SHORE ACRES (AP) - A city administrator looks out at the Gulf of Mexico from this Southeast Texas town, wondering what vicious hurricanes it may spawn. In the Panhandle, a farmer tries new techniques to keep soil from turning to dust. In West Texas, ranchers watch prairie grass die. Others grow algae as water becomes too salty for other crops. And statewide, reservoirs dry up.
Want to see what happens when the impacts of climate change are felt? Well, just look at Texas, some scientists say.
While Gov. Rick Perry disagrees with scientists who say global warming is at least partly caused by the human release of heat-trapping gases, state agencies are adapting to weather changes that have already brought a historic drought, higher temperatures and sea level rise that contributed to nearly unprecedented sea surge during a hurricane.
“Are we in a cycle … or is this something more permanent? I don’t think anyone knows for certain,” said Bob Avant, director of bioenergy programs at Texas A&M AgriLife Research Station in College Station.
“But you have to prepare,” he said.
Americans nationwide are intermittently feeling the impacts of climate change, from longer, hotter summers to erratic, heavier downpours to milder winters and ice melt in Alaska, according to a draft report recently released by a federal climate commission. Now, Superstorm Sandy alongside a devastating drought in the Midwest and South has again turned attention to global warming.
Texas is somewhat unique, though, because it is grappling with all these issues at once.
“Texas really runs the gamut of climate. It has coastal, it has desert, and everything in between,” said Andrew Dessler, a Texas A&M University professor of atmospheric sciences who studies climate change.
The most devastating climate event to hit Texas so far was a historic drought in 2011 that cost the state $7.6 billion in agricultural losses. John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, said the dry stretch was exacerbated by temperatures that were on average nearly 5.5 degrees higher. He attributes some of that excess heat to global warming.
The drought — pegged as the worst one-year dry spell in state history — served as a wake-up call. Now, the Legislature is considering establishing a $2 billion revolving loan program as part of a plan to spend $27 billion on water infrastructure over the next half century. Farmers are testing new and different kinds of seeds and crops. Ranchers are buying cattle breeds that require less water. Coastal communities are rethinking development.
With Texas in a rush to adapt, it could help others understand what works and what doesn’t.
David Ford, who raises corn, cotton and cattle on about 10,000 acres in the northern Panhandle, says rainfall has decreased so significantly, he built himself a “strip till rig” and changed the way he turns his soil to try to soak up the little rain that falls. After he built his rig, dozens of his neighbors also adopted the practice, he said.
“I know our rainfall is less, our patterns have changed,” said Ford, recalling that 25 years ago he could be certain a line of thunderstorms in August would roll across the land, giving everything 2 to 3 inches. “We haven’t had that kind of rain in 10 years.”
Now, thunderstorms hit one small area — like a field two miles from his house — and miss the homestead, he said.
Avant, the A&M researcher director, is overseeing a project near Pecos in far West Texas. There, land once prime for cotton, alfalfa and cantaloupes, is now inundated with aquifers too salty to grow most crops — except, maybe, algae, a seaweed that some want to use for biofuel. So A&M researchers are looking for a way to effectively and cost efficiently grow algae in the desert. As rains decrease, rivers, streams and some reservoirs are also becoming saltier, and this research could make those resources useable.
Communities statewide are also struggling with decreasing water supplies. In El Paso, water managers are facing a triple threat: added heat, less rainfall and less snowmelt from areas in Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado that feed into the Rio Grande. In Central Texas, reservoirs have been so depleted by years of drought, rice farmers have been cut off from a crucial water supply for a second consecutive year.
In response, researchers are creating new seed varieties that require less water, Avant said. Farmers are also moving from pivot irrigation systems to even more efficient drip systems that put water directly into the soil and have monitors that know when a crop most needs water, he added.
Meanwhile, Shore Acres City Administrator David Stall is wary of the extra dangers hurricanes now pose along the Gulf Coast. Stall said the rising sea levels combined with subsidence — the sinking ground beneath the town — is a double whammy that changed how Category 2 Hurricane Ike came ashore in 2008. It flooded homes that remained dry in 1961 when Category 5 Hurricane Carla slammed ashore, and in 1982 when Hurricane Alicia blew in on high tide.
Ike’s surge spliced 300 feet of land from Shore Acres’ waterfront, Stall said, noting 83 percent of the homes in the community of 1,400 people were flooded, and one in seven was destroyed. And though regulations on groundwater pumping have slowed subsidence, the community has little control over sea level rise. “It’s going to continue to get worse,” he said.
Now Shore Acres is requiring new buildings be built higher than required under federal flood regulations, and some populated areas destroyed by Ike will remain vacant. Stall is also working with the Nature Conservancy to rebuild natural barriers after Ike destroyed multimillion dollar manmade protections similar to the Galveston seawall that was built after a 1900 hurricane that remains the deadliest storm in U.S. history.
That storm annihilated Galveston and killed more than 5,000 people. But years of rising seas and sinking ground made the 17-foot concrete seawall insignificant to Ike. That storm rolled right over, dumping 6 feet of water in the inner city.
Jorge Brenner, who studies sea level rise and its impacts for the Nature Conservancy, is working with these communities to rebuild marshes, wetlands, sea grasses, islands and oyster reefs. These natural barriers, which have been ruined by development, storms and other activities, could provide coastal towns with the best buffers by absorbing some of a storm’s energy before it comes ashore.
“We now know that if we don’t let those natural habitats be viable over time … there will not be any buffer effect or barrier between them (the towns) and the next hurricane or big storm,” Brenner said.