Houston is known for its humidity and heat. But if you think it feels hotter than normal this summer, you’re right.
Houstonians have endured a blistering summer this year, with the hottest day reaching 103 degrees on July 31. With temperatures this week expected to reach or surpass 100 degrees every day, the Houston Landing is launching a series of stories about the reasons for the scorching temperatures and how we’re dealing with it.
“This is by far the hottest summer I have ever experienced,” said Rachel Fucci, 55, a Houston native who told the Landing that she rarely goes outside during peak heat times.
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So why is Houston so hot, and how do we compare to previous dry spells? Here’s a look at what contributes to the Houston heat and why it feels worse this year:
Houston’s historical heat patterns
Houston has always been hot. Its location on a subtropical latitude near the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico creates a tropical climate during the summer.
This year, the region is above average for days with high temperatures at or above 100 degrees, with a total of 16 days. But by that measure it’s still not as bad as the summer of 2011, said Hayley Adams, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
That summer saw similar stretches of no rain and hot temperatures, and there were 46 days when temperatures reached 100 degrees or more.
So why does Houston feel abnormally hot this year? Experts cite the following reasons:
The heat dome over Texas
The Houston area has been experiencing a rigid high-pressure dome for most of the summer. The dome warms the region by causing air to sink, which inhibits rainfall, and it traps heat in the atmosphere, which creates a heat-island effect, Adams said.
Pavement, buildings and other features of an urban environment absorb more heat and retain it, so Houston doesn’t cool down very much at night, making the city “perpetually hot.”
“It’s inhibiting rainfall and cloud development, leading to sunnier days,” Adams said. “And as we get more sun, it’s gonna heat up more over the Houston area.”
This summer, the National Weather Service has issued 33 heat advisories and 14 excessive warnings since June 1. There was a 16-day stretch of heat related advisories and warnings from July 9 through July 24, Adams said.
Is climate change making Houston hotter?
Climate change has raised overall temperatures in Texas by 1.5 degrees since the 20th century, said state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor of climatology at Texas A&M University and director of the Southern Regional Climate Center.
The Gulf of Mexico, which is where Texas receives its air during the summer, has also been experiencing record or near-record temperatures, Nielsen-Gammon said.
Additionally, he said a heat wave in late June accelerated a drying trend by creating excessively hot temperatures early in the summer.
“Whenever things are dried out in Texas in the summertime, it tends to be unusually warm,” Nielsen-Gammon said.
This year, Houston hasn’t had as many days surpassing 100-degrees compared to 2011. But the city’s average daily temperature in July 2023 was the second-highest on record, only slightly behind the hottest July on record in 2022.
When those high temperatures are combined with Houston’s high humidity, it makes summer feel hotter. That can be measured by what’s known as the heat index, which is what temperatures feel like when humidity is taken into account.
Meteorologist Eric Berger of Space City Weather analyzed how often Houston reached or surpassed a heat index of 105 degrees this year. He found there were more than twice the number of hours of extreme heat this year than in 2022.
Iva Jean-Jacques has lived in Houston for 55 years and said this year has been the hottest summer ever. She wishes the city would to more to help residents by adding more shading at bus transit stops to mitigate the heat.
“It’s ridiculous and sad to see people standing at the bus stop in the hot sun,” she said.
City officials have frequently opened cooling centers across Houston this summer to help people cope with the heat. Houston activates its heat emergency plan when the heat index reaches above 108 degrees for two consecutive days.
Is any relief on the way?
Space City Weather says the high-pressure dome is starting to shift to the west, which could reduce temperatures slightly and improve rain chances in about a week. Nielsen-Gammon agrees conditions will continue to be dry for at least the next week, which means drought conditions will continue to worsen in the meantime.
A tropical storm could bring much needed rain to the region. But ultimately, Houston might not see serious relief from the drought and endless heat until fall arrives — whenever that happens.
“Once we start getting into fall, it tends to produce cooler and wetter conditions than normal across the state,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “So we may be seeing some relief from the drought once we get past the summer.”