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Is the recent wave of severe weather across the U.S. a harbinger of climate change?

The winter of 2021 is writing itself into the record books this week, with large swaths of the nation seeing the coldest weather in memory. But is this a particularly severe phase of winter weather or is there more to it than that? Dev Niyogi, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin's Jackson School of Geosciences and Cockrell School of Engineering, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The winter of 2021 is writing itself into the record books tonight. Large swathes of the nation are seeing the coldest weather in memory, and many thousands of homes are enduring it without power.

    Amna Nawaz reports.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Over 150 million Americans under winter and ice storm warnings today, as historically low temperatures blanket much of the U.S., including areas not accustomed to extreme conditions.

  • Stephanie:

    Our bedroom measured at 42 degrees, so it's cold in our house

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In Seattle this weekend, almost nine inches of snow in a city that hasn't seen that much snow since 1969. In Oklahoma, icy roads have led to fiery crashes. And, in Nashville, home security video captures a truck sliding sideways down a residential street.

    In Kentucky, Governor Andy Beshear advised residents to limit travel.

  • Gov. Andy Beshear:

    We did not make it through almost a year of a pandemic to lose people to a snow or an ice storm. Please, don't let the next couple of days or this week be what injures you or ultimately causes the loss of a loved one.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The winter and ice storm advisories stretch from America's Gulf Coast up to New England and span the country, and have also impacted parts of the Pacific Northwest.

    Among the hardest hit so far, the state of Texas, where President Biden approved an emergency declaration on Sunday. The deep freeze has led to ice-coated branches breaking and wreaking havoc. And dangerously low temperatures have triggered rotating blackouts, leaving more than two million people without power at a time.

    Amid the outages, the wholesale price of electricity surged today by more 10000 percent.

  • Mayor Sylvester Turner:

    It is a systemwide failure across the state.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In Houston today, Mayor Sylvester Turner with a grim update:

  • Sylvester Turner:

    These are not rolling blackouts. These are power outages at a huge, unprecedented scale.

    If you are without power right now, it is very conceivable that you could be without power throughout the rest of today and possibly even going into tomorrow.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Officials are warning of storm conditions, travel disruption and power outages continuing along the storm's path at least through Tuesday.

    So, is the country simply in the middle of a particularly severe phase of winter weather, or is there more to it than that? For those questions and more, we turn to Dev Niyogi. He's a professor of geosciences and engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also a committee member of Planet Texas 2050, a research initiative on the state's environmental challenges.

    He joins us tonight from Indiana, where he is waiting out the storm before traveling back to Texas.

    Professor Niyogi, welcome to the "NewsHour." And thank you for making the time. I really appreciate it.

    I want to start with Texas. Even though you're not there, you know it well. We're hearing the phrase unprecedented a lot when people talk about this storm. Texas is no stranger to extreme weather in the form of hurricanes and tornadoes, but when it comes to this kind of extreme cold weather, how unusual is it?

  • Dev Niyogi:

    I will tell you, Amna, this is — we're certainly into what you have been hearing, this word, uncharted territory again and again.

    The fact that we're getting snow and we're having some cold weather in Texas is not unusual. I mean, we have it perhaps every few years. What is really remarkable is the spread, the extent, the severity with which this is happening. And so, certainly, by that standard, it is an event that has been quite unprecedented in that regards.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, why are we seeing those kind of severe temperatures now?

  • Dev Niyogi:

    Well, there are a number of theories and number of questions and options that will start emerging.

    And they will range from just being bad weather, this is what happens, to issues related to La Nina, which has been inactive, to also perhaps this is the harbinger of what we have all been talking about with regards to climate changes.

    And the answer is probably going to all of the above. We often always have combination of weather that is impacted by what is happening with the season. The season is being affected by what is happening with the ocean. And, of course, what is happening in the season is also a signature of what is happening in the long run.

    So, it is a combination of everything that we have to understand that is where our challenge, unfortunately, lies at this point.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    One of the arguments about climate change, though, is, people will say, well, it's actually been making winters milder overall. Sol, how would it be leading to the severe cold temperatures?

  • Dev Niyogi:

    Great point on that. We talk about climate change and global warming sometimes with the thinking that it means our temperatures ought to be warmer and warmer.

    But one factor that we also highlight is what we will be seeing is these wild swings, both in terms of temperature, rainfall, also in terms of the manner in which storms are coming. So, this kind of weather event, which is unprecedented in the context of how things are being spanning, spatially, as well as in time, is exactly the kind of thing, unfortunately, that a change in climate has — been predicted.

    Whether this is just climate change, or whether this is seasonal interactions or weather event, that will be a topic that will be debated. But what is really important is to understand that this is happening now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When you look at the resources, I want to ask you about what this has done to our energy resources, because you have seen massive outages across the Pacific Northwest, millions of people in Texas left without power as well.

    Can our energy infrastructure handle these kinds of extreme events, especially if we're to expect more of them?

  • Dev Niyogi:

    We have to think of this as a hammer and a chisel.

    And what I mean by that is that we cannot control the storms. We cannot control, whether it's a hurricane, whether it's a heat wave, or whether it's going to be a cold snap such as this.

    But what we can control is, what can we do in terms of the infrastructure resources, the planning, the tools that are available to the community and the cities that can take care of it?

    And that is where we are at this point, that translation into that last mile. And we are certainly seeing right now that the energy grid has been stretched to its limit. And, looking forward, I'm sure there's going to be tremendous opportunities to rethink what we can do to improve the elasticity in that.

    We have the science. Like, for instance, at University of Texas, we haven't doing this Planet Texas 2050. We are preparing the world that will go into the future.

    What we need is this last mile, that, what will be the tools, what could be the ways by which we can invest into now, such that we have a better future? And it is that investment, the manner in which we are going to look at things directly in the face and say, this is our priority, and this is how we are going to back science into our investment.

    That will be the option to go ahead now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Professor Dev Niyogi from the University of Texas at Austin, thank you so much for your time.

  • Dev Niyogi:

    Thank you. It's a pleasure.

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