Philadelphia worker drinking water to cool down in high summer heat.
Ken Hunt's A&K Construction company is building a high school and middle school in Paducah, Ky., and it's been so hot this summer that he's allowed his workers to start as early as 5:30 a.m. to escape the heat.
Sometimes, his crews pour concrete in the middle of the night to work in cooler conditions.
"I watch the weather pretty religiously because it impacts our business," he says, adding that he tells his 200 workers, "We don't want anybody getting sick or hurt. We're pretty vigilant."
He tells workers to try to get their eight hours in but "if it gets too unbearable," go home. Forecast Monday: 100 degrees.
After a June that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says was the warmest on record and a July that has continued the sizzling and exceptionally dry streak, withering huge swaths of the nation's agricultural economy, people who work outside and the companies that employ or sell to them are feeling the heat, too.
From operators of outdoor movie theaters in North Carolina, where the highs today will be in the mid-90s; to Kansas cattlemen and their livestock, who face temperatures approaching 110; to landscapers in St. Louis, where another 100-plus-degree day is on tap, this summer is searing into the memory for workers in the great outdoors.
"My approach is that it is not going to be just this year," said Kansas livestock and grain producer Frank Harper, whose farm has frequently endured 100-plus-degree days. "We are going to have to get through this and recover."
The overall economic costs won't be known for some time, but the consensus among meteorologists is that 2012 already has surpassed 2011's $12 billion in drought losses, according to Steve Bowen, senior scientist and meteorologist for Aon Benfield, a global reinsurance firm in Chicago. He said it "may not be out of the question" that this year's impact could rival 1988 and 1980 droughts, which had $78 billion and $56 billion in losses (in 2012 dollars).
With the debate over climate change never far from the headlines, scientists are beginning to delve further into weather's impact on the economy.
A study based on 70 years of weather data by the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded last year that weather - from heat waves to cold snaps and droughts - could cause up to a 1.7% rise or fall each year in the U.S. economy's gross domestic product, equating to $507 billion in 2011. That's not counting extreme weather events such as hurricanes or tornadoes.
The findings are significant, "especially when GDP is growing a percent or so a year, if that," says Jeff Lazo, a leader of the study.
The study says weather-related effects range from electrical usage in hot and cold weather to snowfall levels in ski season and the costs of rerouting aircraft because of thunderstorms.
Adapting and enduring
This summer, business owners and workers are changing work plans, adapting to work schedules in the dark or rethinking business plans in order to outlast the heat.
In Chapel Hill, N.C., Lumina Theater manager Landon Hawkins says hot weekends have halved crowds at its outdoor theater. People come with blankets or lawn chairs to watch on an outdoor screen, where a normal summer night crowd is about 450 people. On hot weekends this summer, it's 200-250.
Lumina has outdoor screenings Friday and Saturday nights from June to October, Hawkins says, and the shows will go on - heat or not - because customers want them.
"We will show outdoor movies even if it is 110," he says. He advises employees to take frequent water breaks.
Hawkins says he hopes outdoor losses eventually will be made up by bigger crowds of moviegoers seeking escape in Lumina's air-conditioned theaters.
Brendan Harrison's Down to Earth landscaping business in St. Louis temporarily suspended planting and sodding because of heat and drought that has baked the Midwest. He has maintained a steady workload for his seven seasonal employees by switching from planting and sodding to permanent construction features such as landscaping retaining walls.
During such a dry summer when temperatures routinely touch 100, he says, "it just doesn't make sense with this kind of heat wave to do anything" with plants.
On hot days, he and his workers try to finish by 2 or 2:30 p.m. His lawn-mowing business has slowed to a near-standstill.
This summer has been so tough on plants and lawns, he says, that he's preparing for robust demand after the heat subsides.
"There will be a lot of lawn repair this fall," he says. "A lot of trees and shrubs probably won't make it either through the summer, or they will be damaged to the point where, next year, they won't look as healthy, and people will want to replace them."
Ironically, a heating business Harrison owns with his brother that concentrates on heating systems and upgrades for commercial businesses has been "buried in work" despite the heat, Harrison says.
He speculates that some companies have been so conservative on capital expenditures during the economic slump of the past several years that they are finally replacing and upgrading systems "instead of putting Band-Aids on their air conditioning and heating."
Rough on cattle ranchers
About 400 miles west, in Sedgwick, Kan., Harper has watched as cattle prices dropped from $1.60 a pound to roughly $1.20 this summer. The reason: Worries about the rising cost of corn from a drought-devastated U.S. crop this year have rippled through the food chain.
Harper produces about 800 cattle from his pastures each year, and the corn necessary to fatten them for market has become so expensive that it has softened demand for those cattle. Corn futures prices soared above a record $8 a bushel this week and are up roughly 55% from June as a result of the drought.
The crops on Harper's 4,000-acre corn, wheat and soybean farm are only about 15% irrigated, and those that are not have suffered from a lack of rain, he says.
Harper's biggest immediate worry is water for his animals. Ponds in his pastures are drying up and growing brackish.
"The last two years, water has been more of a challenge to us than grass," Harper says. "With these high-heat days (it was rising to 106 on the day he was interviewed) and the evaporation in the ponds, and not getting any rain runoff to freshen that water, we may have a pond with water in it, but the quality of that water gets to be a concern."
The drinking-water situation is worsened, he says, because in the heat, cattle wade into drinking ponds to stay cool.
The Department of Agriculture's latest crop reports paint a grim picture. The USDA said last week that 88% of corn and 87% of soybeans are in drought condition, and 67% percent of pastureland in drought-affected areas were rated to be in poor condition.
The USDA estimated last week that food prices could go up 3%-4% next year as a result.
"The conditions have deteriorated a lot over the last three to four weeks," says USDA chief economist Joseph Glauber.
Harper, president of the Kansas Livestock Association, says he hears worries from other ranchers who might be forced to sell cattle earlier than normal or move them to other pastures where rain has fallen, because of dwindling water or because the drought has ravaged pastures.
"The Corn Belt has gone a long time without a major drought," he says. "I think we are just in a cyclical weather pattern here. We don't know how long this will last."
Hunt, the Kentucky construction company owner, says he has looked at weather data for his area dating to the 1930s and thinks that a roughly 20-year cycle of hot summers has returned.
But he says his company and employees face extreme heat almost every summer in his part of Kentucky.
Where business benefits
Not all is gloom and doom when it comes to the business of heat. Some enterprises actually rise with the temperatures.
Sales of CoolWare, a $39.99 battery-operated cooling device produced by Bedford, Mass.-based ThermaCELL that wraps around the neck and includes tiny fans, are up 10%-15% this year, spokeswoman Pauline O'Keeffe says.
Polar-Products, based in Santa Rosa, Calif., has seen similar boosts in its online business. Sales this year are up roughly 15% over last year at this time, owner Gary Murray says.
"As the temperature started climbing, the orders started coming in," he says. "We had one of our busiest months (in June) that we have had in the last three years."
His company sells cooling collars, vests and even ties, and cooling wraps for backs, ankles and wrist. They are made of material that stays cool after being soaked in water and generally go for $10-$20.
Murray says many of his sales are to companies outfitting employees that need to work in the heat.
"I have (customers) that work construction ... or work on hot roofs, or weekend warriors, or people going camping," he says. "We seem to sell a lot to families going to Disneyland."
The newest rage this year is cool inserts for bras, Murray says, that sell for $12.95 a pair.
"I never realized that that part of the garment is so hot," he says. "If you talk about bra coolers to a female audience, you have their attention, because every woman knows."
By Chuck Raasch