Team ulaunch sheds light on the Texas Deep Freeze (Cold Wave) and Power Outage that has led to unprecedented disruption in the desert state.
What has happened?
Since February 10, Texas, the ‘Energy capital of the world’, has been facing a series of power and water outages due to severe winter storms. Water pipes were freezing and bursting and the power grid failed leaving more than 4.3 million houses without power. Ceilings collapsed, houses were destroyed, fire hydrants froze and millions were forced to stay inside their cold dark homes without power with frozen and broken water pipes.
Hospitals, relying on generators and water trucks, struggled to even transport their patients away amid their water and power crisis. Over 14 million people were asked to boil their water as residents were lining up outside stores and distribution sites.
What led to such unprecedented conditions in Texas?
States like Texas generally have bearable winter temperatures. Government authorities and other stakeholders were thus caught off guard when the winter storm Uri led to the coldest temperatures observed in over 7 decades. The jury is still out on finding the exact causes that result in such adverse events, that have been on the rise around the world.
Climate change-related weather disruption is being cited as one of the probable causes. Due to rising greenhouse emissions and global warming, normal climatic conditions are being disturbed. This leads to unforeseen phenomena like severe temperature variations, storms, rains and droughts across large areas.
Sudden change in stratospheric temperature conditions is also being looked into as a causal factor. Such disruptions lead to the breaking of the otherwise stable polar vortex, which escapes its default location around the Arctic circle and comes down towards the lower latitudes. Jet streams that form the boundary of the polar vortex assume a wave-like shape and lead to severe freezing conditions in the affected area.
What are the impacts of the Texas Cold Wave?
The cold wave has left more customers without power than the disastrous Hurricane Harvey. Pipes, faucets, pools, hot tubs froze, disrupting the water supply of over 12 million households. The power cut forced many grocery stores to close up and the ones that were open ran out of basic items like bottled water, eggs, milk and bread very quickly. Fire hydrants froze which made it extremely difficult to put out fires.
The city lost all its electricity generating capacity as natural gas wells, pipelines and even wind turbines were frozen shut. Some people were left with no option but to boil the snow outside their house on propane grills for water. More than 70 deaths have been attributed to the cold wave. The deaths were caused by brutal weather conditions, hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning and unavailability of power, food and water. The state’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic was also interrupted.
What led to the power outage?
Texas produces and consumes more electricity than any other state in the US. In order to keep their power system independent from other markets, ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) manages 90% of the state’s power. After a similar severe winter storm, a decade ago, some recommendations were made. Their recommendations were not followed through and the pieces of equipment were not made winter-proof.
Despite ERCOT’s claims of being prepared, the power grid failed. High power demanding utilities along with the brunt of the cold snap on the grid led to mass power outages. Governor Greg Abbott has called an investigation into the causes of the outage and functioning of ERCOT.
What has been the government’s response?
A disaster declaration was issued on February 12 by Governor Abbott thereby mobilizing various departments like the Texas Military Department to aid the citizens. He later requested a Federal emergency declaration, which Joe Biden approved on the 14th of February. Generators, water and blankets have been provided to the state. Abbott has called for the investigation and resignation of ERCOT leaders. The Texas Public Utilities Commission issued an order mandating that electricity providers do more to deal with future blackouts. Covid vaccination sites were put on hold and turned into water distribution sites for citizens amid the water crisis. But as citizens begin to line up at these sites, the water shortage is still very alarming.
What does the future hold?
This cold wave turned out to be the costliest disaster the state has ever seen. Some people went without power for up to three days. Elderly and disabled citizens and citizens who do not have the privilege of personal transport are unable to make it to the distribution sites. People will have to bear the expenses of the damages caused to their homes due to the disaster.
Politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and celebrities like Beyonce and Reese Witherspoon are organizing and encouraging fundraisers to provide food, water, shelter and funds to affected Texans. Local churches and community shelters are also extending a helping hand. Long term solutions need to be found to prevent such outages and shortages in the future.
Though the situation is under control now and things are returning to normalcy in Texas, it’s high time that the accountable authorities own up to the responsibilities. Such adverse weather events are only going to increase in the near future due to global warming. Thus we need to be better prepared and work towards realising the UN-SDGs at the earliest.
Read about What happened in Uttarakhand Glacier Burst and its potential linkages to Climate Change.