SDG 7 Affordable and Clean Energy
SDG 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities
SDG 13 Climate Action
Unprepared: energy outage disaster in Texas
In February 2021, temperatures in Texas plunged below 0F — their lowest in 30 years (Figure 1). Spanning over 3 days in some cases, this left over 5 million people without power at the peak, as the Texas Power Grid became overwhelmed. Demand for electricity rose to69,150 megawatts (MW) on Feb. 14 – 3,200 MW higherthan its previous record. For some residents, wholesale electric prices in megawatt-hour were $8,500 higher than in normal times.
Figure 1, Where more than 3,000 daily low temperature records were tied or broken
Two-thirds of the electricity loss was caused by a lack of natural gas supplies and the remaining one-third was the ramification of wind turbine shutdowns, said Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and professor at Rice University. The incapability of the state’s infrastructure led millions of people to suffer in the extreme cold without heat and sufficient water supply. As of Feb. 23, the Associated Press said that nearly 80 people had died from the harsh winter storm and its effects. An official death toll is yet to be confirmed due to the difficulties in proving that the deaths were, “directly, indirectly or even possibly”, the results of the winter storm.
White House homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall said that the crisis “demonstrates to us that climate change is real and it’s happening now, and we’re not adequately prepared.” Extreme weather events have disrupted and complicated planning calculation efforts to coordinate electricity demand and supply. Melissa Finucane, a co-director of the Rand Climate Resilience Center, calls for urgent attention to climate governance. “The future is not going to be like the past,” she says, “If we could just plan a little better, we could anticipate some of these problems.”
Wait, but what about global warming?
The record-breaking winter seems like a great opportunity for those who claim climate change isn’t real. How can scientists ignore what’s happening in Texas and talk about the world getting hotter?
It is important to first understand the difference between climate and weather. In essence, climate refers to how the weather in a region varies over a long period of time, whereas weather accounts for the day-to-day fluctuations in the same region. In the case of Texas, it was therefore a change in weather, not its climate, that led to the severe winter storm. This fundamental distinction debunks the validity of the arguments that wish to use Texas and similar extreme weather events as evidence against the global warming phenomenon.
The link between climate change and the increase in some types of extreme weather events is well-researched by academia. Philip Duffy, the president of the Woodwell Climate Research Center, stresses that “it is wrong to view climate change as simply a gradual warming. In some cases, weather becomes more variable, with some extremes in both directions.”
Is this cold winter in Texas an extreme event caused by global warming then?
Unexpected meanderings in the polar jet stream this winter were the direct causes of what happened in Texas. The behaviour of the jet stream is associated with the strength of the polar vortex, which is an area of low pressure and cold air at the Poles. When this low-pressure system is strong, the jet stream — a fast-moving current of air about 10 kilometres above the Earth’s surface — contains the cold air in the Arctic. In Texas, a weaker and thus wavier jet stream allowed the cold air to spill southward because of the polar vortex breakdown (Figure 2).Such expansion of a weakened Arctic polar vortex occurs fairly regularly in winter and sends cold air southward to the mid-latitudes, but it is not the cause of all cold winters.
Figure 2, Understanding the polar vortex
What climate change means for extreme cold events in the future remains controversial and whether the jet stream is getting weaker or stronger due to climate change is still under debate. Tim Woollings, professor of physics at Oxford University and the author of the book “Jet Stream: A Journey Through Our Changing Climate,” said that the theory of a stronger jet stream, hence warmer winters, has gained more evidence. He also said that the Texas freeze was “not part of a direct trend”, nor was it “an example of the jet stream becoming wavier in general.”
Figure 3, Tweets about Texas from sceptics of global warming
Although the cold wave in Texas may have prompted more scepticism towards global warming, the climate in Texas has in fact gotten warmer in the past decades. Over the last 40 years, 27 per cent of the top 100 hottest five-day periods took place after 2018 — the expected figure would have been 10 per cent without a change in the climate.
About the author
Nicole Jin is a Journalist in SRP’s Writing and Interviewing Program. She is a first-year BSc Geography with Economics student at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her areas of interest centre around sustainable cities, inequalities and international development.