Texans Can Look To Brownsville For What To Expect With Climate Change

If you ask Dr. Christopher Gabler how climate change is impacting the state of Texas, his answer is direct: In a lot of ways, and strongly. 

Gabler is Associate Professor of Plant Ecology & Sustainability at UT Rio Grande Valley, where he studies climate change in coastal wetlands. He explains that climate change is affecting Texas ecosystems in myriad ways, many of which residents can already feel by way of warmer temperatures.

Gabler goes on to explain that projections of a 1.5-2 degree global temperature increase may sound small, but when global averages were just four degrees cooler, the city of Boston was under a mile of ice. “Two degrees is an enormous shift,” he says. “The fact that we’ve already shifted 1.1 and expect to have another 1.5-2 is huge.” 

What might not be as obvious to Texas residents as the hotter weather, however, is the reduction of available surface water across the state—and its far-reaching effects. Populations are growing in most parts of Texas, which means more municipal demand for water. At the same time, water is needed for agricultural and industrial purposes. A reduction in supply will force new solutions. 

Gabler notes that Brownsville, where he lives, is one of the fastest-growing parts of the U.S. and a solid example of what will happen globally. Water is relatively scarce in South Texas, and the area frequently faces heat waves and drought conditions, often at the same time. There is also a lot of agricultural activity, leading to conflicting demands over water and how it should be used. Local farmers have already shifted from growing corn to sorghum because the latter is more drought resistant. 

At the same time surface water is decreasing, sea levels are rising. With the combination of melting glaciers and thermal expansion, scientists expect to see around two feet of sea level rise in the next 100 years. This will drastically affect Texas wetlands, wiping out current ecosystems and eroding our natural storm protections. 

“Coastal wetlands are hugely important to people,” Gabler states. “The quantification of the ecosystems services they provide—monetarily, security-wise, emotionally, aesthetically—is 10 times higher per unit area than a tropical rainforest. Wetlands are nature’s kidneys. They’re valuable ecologically and economically, and they’re at risk.”