With one-third of 2017 in the books, this year seems not only likely to end up among the hottest on record, there’s a good chance it could be the single hottest year recorded in Austin and across Texas.
The average temperature at Austin’s Camp Mabry has been 1.7 degrees warmer than it has ever been this far into the year. It bears repeating: This year is 1.7 degrees warmer than the second-warmest start to the year, which happened in 2006. So no, you’re not crazy in thinking the weather has been unusually warm.
The winter months often veered into temperatures that made pants regrettable — such as the 90-degree day on Feb. 23. Winter never really arrived, saving forgetful owners from bursting pipes and dead succulents.
A similar picture is emerging statewide and across the Southwest, Deep South and Ohio Valley. The Houston metro area and the Rio Grande Valley are smashing temperature records. The average Texas temperature is running 1.3 degrees warmer than the previous record, according to calculations by the state climatologist.
For additional perspective, consider this: Texas temperatures are running 5.3 degrees above normal, at 60.1 degrees; and Austin’s average temperature has been 5.9 degrees above normal at Camp Mabry and 7.3 degrees above normal at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
“7.3 degrees above normal!” marveled Bob Rose, a Lower Colorado River Authority meteorologist who crunched the Austin numbers.
The average temperature would have to run 1.3 degrees above normal for the rest of the year to break the record, according to National Weather Service calculations.
Jon Zeitler, chief science officer at the weather service’s New Braunfels office, summed up the possibilities: “There are only slim chances the year would end up colder than normal, good chances it ends up warmer than normal, a fair shot it ends up the top five, and possibly ends up as the hottest on record.”
If temperatures were to drop to average for the rest of the year, Texas would just miss the all-time record, state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said. The federal Climate Prediction Center, though, is forecasting a 2 in 3 chance of above-average temperatures continuing, he noted.
Odd as it might seem, this summer will probably not decide whether 2017 ends up as the hottest on record in Texas. Nielsen-Gammon said summer conditions tend to be fairly consistent — it’s the temperature swings in other seasons that drive how hot a particular year is.
Most forecasters expect this summer’s temperatures to run about average or maybe a little above. It will still get hot, and wildfires will remain a risk — this is Texas, after all — but the state is entering summer in just about the best shape possible, according to various public safety experts. That means relatively little chance of significant droughts, rolling brownouts and conditions that all but guarantee wildfires.
One caveat: The warm and relatively wet weather over the past year has nurtured a lush layer of vegetation that will someday dry out. When that happens, Central Texas will face a greater risk of wildfire.
For now, though, forecasters and public safety officials aren’t expecting drought. Calvin Opheim, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ manager of load forecasting and analysis, said this summer should be “nothing like the summer we experienced in 2011.”
That year was the hottest on record in Central Texas — and the exception to the guideline that summer temperatures don’t necessarily determine which years are hottest. The summer of 2011 saw 73 days of 100-degree weather, driving the record-setting average (which was also bolstered by 27 days outside of summer that had highs above 100 degrees).
Even if this year’s weather turns out to be pleasant, with very little cold and a summer no worse than normal, Central Texas does face an increased risk of some types of severe weather.
Aside from two separate, relatively small tornado sightings and one surprising storm that briefly submerged parts of San Marcos yet did little else of note, the region so far has seen little severe weather this year. But Gulf of Mexico surface temperatures are the warmest on record, and meteorologists say it’s energy from that warmth that can turn a mild Central Texas storm into a severe one.
Climate models also suggest that as Central Texas warms, more severe storms are in the offing, said Kerry Cook, a University of Texas climate scientist. The models show the average temperature in Texas rising by 2 degrees in winter and 4 degrees in summer by 2050.
In light of long-term trends, this hot year shouldn’t be surprising, Cook and Nielsen-Gammon said. Since 1990, South Central Texas has gone through four years in which the average temperature was 4 degrees above normal, with only one year that was 4 degrees or more below normal, Gammon said
“In the past few decades we’ve seen almost no season 4 degrees colder than the 20th century average,” Nielsen-Gammon said, “but we’ve seen a dozen seasons 5 degrees warmer.”