Every few days, Roger Corralez visits a public library, logs onto a computer, and checks the weather.
Corralez, who lives “on the streets,” as he says, pulls up the 10-day weather forecast and painstakingly copies it down by hand so he knows when meteorologists expect rain and when, like last week, they expect scorching high temperatures in Fort Worth.
“When it’s around this time of year, and you know it’s going to be in the 90s or above most days, then you start thinking about, ‘what am I going to carry with me all the time?’ cause you want to travel as light as possible,” Corralez, 50, said.
Texans like Corralez are increasingly seeking shelter from extreme temperatures in libraries and community centers as the state prepares for a sweltering summer.
While a cold front has brought lower temperatures and scattered showers to the Metroplex this week, the extreme heat wave that hit the Southwest in June could hint at what’s to come as Fort Worth and other major cities prepare for sudden declines in air quality and increased risk of heat-related illnesses.
Those consequences were on display during the week of June 13, when temperatures peaked in the mid-90s and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issued ozone warnings for six days in the Dallas-Fort Worth region.
Two of those days were designated as “Level Red,” warning children, older adults and people with lung diseases to avoid outdoor activity and asking all others to limit how much time they spent outside.
Jim Schermbeck, the director of the environmental activist group Downwinders at Risk, regularly monitors the commission’s air quality data collected from monitors around the state. He was struck by the intensity and duration of high smog levels in the Metroplex, particularly near Lake Worth, Keller and the western side of DFW.
He called last Wednesday the “worst day in 14 years for ozone pollution” in North Texas. Ground-level ozone, also known as smog, can cause respiratory problems when people inhale high concentrations of it over several hours, leading to decreased lung function or aggravated asthma symptoms, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
“Some of the coal plant pollution is being pushed up from Houston and you have some coming from the east side of Dallas County, going right by the Midlothian cement plants and up through the gas patch,” Schermbeck said. “We call it a ‘freight train effect’ where you’re picking up freight cars of pollution on your way to the Lake Worth monitor that was the worst that day. You couldn’t plan a better route for bad air.”
Around 95% of poor air quality days are concentrated during the summer months, according to Victor Murphy, climate service program manager for the National Weather Service’s southern regional headquarters in Fort Worth. That’s due to a few reasons, he said: light winds, warm temperatures and big domes of high pressure that trap pollutants near the earth’s surface.
“Those conditions are conducive to pollutants accumulating since the wind does not blow them away or disperse them,” Murphy said. “Whatever we saw over these two weeks, I’d be willing to bet we have a two-week span sometime in July or August that will be at least as bad if not worse.”
Expert: Heat illnesses will continue to increase
Blistering summers are not new in North Texas. But as the global climate crisis increases the likelihood and intensity of heat waves, researchers who study urban heat expect the death toll to continue to rise.
Extreme heat kills more people each year in the U.S. than any other natural disaster, said Dr. Jonathan Patz, the director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Although changing climate is and will continue to affect human health in a range of ways, Patz said, the most direct impact is expected to be in the number of people who die from extreme heat.
Multiple studies have concluded that “climate change will lead to an increase in heat deaths on the order of thousands to tens of thousands of annual deaths by the end of the century,” according to a report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program. And the increase in heat deaths will outweigh the reduction in deaths from extreme cold weather, the report said.
The plurality of people who die from extreme heat die after the heat causes heart failure, Patz said, but people can also die from dehydration or complications from diabetes or other disorders.
At a certain point, when the human body goes above 107 degrees Fahrenheit, “it’s more of a multi-system failure,” Patz said.
The most immediate salve during heat waves is access to air conditioning. But, Patz cautioned that although access to air conditioning saves lives in the midst of an extreme heat crisis, in the long run cool air powered by fossil fuels can actually cause additional deaths because of the air pollution they generate.
“We’re saving lives right away with air conditioning and killing people from the air pollution for the extra power needs from the air conditioning,” Patz said.
The people most at risk from extreme heat are older adults, people who work outside, and people who are homeless. They are also vulnerable to respiratory issues caused by prolonged exposure to smog, which exacerbates conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Corralez said he’s learned to navigate Fort Worth’s heat waves well over the past nine years he’s lived without stable housing. On the hottest days, he’ll find shelter in a public library or, if he gets a free bus pass, ride for hours in the AC.
Before he learned where to seek colder interiors, Corralez said he remembered a hot summer day where, after donating plasma, he went to sit outside in a park. The loss of blood and the high temperatures made him feel like he was about to lose consciousness, he said.
“I was all right but it was scary because I was by myself and if I would have passed out, I wouldn’t have anybody to help me,” he said. “I learned from that.”
‘It will get worse’
Extreme temperatures are also taking a toll on the state’s electricity grid, which is already facing scrutiny after the Electric Reliability Council of Texas asked residents to conserve energy amidst high demand last week. ERCOT officials have previously said they expect record-high demand for electricity due to high temperatures and rapid population growth.
The winter storm in February, which nearly brought the grid to its knees, was an example of how difficult it has become to predict weather conditions in Texas, said Schermbeck, the longtime activist and Fort Worth native.
“I think the climate crisis is changing all of our expectations about what we thought we knew about this region, and we just can’t predict anything other than it will get more extreme,” Schermbeck said. “The heat will get more extreme, the flooding will get more extreme, the cold will get more extreme, and all of these things have happened in the last year and a half.”
Alongside other environmental advocates, Schermbeck is calling for the Environmental Protection Agency to take over drafting clean air plans for Dallas-Fort Worth. Ten counties in the region, including Tarrant, Dallas, Ellis, Parker and Wise, are considered non-attainment zones, or areas that do not meet federal ozone and air quality standards, according to the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
Schermbeck and Murphy agree that June will likely not be the last time that North Texas earns an ozone warning this summer, or that residents will seek out shelter from the grueling heat.
Along with the cold front that moved through DFW on Monday, another front coming into the region this weekend will result in more chances for rainfall, cooler temperatures and improved air quality, Murphy said. But that new reality isn’t likely to last for long, he added.
“It will get worse as July and August goes on, I promise you,” Murphy said. “It hasn’t been as bad yet. This is really the first shot across the bow.”