to happen? Blame was assigned to the Green New Deal. But the suggestion that failing windmills caused the problems with the power supply can not be substantiated because wind supplies only 10 percent of the electricity, and only a small percentage of the windmills “froze.” It was also suggested by former political leaders that Texans were happy to be without power “for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” A Texas mayor even insisted that this is about survival of the fittest (before turning around and resigning).

Clearly, Texas’ elected leadership and regulators were unprepared to address or manage the situation. But this storm did not come as a surprise: It was predicted to wreak havoc with below-freezing temperatures on Feb. 10, four days prior to the storm and seven days prior to the near energy collapse. It’s remarkable that the authorities failed to ensure the reliability and resilience of their own power and water supply.

Given that electrification is not only a cornerstone to a functioning modern society but also central to the success of critical infrastructure systems supporting water, food, fuel, and much more, this lack of preparedness is stunning. But Texas is not alone in the failure to adequately prepare. While Texas did intentionally place itself on an energy island, isolating itself from the two national grid systems that allow for greater backup and sharing, it should be seen as a bellwether of growing and increasingly interconnected threats. In California, for example, rising heat levels and massive wildfires crippled its energy system and required rolling blackouts.

We can hope that this catastrophic failure of preparedness will be a loud signal to leadership in Texas and beyond to confront the flaws of their systems amid continuing climate change. But hope is not enough: It will take massive new resources, rethinking the national and regional power grid systems, and redesigning them so that they are resilient enough to withstand extreme weather conditions.

And this is not just about fixing what’s now broken, as if it were sufficient to address each of these events and their impacts discreetly. Increasingly, extreme events across the globe — in more locations, at higher frequency and greater intensity — need to be seen as a collective, interconnected challenge.

Wildfires are appearing regularly in the Arctic, the western United States, Brazil, and Australia. Some have reached intensities that create new physical phenomena with high potential for destruction, including literal tornadoes of fire (sometimes called “firenados”). It also seems hurricanes are stalling more frequently, adding to the scale of damage. In addition, drought and aridification are becoming more common and more severe globally, while rainfall levels and extreme floods are causing great harm on agriculture, infrastructure, equity, public health and sanitation.

Recall the unprecedented dry heat wave across southern Europe and the Mediterranean in 2017 — the same year that the lower US was hit with Hurricane Harvey, the most extreme rain event in its history. The glacier that “burst” in the Himalayas earlier this month caused the deaths of more than 171 people, indisputably a result of climate change and the decision to use the related increase in meltwater for hydropower installations.

Events like the Texas winter storm may be perceived and characterized as unprecedented, but must be viewed as another example of an expanding global reality as climate change pushes our planet into a new, warmer state. It is known that complex systems can go into a mode of so-called flickering — a rapid switch between extremes when the system approaches the transition point (threshold) between the old and new state.

We have to expect that during the transition into a world with a warmer climate we will experience such extremes at an increased frequency. The question is whether our society has the will to both recognize it and prepare for it.

The Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University represents the urgent belief that we can and must make a meaningful contribution to ensuring a habitable planet and a future in which well-being is attainable. The Global Futures Laboratory is creating a platform built upon the deep expertise of ASU and leveraging an extensive network of partners for an ongoing and wide-ranging exchange across all knowledge domains to address the complex social, economic and scientific challenges spawned by the current and future threats from environmental degradation. This platform positions a new world headquarters for an international array of scientists, scholars and innovators and lays the foundation to anticipate and respond to existing and emerging challenges and use innovation to purposefully shape and inform our future. For more information visit globalfutures.asu.edu.

Designing and shaping a future in which Earth will thrive.

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