The snow crisis in Texas started off as only an exciting weather anomaly that would treat millions of Texans to the winter snow that had been so heavy around the northern parts of the United States in recent weeks. The state seldom sees snow, and freezing temperatures hardly last long enough to see the snow stick around for longer than a day—but this time was different, and the cause of the storm likely came from climate change, and climate change experts have a lot to say about it.
Deep freezes throughout last week caused the weather to stick around, and some parts of Texas saw heavy snowfall with freezing temperatures that the state had never experience before. Texas, which gets its power from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (also referred to as ERCOT), is not connected to the federal power grid thanks to deregulation efforts in the 20th century. While other states experienced minor storm-related inconveniences, Texans went days without heat, power or water as access to many basic needs were rendered inaccessible. The politics behind why ERCOT exists is another story, and one that will likely be investigated, but the cause of the storm can be attributed directly to climate change. Here’s why:
Under normal circumstances the polar vortex—the cold air that circulates the polar regions—tends to stick around the northern parts of the world. The polar vortex doesn’t venture too far south because the jet stream keeps it in place. Over time, and because of climate change, the jet stream has weakened and caused some bizarre weather anomalies in recent years. As we hear more about weather changes due to climate change, it’s likely because the jet stream is changing. The ‘motor’ of the jet stream is caused by low temperatures in the polar regions, but with warming temperatures in those parts of the world getting worse by the day, the strength of the jet stream has faltered in its wake.
“Many times the term ‘global warming’ is used to speak about climate change,” says Allen Shuford, a climate change consultant for a green energy initiative in the UK called The Switch. “While the process of climate change is a direct result of global warming its important to make the distinction. Global warming does not mean that the weather will get hotter everywhere. Instead global warming, the heating up of the entire planet causes climate change leading to extreme weather. It is best to think of climate change as equal to extreme weather,” he says.
“Extreme weather means that in places on the earth that have always been hot and dry, for example in California, the climate is becoming hotter and dryer,” says Shuford. In places where there has traditionally been winter snow, such as in the northern parts of the US, the effects of winter storms are evermore drastic. As regions of our country become subjected to these extreme weather patterns, surrounding areas are also affected by the overflow of these weather events. The difference is that snow is precipitation and it pushed around the country as a storm, therefore it is not largely stationary, as in the case of permanent heatwaves in California. As the northern parts of our country are pummeled by winter storms moving south from the north pole, the overflow of these powerful storms is felt around the rest of the country,” Shuford says.
There is a clear misconception that the term ‘global warming’ implies that the Earth will simply heat up, but experts warn that it’s simply not the case—a likely reason why the terminology has changed to favor ‘climate change’ over ‘global warming’ as we uncover more about the problem.
“Although it is hard to wrap your head around, the vast majority of scientists agree that climate change will bring more bizarre weather including snow in the south despite ‘global warming’,” says Joshua M. Pearce, Ph.D, a professor of Materials Science & Engineering at Michigan Technological University. “The massive blackout we see now in Texas is because the centralized energy infrastructure was simply not designed for these weather conditions. The system as designed has a major blind spot for climate change,” Dr. Pearce says, adding that Texans could guarantee that they avoid the issue int he future by investing in solar power.
But some Texas political figures and ERCOT executives argue against renewables, and some went so far as to blame renewable energy sources on the power crisis when, in many cases, those renewable sources have yet to even be implemented in the state. The conflict has caused a messy political battle as politicians around the country have used the crisis to argue against investing in green energy sources, though scientists argue that the excuses are not backed by anything legitimate. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner even said that the political weaponization of the power crisis was ‘disingenuous.’
“The power crisis that Texas is experiencing right now is ultimately not to be blamed on renewable energy,” Shuford says. “There has been lots of finger-pointing from the fossil fuel industry in regard to the frozen Texas wind farms that have ceased to operate due to the winter storm. In actuality, Texas’ entire energy system has been affected by the winter storm closing all ranges of power plants including wind and coal,” he says.
“However, gas plants were the most affected by this winter storm. One way to mitigate the damaging effects of natural disasters and extreme weather on the power grid is by bolstering the interconnections between all regions of the US. By connecting the power grid, as recently laid out by President Biden, it would allow Florida, for example, to supply Seattle in the event of extreme weather in the city. It is important to note that renewable energy is most effective when it is diversified. This way when the sun stops shining, the tidal, wind and hydroelectric power systems can take the brunt, and vice versa. Much as the current industry is diversified in types of fossil fuels, green energy will be the same once the transition has been made,” says Shuford.
Around the world, winter weather anomalies saw significant changes to the normal winter storms. In Europe, many experienced similar winter storms without the electrical problems. “As the snow was falling in the south, it was also coming down hard in Athens, Greece, which is equally bizarre at this time of the year,” says Casper Ohm, a water pollution expert based in the UK. “There was also heavy snowfall in other parts of Europe that are uncharacteristic and around the world, which in my opinion is enough evidence that these environmental shifts are happening planet-wide as a consequence of human consumerism,” Ohm says.