Over the next 30 years, Texas and other parts of the central U.S. are at risk of being exposed to extreme heat — temperatures exceeding 125 degrees.
The human body can no longer tolerate heat at that levels. A study published in 2010 estimated that a wet-bulb temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit at 100% humidity, or 115 degrees at 50% humidity, would be the upper limit of safety, beyond which the human body can no longer cool itself by evaporating sweat from the surface of the body to maintain a stable body core temperature.
Another way to calculate how dangerous the heat can be is with the heat index. The heat index is what the temperature feels like to the human body when combined with humidity and air temperature.
A climate study found that an “Extreme Heat Belt” is forming through the middle of the United States. Texas is part of the Extreme Heat Belt, an area of the U.S. highly vulnerable to extreme heat exposure, according to the report by the First Street Foundation, a climate assessment nonprofit. At least one day a year, there’s a high likelihood that Texas will hit 125 degrees, the National Weather Service’s extreme heat threshold.
“It’s gotten hotter now than it was in the past, but we’re not done with the increasing exposure to extreme heat,” Jeremy Porter, First Street’s chief research officer, told the Star-Telegram. “It’s going to continue to increase into the future.”
Heat of this magnitude have been recorded in parts of the world. A report in a British newspaper chronicled what it is like when temperatures soar to 126 degrees — reporting that it was too hot “you can’t even stay on your feet,” a resident of Jacobabad, Pakistan, told The Telegraph in 2021.
Over the next three decades, Texas will see more triple-digit days, according to the research from First Street Foundation. Out of the 20 counties across the United States expected to experience the greatest number of days above 100 degrees annually, 16 are in Texas. Three South Texas counties — Starr, Zapata and Brooks — top the list.
Starr County is expected to see 109 triple-digit days in 2023, growing to 131 by 2053, an increase of 22 days. That could be more dangerous if they occur consecutively. The county is expected to experience 34 consecutive triple-digit days in 2023, growing to 49 days in 30 years. The Texas Panhandle, as well as North and West Texas, will see less exposure to extreme heat relative to the rest of the state.
Texas will continue to see temperature increases over the next 30 years, with Aransas County in South Texas facing the largest increase in hot days between now and 2053. In 2023, Aransas County can expect a week at or above 107.6 degrees, which will grow to 28 days in 30 years.
Why is it getting hotter in Texas?
The belt can be explained by weather patterns as well as the elevation and topography of the country. It spans from North Texas and the Louisiana border through the Midwest, from Chicago into the southern part of Wisconsin.
Because weather patterns move from west to east, the Texas gulf doesn’t provide much protection from the extreme heat. By contrast, a state like Florida is protected from similarly high temperatures because it’s surrounded by water.
“To the west of this area, you very quickly move into the High Plains, and then into the Rocky Mountains. And to the east of this area, you move into the Appalachian Mountains,” Porter said. “So it’s kind of this bowl in the middle of the country where humidity settles, and there’s not a prevailing weather pattern going from west to east across the mountains or across the water, or anything else that would help to cool to protect the area from that extreme heat exposure.”
As Texans can attest to this summer, extreme weather isn’t just something happening in the future, it’s already happening now. NOAA recently reported that the three-month period from April-June 2022 was the hottest recorded in the state.
How will extreme heat impact Texans?
Texas will see more days with temperatures above 100 degrees, leading to health consequences for residents. Texans could be more susceptible to heatstroke, fatigue, heat cramps, dehydration and death in severe cases.
Hitting high temperatures means that air conditioning has to run at a higher intensity, which could strain the state’s power grid and lead to outages. What’s yet to be determined is whether the energy grid will be able to supply enough energy for the cooling that’s needed, given the intensity of the heat that people will be exposed to. During the heat wave, The Electric Reliability Council of Texas warned residents in July to reduce electricity use to avoid potential blackouts.
Texas, along with California and Florida, is expected to experience the largest increases in costs, consumption, and CO2 emissions associated with air conditioning usage. Historically, Texas is one of the states with the largest rise in air conditioning costs during extreme heat events. By 2053, the cost to cool the state will be $368 million more, according to the study.
While there’s not much that can be done to curb the temperature trajectory, communities can plan ways to manage the impacts. That includes investments in local infrastructure to make sure the energy grid remains intact, and putting emergency response systems in place so that cooling centers, water and air conditioning are available to provide relief from the heat.
“Into the future, people are going to have to understand their exposure to protect themselves, but communities are also going to have to make sure that they’re investing properly in energy infrastructure and in emergency responses,” Porter said.
Is your area at risk?
Type your address into riskfactor.com to get information about your area’s extreme heat risk now and in the future. You can also find out about other climate risks including wildfires and flooding.