Climate Change in West Texas
A Local Look at a Global Problem
By Derek Moy
Photos by Derek Moy
Ninety years in the future, farmers cannot pass their once fertile land down to the next generation. The playa lakes that once glittered on the West Texas landscape have dried up from overuse and no longer supply the Ogallala Aquifer with much needed water. Average temperatures are more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in the past, which stresses the citizens and the few cattle left in the West Texas area. The rain that had once been 20 inches per year is now reduced to 6 inches per year.
These projections of what West Texas might look like if the area continues the current dependence on fossil fuels are from “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States," originally commissioned by the George W. Bush administration. Katharine Hayhoe, Ph.D., and an associate professor at Texas Tech University, served as a lead author of the study that shows the effects that climate change could have on the United States in the future.
"I think the U.S. is the only country in the world where the science of climate change—whether climate change is happening, whether it's humans that are causing it—it is the only country where that isn't an accepted fact," Hayhoe said.
Hayhoe, who grew up in Columbia and moved from Canada to the United States, said her experience with travel has helped both her team members and herself. Four of five team members are from other countries, with only one being from the United States.
"The more aware you are of the world, the more you know what's changing in the world—like right here in West Texas, we don't see a lot of effects of climate change first-hand, with our own eyes," she said. "If you travel and you're used to seeing, especially up north, you're used to seeing snow at certain times of year, you know when trees are supposed to be flowering, you know when birds are supposed to be laying eggs, you know when there's supposed to be snow on the mountains, and you see these things changing."
In the small office of Rodica Gelca, research associate and team member, time scales of temperature changes in the Caribbean are presented by Jung-Hee Ryu, research associate and another team member. With her MacBook Air resting on her lap, Hayhoe asks if the top levels can be labeled to be clearer. Caleb Crow, graduate research assistant, makes a suggestion on how to edit the look of the graphs. Besides meeting in their offices, the research team meets in coffee shops around Lubbock.
Crow, who contributes an electrical engineering degree and a history of promoting green industry, is the only American on the team. His grandfather advised him to stick with one of the "big three" degrees: mechanical, chemical or electrical engineering. Crow was going to go into environmental engineering but knew that degree was not the right route for himself.
“I knew from high school, and even before, that I wanted to do something in the environment, but I didn’t really know what," Crow said. "I knew that if I was an environmental engineer I would just be working with codes and government mandates to try and pollute the maximum amount within the legal limits of the law, and that was unacceptable to me.”
He began consulting work at Accenture, his highest paying job yet, but he soon left the company to become greener.
“Like most people who don’t know anything about green, I thought of hybrid cars and solar panels," he said. "If we took a poll, Family Feud-style, of what is green, I think those would be No. 1 and 2 easy.”
After he left Accenture, he worked for a solar company in New York, where he quickly rose in the ranks of the company; he started digging ditches to lay wires and advanced to vice president within two years. He wrote software called TREAT (Targeted Residential Energy Analysis Tools), which won an Research and Development Top 100 Award for helping residential houses and apartments improve their efficiency. Crow then worked for the Clinton Climate Initiative when it was a fledgling program. He now brings his green experience to Hayhoe's research team.
“As a consultant, I was executing programs, running efficiency programs. As a consultant for the Clinton Foundation, I then shifted to designing potential programs that other people, like my previous position, would come and execute," Crow said. "And then now I’ve taken another step back, and we’re analyzing the problem to see what sort of programs should be designed. That was a shift for me, and there’s been a steep learning curve.”
Hayhoe was a source of information for Crow after he met her at a book signing. Crow e-mailed her frequently asking for data, and Hayhoe invited him to come to Texas Tech to become a graduate student and do the work he already was doing but to get a degree for doing the research, he said.
Recruiting talented faculty, like Hayhoe, is vital in the transfer of knowledge, said Cal Barnes, professor and chairperson of geosciences, who had originally recruited Hayhoe into geosciences. His primary goal, and the purpose of the university, is to pass on knowledge so the next generation can act, he said.
“It’s a very dynamic group right now. As I see it, it’s just going to stay that way because we have a lot of young guys who are ambitious and hungry," Barnes said.
That same aspect of having multiple different departments come together is vital to the scientific community. Hayhoe's team, which is now based in the Department of Political Science, is an example of different expertise joining together. Members of her team must have breadth, she said. Atmospheric science, environmental toxicology, computer science, electrical engineering, and other green disciplines are all part of the team.
"Climate change work is very interdisciplinary, so you need people who know how to do different things on your team—you can't all do the same thing," Hayhoe said.
