People wait in long lines at a grocery store in Austin, Texas on Feb 17. Millions of Texans lost electricity and water due to winter storms this week.

Frigid Temperatures Bring Disaster to Texas

A pulse of frigid Arctic air sent temperatures dropping to record lows in Texas this week, leading to widespread power outages and dozens of deaths. The disruptions have raised questions about how well Texas — the country’s second-largest state — is prepared for natural disasters, especially in the face of more extreme and erratic weather events fueled by climate change.

Extreme low temperatures, caused by cold air escaping from the Arctic, swept much of the United States this week. But the effects were most disruptive in Texas. Temperatures dipped to -2 degrees Fahrenheit in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and 13 F in Houston, where the average low temperature in February is 46.5 F. The unusual cold stalled natural gas pumping equipment, stopped wind turbines, and shut down power plants, overwhelming the state’s electrical system. (In order to avoid federal regulation, Texas has its own power grid, unlike the other 48 contiguous states.) Over the week, millions of people lost power, and many were stranded without heat or food. Many critics and analysts have asked why policymakers and regulators did so little to require power plants to winterize their equipment, even after a milder cold wave in 2011 led to power outages.

In the Houston area, as people desperately tried to stay warm by using cars, generators, and even grills, officials reported that there had been more than 500 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, many in children. By Wednesday evening, as the outages hobbled water treatment plants, around 7 million Texans were left without reliably clean water, told instead to boil their tap water before drinking it.

The full scope of the disaster is not yet clear. But while the cold was record-breaking, natural disasters are not new to Texas. According to federal data, the state bears a large share of natural disasters that cost $1 billion or more in damage. “One state really stands head and shoulders above the rest, and that would be Texas,” said Adam B. Smith, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who tracks such billion-dollar disasters, in a 2019 interview with CNBC. The state, Smith has written, has experienced substantial damage from all seven of the types of disasters NOAA anaylzes: drought, flooding, wildfires, freezes, winter storms, severe storms, and tropical cyclones such as hurricanes.

Climate change will probably amplify some of those disasters. Climate researchers have, for example, documented how warming seas may have fueled Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Houston and other coastal areas in 2017. Experts say a warming climate may raise the risk from hailstorms in the state. And while the relationship between climate change and events like this week’s freeze is unclear, some climate research suggests that the warming Arctic may produce more extreme winter weather spells in much of the U.S.

In Texas, some of the people most empowered to deal with the fallout seemed to be absent. Some Texans were distressed to learn that five of the 15 members of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the grid, don’t appear to even live in the state. And on Wednesday morning, Texas’ most prominent active politician, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, was spotted boarding a plane in Houston. The balmy destination: Cancun.

Also in the News:

• On Tuesday, the Biden administration announced that the weekly federal Covid-19 vaccine supply to state governments would soon rise to 13.5 million doses, an increase of 20 percent. The supply for pharmacies will also rise, doubling to 2 million doses per week. The federal government supplies vaccines to state governments based on each state’s population; it is up to the states to figure out how to distribute the vaccines. According to NPR, the announcement followed a letter from the National Governors Association — a nonpartisan political organization that represents governors from the 55 U.S. states, territories, and commonwealths — asking the Biden administration “for enhanced reporting and coordination between federal and state governments on Covid-19 vaccine distribution efforts.” The Biden administration still has a long way to go before it can reach a stated goal of getting 100 million doses of vaccine into Americans’ arms by the end of April. So far, 12 percent of the U.S. has received at least one shot of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, each of which require two doses for full immunization, while nearly 5 percent has received both shots — the equivalent of roughly 57.7 million total doses. Both vaccines have had emergency-use approval from the FDA since December 2020. (NPR)

• British health officials have approved the first Covid-19 human challenge trials, which will deliberately infect healthy volunteers to study the effects of the novel coronavirus. Up to 90 young people aged 18 to 30 will have the virus squirted up their noses, and then isolate in a hospital for two weeks of round-the-clock medical observation. (According to a government press release, “volunteers will be compensated for the time they spend in the study.”) Initially, the study, run by a partnership that includes Imperial College London and the U.K. Vaccines Taskforce, will aim to explore questions such as how much virus is required to cause infection and how Covid-19 develops during the early days of an infection. Follow-up trials could test vaccines against emerging variants of the virus. Although human challenge trials have been used before to study illnesses like cholera and the flu, the practice remains ethically fraught. And some scientists question whether the benefits of the newly announced challenge will outweigh the risks of infecting people with a potentially lethal disease that, as yet, has no reliable treatment. “This would make me pretty nervous,” Kirsten Lyke, a University of Maryland professor who has previously run human challenge trials for malaria, told Time. The U.K. trials are set to begin in a few weeks. (BBC)

• A group of geologists aiming to study the mud half a mile below an Antarctic ice shelf were surprised to find sponges and other animals living there. Publishing their results on Monday in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, the team discovered the organisms while taking sediment samples from the sea floor below the floating Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf, on the southern border of the Weddell Sea. To reach the bottom of the sea, the team bored through around 3,000 feet of ice using a hot water drill. They then lowered a video camera through the narrow hole, along with a device used for collecting sediment cores. The geologists were disappointed to find a rock at the bottom of the hole, impeding their effort to access the sediments they intended to sample. But they found different types of sponges and other underwater creatures living on the rock, in a place where such life forms had never previously been observed. “There are still animals out there,” marine biologist Huw Griffiths told NBC News, “that can break the rules that we have written for them.” (NBC News)

• The West African nation of Guinea officially declared an epidemic of the dangerous Ebola virus this week. At least five deaths and five additional cases have so far been reported in the country’s southern region. The news follows an announcement of four Ebola cases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo earlier this month. Death rates from earlier outbreaks have ranged from 25 to 90 percent; between 2014 and 2016, an outbreak in West Africa killed more than 11,000 people. The news that Ebola might be returning led to immediate public health response from neighboring countries, including Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as international public health leaders. In the U.S., White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that “the world cannot afford to turn the other way” as such a lethal virus reappears. The World Health Organization issued an immediate alert and launched a new vaccination campaign, using tools that were developed in the 2014 epidemic. As a representative from the group Doctors Without Borders told Time magazine: “We know from the past that the speed of response is important.” (Multiple Sources)

• And finally: After a 293-million-mile journey from Earth, NASA’s Perseverance rover finally landed safely on Mars Thursday, making the U.S. the third country to reach the planet this month, along with the United Arab Emirates and China, both of which have a craft in orbit around Mars. The car-sized vehicle hit speeds of over 12,000 miles per hour as it moved through the planet’s atmosphere. Then, using parachutes, the spacecraft carrying the rover slowed to just 2 miles per hour and gently lowered the vehicle down to the Martian surface using a set of cables. Perseverance touched down in the Jezero Crater, an ancient lakebed containing cliffs, sand, and boulders. “Now the fun really starts,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, during a news conference following the landing. The rover will now spend the next few years exploring the area and collecting dozens of soil samples to be retrieved from Mars in a separate mission in the late 2020s. The samples could hold clues that microbial life was once present on the Red Planet. Alongside Ingenuity, a miniature helicopter that will fly up into the Martian atmosphere, the Perseverance rover also carries a device designed to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, which will be key to future crewed expeditions. (The Verge)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Brooke Borel, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.