Millions of people have been issued with excessive heat warnings and has claimed the lives of several people already. Temperatures peaked at 119F (48C), smashing countless high-temperature records across the state. More are expected to be broken in the coming week as the heatwave expands to the north and east.
These unusually-high temperatures have primarily been sparked by a ridge of high pressure parked over the Southern US called a “heat dome“, which occurs when the atmosphere traps hot ocean air like a lid. (Learn more about how the heat dome is causing record temperatures.)
John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas State Climatologist and director of the Southern Regional Climate Centre at Texas A&M University, says there are other short-term contributing factors too. “The Gulf of Mexico is unusually warm… and it’s also around the time of the summer solstice.”
There are longer-term trends at work too. The frequency and intensity of extreme heat events have increased around the globe due to climate change and are predicted to get worse.
The Hotter Bigger Picture
The National Integrated Heat Health Information System’s Climate Explorer tool also offers a worrying glimpse into Texas’s future. It predicts that Austin and Travis County’s average daily maximum temperature in June could rise to 99.7F (37.6C) between 2060 and 2090 if no steps are taken to mitigate the potentially crippling effects of climate change. Austin’s Office of Sustainability’s estimate is even higher with a summer average high temperature of 103.8F (39.9C) at the end of the century for the city.
The Human Cost
Extreme heat is currently the deadliest natural hazard in the US, with young children and adults over the age of 65 among the most vulnerable to heat-related illness and death. Analysis by The Texas Tribune found more than 275 people in Texas died from heat-related illness in 2022, which was a two-decade high, and this year’s heatwave appears to be worse.
Young children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor who cannot afford technology including air-conditioning to help keep them cool are particularly vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat. High air temperatures can cause heat stroke, dehydration and affect people’s cardiovascular and nervous systems.