Researchers must enjoy, and have a passion for, the work they do. Hayhoe would be studying galaxies through gigantic telescopes in beautiful tropical locations if she had been a selfish researcher. "I would not say that research is selfish. If I were doing selfish research, I would be studying quasars right now, that's what I'd be doing," Hayhoe said. "Because honestly, quasars are very interesting. That's what I started off doing, that was my research—in astrophysics."
Barnes, who as a grade-schooler used to go to a gravel pit near the Platte River and break up discarded rocks with a claw hammer, always has been interested in the fields of petrology, volcanology and geology.
Better research is conducted if the scientist is selfish about the work, because a selfish researcher is not forced to research a specific thing, they can attack their research with a fervent interest, Barnes said.
Ryu, one of the team members who holds an atmospheric science degree, understands why Barnes would say researchers are selfish. She said scientists enjoy what they do, but they also want to publish and educate the public about research findings so that decisions can be made based on empirical data.
Climate change plagues the entire world, the reason Hayhoe said she entered the field. People already are dying from the effects of climate change, and if no solution is found within the next 10 to 15 years, the planet will be in serious trouble.
"I felt like, given the urgency of the problem, it's like if you're in medical research it's like studying the kind of fungus that gets under your nails as opposed to cancer," Hayhoe said. "I mean the fungus might be really, really interesting, but people are dying of cancer, not nail fungus."
For the field of climate change, keeping data to yourself is an attitude of the past, she said. Research gathered by her team helps agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if certain species need to be labeled endangered or if areas need to be protected. Distributing data for informed decisions is important.
Sharing data is sometimes hard, Ryu said. No resources help scientists distribute their data to other people. Gelca, the team member who holds an environmental toxicology degree, said because climate change is one of the largest problems the Earth faces, research is conducted for the entire world.
Dennis Patterson, associate professor and chairperson of the Department of Political Science, brought in Hayhoe and her team to increase the cross-departmental collaboration of Texas Tech. "We had a position," he said. "We have the Center for Public Service, and we were thinking what we wanted to do was to hire someone who had a really strong science background to do science policy for us."
Patterson had previously worked with Hayhoe and other scholars for grants from throughout the campus. He said he wanted to bring in her science background to help teach science policy to students. "We do policy and we would really need someone in science policy," he said, "and we do science—a lot of people don't know that."
With Hayhoe's team based in the Department of Political Science, connections are easier among the rest of the campus, regardless of the backgrounds her team has. Patterson said he does not know Hayhoe's political alignment, nor does it matter—he said her way of dispersing data effectively for public consumption that made her so desirable to political science.
Hayhoe's team has access to the Texas Tech University High Performance Computing Center's resources, which gives them the ability to disseminate information much more quickly. The technology was a leading recruiting factor for Hayhoe and her team. The computer system consists of 1,680 processor cores and 100 terabytes of directly attached storage. The computer can process data at speeds of 20 teraflops.
"It's like one of the 12th largest of any university in the country," Hayhoe said. "It's a huge help to our work, I mean it's probably the No. 1 benefit that Tech offers to what we do."
Changing the minds of Americans with the collected data is the hard part, Hayhoe said. Citizens of the United States only will respond to a massive event that is proved to be the effect of climate change. "It has to be on a large scale, and it has to affect real people. The research is there," Hayhoe said. "The research is very, very conclusive. There's 10,000 published papers basically saying climate change is real and it's affecting us now, and it's going to get worse in the future."
Crow agrees collected data in climate change has not changed much, and American citizens cannot seem to look at the actual facts.
“It’s funny when you read the literature. The literature hasn’t really changed its position at all and that’s incredibly frustrating because all the things that I deal with, we’ve known for my entire career," he said. "And yet every time I talk to a new person they act like they’ve never heard of it or they don’t believe in it—of course 'believe' isn’t the right word—you don’t believe in science. It’s frustrating that people deny the validity of the science after the science hasn’t changed in so long.”
New species are discovered nearly every year, and within 10 years of being discovered they could become extinct, Hayhoe said. If the current trends continue, the future will be just as grim as previously described in “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States," the work that won the Nobel.
"So how many things are disappearing that we don't even know exist," she said. "Do you really want your children to grow up in a world where there are only two polar bears left in the world and they're in a zoo, or there's no water left in West Texas and you can't even live here anymore?"
Ninety years into the future, the possible climate of West Texas and the rest of the world is a scientist's horror show if human beings continue their abuse of nature. Through research and acceptance, Hayhoe believes her work can make a positive influence on the world's outlook. She will continue to analyze climate change, giving farmers and citizens a chance to live off the land like the previous generations before them. The rest of her team will add to her pursuit of a better future: greener residential homes, better use of the environment, careful use of fossil fuels, and the world waking up to the reality of climate change – these are all imperative to sustaining Mother Earth.