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Saturday, February 24, 2024 — Houston, TX

It’s not just you: August sets heat records


Data Courtesy National Climactic Data Center

Prayag Gordy / Thresher

By Prayag Gordy     8/29/23 11:05pm

This August has been the hottest in Houston since at least 1969, according to a Thresher analysis of weather data captured at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Through Aug. 26, daily highs have averaged 102.9 degrees, surpassing the previous mark of 101.4 degrees set in 2011.

In fact, Houston has set record temperatures in 13 days through Aug. 26, the last day with available weather data from the federal National Climatic Data Center. All but one day has seen triple-digit highs.

Houston is among the cities with the most intense urban heat island effect, according to a report from the nonprofit Climate Central. The federal Environmental Protection Agency says a heat island is an urban area that experiences higher temperatures because of a preponderance of buildings, roads and other infrastructure.

“As cities have developed, the more and more pavement that you put in, the more that heat is retained,” Richard Johnson, the senior executive director for sustainability at Rice, said. “Even on our campus, the eastern half of the campus, which has entrance one, so many trees, is noticeably cooler than the west side that has the stadium parking lot.”

Highs during Orientation Week, which ran from Aug. 13 through Aug. 18, averaged 103.5 degrees, 10.5 degrees higher than last year.

“First Year Programs and [Housing and Dining did] a great job of putting out tons of Gatorade, and they had water stations all throughout campus,” Chloe Kinnebrew, an O-Week coordinator at Will Rice College, said.

Kinnebrew, a senior, said that O-Week coordinators across campus moved some events indoors to accommodate for the heat. When possible, activities that needed outside spaces were shifted to cooler parts of the day.

“A lot of our outdoor events were at night, so the sun wasn’t so bad,” Kinnebrew said. “But I definitely recall it being hotter [than previous years].”

The first week of classes was no cooler. Highs last week reached 109 degrees on Thursday, Aug. 24. Last year, the highest temperature during this period was 96 degrees.

Rice Emergency Medical Services has counted a slight uptick in calls compared to last August, though the cause is unclear. Many calls have been heat-related.

“In August 2023, REMS has seen patients with complaints including syncope (fainting), heat exhaustion/cramps, low & high blood sugar, feeling poorly after exercising, weak & dizzy while working outdoors for an extended period of time, and fire ant reactions,” Lisa Basgall, the director of REMS, wrote in an email to the Thresher. “With the triple digit temperatures, being even more cautious about hydration, frequent breaks, looking for shade, and wearing light, loose clothing is important to try to avoid becoming over heated!”

Hot summers also tax Texas’ electricity grid and require Rice to actively manage its power consumption, Johnson said, as well as its power generation. Rice has two natural gas turbines on campus which regularly produce 25% of the university’s electricity. The turbines can be turned up to increase generation when needed, according to Johnson.

For instance, on Aug. 17, when temperatures reached 105 degrees at IAH, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas warned that electricity demand was nearing capacity. As the real-time price of electricity skyrocketed to $5,000 per megawatt hour, Rice turned up its turbines to reduce dependence on the grid, Johnson said, immediately saving money and making more by selling electricity back to the grid at the inflated price.

The heat impacts the groundskeeping crews and practices, according to Darrell Bunch, the director of grounds for Facilities & Capital Planning.

“The team is encouraged to take extra water breaks to remain hydrated and to carry water jugs with them at all times,” Bunch said through a spokesperson. “To further ensure their safety, their work schedules have been adjusted to run from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., allowing them to complete tasks before the most intense heat of the day. Gatorade, water and the option of long-sleeve uniforms are provided to all crew members, along with specially engineered cooling towels designed to hold cold and moisture.”

Houston has also faced a drought. June, July and August have had a combined 6.23 inches of rainfall so far — 91% of summers since 1969 have had more.

Crews have increased watering throughout the day, Bunch added, through the campus’ irrigation systems and “traditional hand-watering techniques.” Johnson said that the grass on campus, much of which has turned yellow or brown, is “dormant” and will likely come back as the weather cools. As the climate continues to change, Johnson said, Rice will have to evolve.

“We’re just learning how, in addition to trying to fight climate change and keep it from getting worse, we’re also having to adapt and mitigate,” Johnson said. “We’re all in a resource-constrained planet, and we’re having to learn to live within those limits. Climate change just turns the dial on everything and puts you in this weird zone and results in more extremes.”

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