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Texas cold snap was not ‘unprecedented,’ and it was inexcusable to be unprepared

Customers wait in line to get their propane tanks filled in Austin on Tuesday. (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)

Any review of the media’s coverage of Texas weather this past week probably contains the word “unprecedented,” or a quote to the effect that, “we have never seen or experienced weather like this before.” How true is that? Does it matter?

It matters, a lot. Dozens of people died in this event, billions of dollars of personal property and infrastructure were damaged or destroyed, and the loss of power, water and basic services imposed untold misery on millions of people already struggling to deal with a pandemic.

I went online to the “Midwest Regional Climate Center,” sponsored by the University of Illinois and NOAA, and downloaded and analyzed temperature data from January 1981 to February 2021 for six cities in Texas: El Paso, Midland-Odessa, Amarillo, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Together, they give a representative geographic spread and encompass where many Texans live.

What did I learn?

The February 2021 Arctic outbreak was indeed cold. It is one of the lowest five-day average temperatures experienced in Texas over the past 40 years. However, the December 1983 cold outbreak was as cold and long-lived as that of this past week. There was also a cold outbreak in early February 1985 on par with this past week. An examination of low temperatures shows the December 1989 and December 1983 outbreaks were slightly colder, on average, than February 2021.

While February 2021 was indeed unusually cold, it was not unprecedented. It’s more than semantics or meteorologists arguing about how many snowflakes fit on the head of a pin. Unprecedented means we’ve never seen this before. An unprecedented event feels like an “act of God,” something that was neither foreseeable nor preventable, and it’s therefore excusable if we are not prepared for such an event.

Put another way, “unprecedented” is an escape clause that can minimize accountability for anyone responsible for power, infrastructure, critical services or building codes, and makes it easier to dismiss any lessons learned. Unprecedented can be used as a “get out of disaster jail free” card. Periodic bouts of Arctic air in Texas were foreseeable and foreseen; this particular event was forecast accurately one to two weeks in advance. Moreover, this cold event was consistent with several Arctic episodes Texas has endured over the past four decades.

Meteorologist for Texas grid operator warned of the winter storm’s severity

But what about the changing climate? Meteorologists and climate scientists keep telling everyone it’s getting hotter. And it is. When looking at the hottest five-day periods over the past 40 years for Texas, 27 percent of the top 100 hottest periods have occurred since 2018. If the climate was not changing, you would expect just under 10 percent of the 100 hottest periods would have happened by chance in that period.

This is our world today. We are living in an era of record heat and extremes in precipitation. At the same time, we still endure bouts of severe winter, albeit with less frequency, that are just as cold as anything we have seen in the past 30, 40 or 50 years.

Policies that reduce greenhouse gases will, over the course of decades, slow and ultimately stop the upward trend in temperature; however, in the immediate years and decades to come, we must build and back-fit our critical infrastructure to function reliably in a world that is both hotter, wetter, drier, and occasionally, just as bone-chillingly cold as in the past. When the weather is at its most extreme is when we most need power, water and essential services.

What to do? The technical solutions are well understood. Well-designed and well-engineered infrastructure accounts for extremes that might occur within its life span. The degree of resilience is a matter of choice for society, but we know infrastructure designed to only a 1-in-20 or 1-in-30-year standard collapsed when it was needed most. As a point of reference, the Dutch build their critical infrastructure to a 1 in 10,000-year event level of resilience. While we may never build to 1 in 10,000, we must do better than our current efforts.

There is a Texas city that did heed its weather history. After being caught unprepared in 2011, the city of El Paso and its electric utility spent about $4.5 million to harden its electrical grid against cold weather. This past week they were the only major Texas city not to have widespread power or water outages or significant suffering from the cold.

The question becomes not can we afford to harden and adapt our critical infrastructure for the climate we know is coming, but rather can we afford not to, and endure yet more pain and suffering the likes of which gripped much of Texas this past week? As the old TV commercial states, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.” This event was the latest instance in which millions of dollars in adaptation would have prevented billions of dollars of damage, saved lives and greatly reduced the suffering of Texans.

This is our choice to make. The Arctic winds do not care about Texas exceptionalism, political boundaries or personal ideologies; they just blow in from the north.

David W. Titley is a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral. He serves as a board member of the Council on Strategic Risks and chairs the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Climate Communications Initiative.